Hardly any other river is as natural and unspoilt as the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar. It is home to many endangered fish and bird species and millions of people who live directly or indirectly from the river and its wetlands. In addition to the threat of energy production from dams, the internationally important wetlands are threatened by hunting and overfishing.
Here the Manfred-Hermsen-Stiftung has been active in the field of bird monitoring and protected area planning since 2016. A network of six different river sections will protect the most important areas for water birds, fish and rare river dolphins.
The Ayeyarwady River, also known as Irrawaddy, is one of the 15 major rivers in Asia. The river's catchment area of over 410,000 square kilometres is located almost exclusively in Myanmar and thus largely determines the country. Only small parts of the catchment area in the north and west belong to China and India. The gigantic river forms the country's central lifeline. It stretches from Hkakabo Razi Mountain in the eastern Himalayas from an altitude of 5,881 m to over 2,200 km into the huge delta of the Idian Ocean.
With at least 550 species of fish, this little explored river is one of the richest in fish in the world. The river's catchment area with its 906 species is also one of the richest in bird species in Asia. Among the water birds, the river is considered a particularly important resting place for winter visitors from North Asia and the Himalayas, but also for breeding water birds, which mainly settle on the many river islands.
But there are two more remarkable characteristics of the Ayeyarwady. To this day, the 2,210 km long river is undisturbed in its course and has not been affected by dams or other structures along its entire length. This is very rare with such huge rivers around the world. Apart from a few rivers in Russia that flow into the Arctic, this is unique in the world. Furthermore, the Ayeyarwady has one of the largest sediment loads on earth, if not the highest, measured by the catchment area. The sand loads form a multitude of huge river islands, some of which are several kilometres long and have several layers of sand.
Since 2016, we have regularly carried out bird surveys on the river by boat in February. A total of 211 bird species have been recorded over the past three years. This number may even increase if the adjacent forest areas are more closely included. Of these, a good 60 species are waterfowl that live by or on the river. These were the main focus, as they serve as indicators for changes in the river ecosystem.
A characteristic feature of the river in winter is the Ruddy shelduck. They can only be found on the river during the winter months and return to their breeding grounds in the Central Asian highlands and China in the spring. With over 9,000 bird species, the Ruddy shelduck is by far the most common water bird on the river.
In addition to overfishing, often completely empty fished by electrofishing, disturbances of an increasing population have to be considered. Hunting for waterfowl is still practised at important meeting points, mostly by catching birds with nets or poison baits. The uncontrolled removal of sand and gravel and the prospecting for gold in the riverbed are very significant threats not only for waterfowl but for the entire river ecosystem.
Together with the English nature conservation organisation Fauna Flora International and the responsible authorities, we are developing a conservation concept along the most important sections of the river, which guarantees both biodiversity and the long-term economic and ecological security of the communities living along the river. All together, several sections of the river between Myitkyina and Bagan meet the criteria for designation as Ramsar sites. Therefore, a cluster of several loosely connected river sections is proposed as an Ayeyarwady Ramsar site.
Since in many cases human activities on the river are to be preserved and not further restricted than appears necessary for sustainability, the protection model of the biosphere reserve is very suitable. With several protection zones and core areas, sustainable use can be maintained and even promoted. Initial ideas have already been presented to the government and described in a report to the government sponsored by the World Bank. The next step is to win over the local population to the protection ideas.
Our study Bird Monitoring at the Ayeyarwady River confirms the outstanding conservation values of river wetlands in Myanmar.
Feb. 2.,2021: Publication of our study in Forktail
our partner Fauna & Flora International