Large ungulates can help restore the carnivore population in the Southern Myanmar reserve

Environment | Forests

By Rose Meadows, Freelance Writer

Published November 17th, 2023

A recent study on the status of the biodiversity of forests in southern Myanmar found that large carnivores, tigers, leopards and dholes, as well as their major prey species, are under threat. Industrial crops have fragmented forestry. The solution to maintaining land interconnectedness has not been possible due to a lack of government policies, difficulties to draw borders and disagreements between authorities and local communities.

Southern Myanmar has suffered from a decline in biodiversity like much of the globe. The effect of anthropogenic pressures is threatening this once richly diverse landscape. Unfortunately, declines in biodiversity are higher in South East Asia in the tropical regions.

Southeast Asia has the highest deforestation rate ever recorded, although Myanmar retains some of the largest forest patches in the region. | Sébastien Goldberg / Unsplash

The Lenya reserved forest is part of the Tanintharyi region, making this one of the largest continuous forests in South East Asia. Despite protections since 2004, failures of management and implementation meant it was eventually dropped in 2019.

A recent study looks directly at the Tiger (Panthera tigris) which has joined the ICUN red list as a result of poaching and prey loss, Leopards (Panthera pardus) that now only remain in two landscapes within Myanmar and the Dhole (Cuon alpinus) whose distribution is unclear.

These large carnivores are incredibly important as they are usually indicators of ecosystem health, suggesting their prey and the food of their prey are numerous enough to support the wider ecosystem needs. Any removal or addition of top predators can propagate down food webs causing patterns of abundance or decline of the biomass among the next trophic level (Mulder et al., 2012).

‘A recent study looks directly at the Tiger (Panthera tigris) which has joined the ICUN red list as a result of poaching and prey loss.’

The predominate prey of these large Carnivores includes the wild pig (Sus scrofa), Muntjac (Muntiacus spp.), Sambar (Rusa unicolor), Gaur (Bos gaurus) and the Banteng (Bos javanicus).

Using infrared camera trap data that spanned a period from 2016 to 2018, they counted the occurrence of large predators and prey to better understand factors such as human disturbance, landscape variability and prey distribution.

The results found tigers are more abundant with an increase in their key prey Gaur and areas furthest from villages. Leopards have little influence on prey distribution, possibly due to their broad diet of arboreal primates, which the study did not account for.

Both predators were positively associated with dense forest areas, possibly due to the higher mammal communities in these primary forests.

Tigers have been detected only within Lenya Reserve Forest and were positively associated with the presence of gaur and with increasing distance to the nearest village | Lakshmi Narasimha / Unsplash

These findings indicate that further conservation efforts target the predators we are enamoured with and the large ungulates they predate upon, including supporting habitat management programmes. The long-term survival of carnivores here is linked intrinsically to the presence of their prey species and wider habitat management, low prey abundance is likely to continue to be an issue without the recovery efforts of large ungulates.

‘... predators were positively associated with dense forest areas.’

The study detected hunting in roughly 4.4% of the detections, including extensive snaring predominately in the south of the study area and recreational hunting has yet to be quantified. A formal conservation management programme needs to be established to address threats of forest clearance and illegal hunting of threatened species.

Muntjacs are large ungulates and a major source of nutrition for the carnivores in the southern Myanmar forest reserve. | Jeffrey Hamilton / Unsplash

It is clear that the Lenya forest is vital for the survival of enigmatic species like the tiger, leopard and dhole. The latter are categorised as ‘Endangered’ in the IUCN Red List- despite this status, little is known about dholes. The social animals live in packs of 3 to 20 adults and can be found across Asia.

Dholes rely on tall grass to prey, which may be why dholes seem positively impacted by the total number of prey but there was no clear association with forest type of landscape variability. Previous studies (Charaspet et al., 2019, Karanth & Sunqist., 1995) have found dholes prefer large prey like Sambar deer.

Still, this study found they predate on smaller-hooved mammals potentially indicating a decline in their populations. However, hunting has been put forward as another cause of this decline.

‘…dholes prefer large prey like Sambar deer.’

To study results identified the lack of protection of prey animals as a serious threat to the survival of carnivores, tigers, leopards and dholes. The gaur is an important prey associated with an increase in the tiger population, but poaching of these cats is still an ongoing concern. Monitoring and conservation management are needed.

Featured Image: Davidvraju / AdrianRanasinghe / Charles J. Sharp | Wikimedia Commons

Charaspet, K., Sukmasuang, R., Kheowsree, N., et al.(2019) Some ecological aspects of dhole (Cuon alpinus) in the Huai Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary, Uthai Thani province, Thailand. Folia Oecologica, Issue 46, Pages 91-100.

Hughes, A. C. (2017) Understanding the drivers of Southeast Asian biodiversity loss. Ecosphere Volumen 8, Issue 1, Page e01624.

Karanth, K.U. and Sunquist, M.E. (1995) Prey selection by tiger, leopard and dhole in tropical forests. Journal of Animal Ecology, Page 439-450.

Mulder, C., Boit, A., Mori, S., Vonk, J.A., Dyer, et al. (2012) Distributional (in) congruence of biodiversity–ecosystem functioning. In Advances in ecological research, Volume 46, Pages 1-88.

Shwe, N.M., Grainger, M., Ngoprasert, D., Aung, S.S., Grindley, M. and Savini, T. (2022) Anthropogenic pressure on large carnivores and their prey in the highly threatened forests of Tanintharyi, southern Myanmar. Oryx, Pages 1-10.

Santa Bahadur Thing, Jhamak Bahadur Karki, Babu Ram Lamichhane, Shashi Shrestha, Uba Raj Regmi, Rishi Ranabhat (2022) Distribution and habitat-use of Dhole Cuon alpinus (Mammalia: Carnivora: Canidae) in Parsa National Park, Nepal. Journal of Threatened Taxa, Volume 14, Number 3.

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