Which One's Pink?

The Search for the Pink-headed Duck in Burma.

"In the nineteenth century Bengal was a largely unexplored wilderness...The grassland was the home of the tiger... the limpid waters were largely covered by pink and white lotus flowers and were the home of innumerable species of waterfowl which provided another target for sportsmen. The most beautiful and rarest of these... was the Pink-headed Duck."

 
 
North Bhamo and Kule lake (Mandalay Division) search for surviving Pink-headed Duck in Myanmar. 2012.
 
 
 fig'1.A close-up of Rhodri, one of the Pink-headed Duck lures taken to Myanmar.
 
 

Introduction. 

*****************  

Hi! Richard
                                                                                                                                                                                                 28th December, 2011

I hope you are well. Kyaw Laing saw the duck in December last year. He didn't recognize the day and date exactly. It is very difficult to contact with Kyaw Laing because now, he is in the farm. His relation is in Banmaw. So my Dad gave him a letter for Kyaw Laing about the duck. I think, Kyaw Laing could tell you completely when you get to him. I wish this time you could find the duck you look for.
See you in Yangon.

Best
Su Su
 
*****************

This email (reproduced and unedited) which was waiting for me in Bangkok, seemed at last to be the breakthrough I had been hoping for! I knew that by going home after the groundbreaking news that two Pink-headed Ducks had allegedly returned to the Bhamo wetlands I was taking a great risk. But that news had been in October, and deliberately expiring my visa and not returning to my job simply to wait for December had not been an option. Now, however, I was about to go into Myanmar again. Now, however amazingly it appeared, I had been right!
 
Every Which Way you Can't: 2012 search.
 
Before going again to Myanmar this time, I had to make a difficult decision: it had become clear to me that the state of Kachin was in turmoil, with the Kachin Independence Organisation pressing for freedom from Central Government. This had resulted in bridges being destroyed, sniper attacks in some areas and general political unrest.
 
It's to be noted here that the KIO are not in dispute with Central Government because they want democracy in their region or in the country as a whole; they are, if anything, anti-democracy. They just don't like sharing the wealth of Kachin State with the rest of the country. 
 
However, if Kyaw Liang's account really was correct, it was vital to get to Bhamo as soon as possible in order to verify this account. I had waited all year to leave at the right time of year and I was desperate to get into the wetlands. Moreover, the state was reporting that, whilst travel had become more inconvenient (as if it could get any worse in Myanmar) there were no traveller restrictions in the state and no problems visiting Bhamo. I fretted about this as the clock ticked down: the canary in the coalmine was, of course, the situation with the local hotels in Bhamo and the internal flights.
 
With both reporting freedom of movement just before departure, I travelled to Bangkok and soon discovered Su su's email waitiong for me. I was overjoyed to receive it, and for once I really felt as if 'The Flying Needle' was about to stay still long enough to be observed and maybe even photographed!
 
Sadly, the credibility of this email was shattered in the taxi from the airport: Su su revealed she had misunderstood her father's account: the Pink-headed Duck had not just been seen in December 2011; instead she had described the account I already knew about from my last visit - which made this 'fresh' news over two years old! 
 
I was a little dismayed, but philosophical: the news simply meant I had no new bonus sighting; the reasons for me going there were still valid. I was, however, mindful of any roadblocks or other issues because of the political situation up in Kachin State, and so I took the least-problematic way into Bhamo, and flew there. 
 
      
 
 fig's '2.1 & 2: This little Air Bagan turboprop delivered me to sleepy Bhamo.
 
I was a little embarrassed to find the manager of the Friendship Hotel waiting at the airport, unloading pachage tourists; even more so when he recognised me from the last trip. Luckily it seemed that my past trips upriver had been forgiven and forgotten. I resolved to be as good as gold at the hotel, and quickly escaped to find a guide.
 
Sein win was unavailable but my replacement guide told me that, yes, the situation in Kachin was very bad, and that there were severe travel restrictions in force: there had been sniper attacks on the north Bhamo road and people had been killed. Once on the boat the next day I was told the shocking news that although I had been congratulating myself on the fact I could travel to Bhamo, the restrictions in force meant: "no further!" I I was told that there were warning signs on all the boats stating that foreigners could not travel upriver (which I hadn't seen because I'd flown into Bhamo). This put me in an awkward position; the worst position: of being just 10kms downriver from the wetland area and not being able to leave Bhamo town to go there! Luckily the guide seemed unfazed by this and I thought that, if it was no trouble to him, it should be no trouble to me! Anyway, it was too late: I was already on the boat.
 
     
 
 
fig'2.1: We near the area of the 95 In lake habitat. 
fig'2.2: The dwarfing enormity of the wilderness.
 
At Kyaw Liang's homestead and farm, there was no sign of the farmer, but of course we knew the way to the lake area already and so we tramped once again through the wilderness in search of the lagoon. The first lake we came across was Lake 1 - the original HunterFarmer Lake from 2009. Approaching this lake from a different angle we could see that a lot had happened since we had been away and we no longer had the lake to ourselves: a fence lay just behind us and the obsidious growth of saffron was everywhere. The lake, as a result, naturally was deserted and devoid of any birds We therefore decided to prepare the lures and go in search of the lagoon. By now my hopes were sinking: if this was the extent of human encroachment on Lake 1, what would the lagoon be like?
 
My fears were realised almost immediatly when my guide stopped a passing Burmese man. We learned that the lagoon was, in less than twenty four hours, going to be "fished" "by chemical." A less erudite way of putting it would be: the lagoon was going to be poisoned with chemicals to kill the fish.
 
Two lakes down out of the three, we knew that even if the third lake was to be left alone, our presence here was a waste of time: we had no choice but to search for a new location.
 
On the second day we established (through many questions with what locals we could find) that there was a suitable habitat in the area to the west, on which there were "many ducks." Indeed, this was an excellent natural environment and one well-suited to Pink-headed Duck; a large, deep and clear pool surrounded by forest in the area historically supporting the species.
 
 
 
                                    
fig '3.1: Preparation of the two lures.
fig '3.2: Our hide blends in to become a part of the habitat. 
 
 
 
 
fig '4.1:  Our Pink-headed Duck decoy quickly attracted flying ducks, confident there were no humans in the area.
fig'4.2. Rhodri and Carey float serenely on the water at the new location.
 
 
On the third day, we found ourselves with a big problem. We were about to track down Kyaw Liang's wife (who lived in Bhamo) and ask her about any recent sightings of Pink-headed Duck that Kyaw Liang knew about. I was met at the guide's house by the guide who told me that the boatman was very frightened because many of his neighbours who lived with him (on the sandbank island that occupied the centre of the river) had been asking about me and where he had been taking me. The guide explained that with the hightened tensions in the area the rules concerning foreigners had been changed, and the penalties for indulging Westerners were far greater: the boatman could expect at least two years in a Burmese jail if discovered, and naturally he was scared about who might say what to whom.
 
I therefore had no option but to call off the Bhamo trips. Obviously I had feelings of intense disappointment, but in reality there was no choice, and anyway, I realised that by now there were real problems with this part of the world: firstly, the habitat was obviously shrinking, and had done so rapidly since my last trip; also, the dusk periods that the Pink-headed Duck so loved were inaccessible to me because of the dangers of returning after dark, due to the treacherous sandbanks with the river at its lowest. Lastly, areas south of the lagoon were rare, but any suitable areas north of the lagoon were beyond an army checkpoint.
 
I had to be very careful about our previous excursions in any event, as it turned out: the next day I hired a bicycle and travelled parallel to the river, hoping to get as far as the pagoda that marked the tributary. Then I could make use of the bamboo bridge and explore the forest areas that way. Unfortunately, two wayward youngsters on a speeding scooter decided to collide with the bicycle. I had the immediate sensation of a power cut in my left side, as the handguard of the moped hit the back of my hand at approximately 30-40kph. The two boys stopped briefly, before speeding away, and a lady came out to see me from her hut, brandishing a jar of ointment.
 
 
 
fig '5.1: Parellel to the Tarpein river. South of the pagoda and bamboo bridge.
fig '4.2: Three breaks to a 4th metacarpel, plus one break to the 3rd, and a broken finger: what you get when a moped hits your bicycle.    
 
With my hand showing every sign of multiple fractures, and mindful of the fact that the nearest big hospital was Mandalay, 300 kms downriver, I settled on a plaster cast at Bhamo town hospital. Here I had to be careful about my previous forbidden excursions upriver, because the police got involved (very much on my side; injury to tourists carries a severe penalty in Burma) and all the footage was of course still on my camcorder. With my statements given (and - I'm ashamed to say - receiving a lot of help from the owner of the Friendship hotel, with whom I'd previously considered myself at war), I was free to leave.
Leaving Bhamo behind me at approximately 6am, I boarded a ferry going downriver to Mandalay, stopping off at Kathar for some R & R. Sitting at a café sipping orange juice in the sunshine was just what I needed before Mandalay threw itself at me, and shortly afterwards, and revitalized (up to a point), I headed for a train station about 3 hours north of Kathar to begin the night journey to c
 

 

fig '6:'My' stationmaster, with his recommended blanket.
 
Congratulating myself on having booked the best possible ticket, and bought the warmest blanket I could find (the carriages are windowless on the night train), we got as far as the next station before grinding to a halt. A previous train (presumably the earlier 'down' train) had come off the rails and we were there, cold, uninformed and stuck, for the foreseeable future. The delay was six hours, and seventeen hours later we (finally) arrived at Mandalay.
I was still very excited to be getting off to Kule lake in Mandalay Division; around 1908 a specimen of Pink-headed duck turned up having been shot at a lake. The tag on the leg stated that it had been taken at "Koolay, near Singu," a cryptic description if ever there was one, as there is no such location in Myanmar. Could that ancient leg-tag actually have been misspelled, and really be referring to an isolated lake called 'Kule,' which is indeed "near Singu" and located within the state of Mandalay Division?
The bus left Mandalay at nine am, arriving at Singu at about noon. Once there, I was aghast to discover there was no way of finding anyone there who spoke English (in contrast to the 'many people' I was promised in Singu who could be my guide). Eventually I found the one and only hotel in the area and, surprise surprise, they didn't let foreigners stay. "No, no, you can't stay here!!" the manager cried, waving his arms around, "You have to go back to Mandalay!" The last bus back to Mandalay, it turned out, was three-thirty in the afternoon, some forty minutes later. But before immigration watched me go to the bus stop, an elderly resident confided in me that he did indeed know of a lake called Kule, and he could take me to it the next day, if I arrived early enough.

fig '7:"No Foreingers Allowed!" So that's alright, then. Shame nobody mentioned it in Mandalay!
 
The next morning, having boarded Mandalay's earliest bus,  I walked into the Singu hotel at nine am and found it deserted, apart from a non-English-speaking cleaner who told me that there was nobody staying there matching the description I gave. Furious, I left the hotel and reported to immigration, and having assured them that I wasn't staying overnight, managed to find someone by the river port that knew the lake. But what of that early last bus from Singu back to Mandalay, 50 kms away? "Oh, don't worry about that," paraphrased the boatman, "that was just immigration making sure you really left; the last bus is really about 7pm."  
We set off across the port and to the other side of a large lake and then we took off for a village. There I showed my  decoy Pink-headed duck to the villagers and  was rewarded by blank, yet amused faces. The children especially loved the pretty duck with the pink head, and frustrated with Singu as I was, it was hard not to smile at the kids' enthusiasm - at least I was going to the lake!
 

 

fig '8: Captivated by the Pink-headed duck. shy youngsters and their parents gather in a village hut in the lake area.

A long ride on a moped later saw us arrive at Kule lake at about 2pm. This then was what I had been looking for! The lake, cobalt-blue and eerily silent, stretched out in front of me, a living museum-piece and testimony to the home of one of the last wild Pink-headed ducks ever seen by the human eye.

 

 

 

fig '9: Kule lake bakes in the afternoon sunshine, a living museum-piece to a long-dead moment.
 
We collected a boat and paddled out into and around the lake. All throughout that day, from fishermen who had worked the lake all their lives, to elderly residents in villages that skirted the lake, we were met with the same blank answer; there was no trace of Pink-headed duck, either in recent recollection or in living memory. It was as if the bird had never existed. Perhaps that last, single male had been a straggler from somewhere else, perhaps separated from a last flock somewhere, or lost from some long-ago remembered migration. Or perhaps there was no flock - perhaps it really was one of the last ever birds in existence. Maybe the final Pink-headed duck that appeared two years later on a market stall in Mandalay really was the last and this was the penultimate bird. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, maybe. We would never know.

Depressed, I headed back to the bus stop and hung around from 5pm until 7pm. When was the last bus to Mandalay going to come, I asked eventually. It was then that all the people who had assured me that: "The bus is coming" finally admitted that the last bus had indeed left Singu at 3:30pm, precisely when immigration had told me it would the day before. But foreigners couldn't stay in  Singu ("yes, thank you", I responded wearily, "I know"). The only way to get back was to hire a taxi; translated as "moped" in Singu, naturally.  I was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt: the 2 hours, 50kms ride in freezing conditions on the back of the moped knocked the last vestiges of Singu-fight out of me, and back in Mandalay I headed for Ko's Kitchen, a swish (and warm) Thai restaurant that serves amongst the best food in Mandalay. A few beers and a hot curry later, Singu was a memory. But it was a memory worth having for research purposes; it needed to be looked at, and I was glad I had done it.

The next day was the start of some well-earned downtime. Mandalay has a public baths and some fabulous excursions like a colonial town and the longest teak bridge in Myanmar (but if you want a really brilliant day out, try the ancient caves, waterfall and freshwater pools through an independent guide).

                 

fig '10.1: Don't try a high pike from this at Mandalay's public baths (razor-sharp discarded iron and sludge fills the diving pool)...  fig '10.2: Try instead a hired bike from laid-back Chaungtha beach.

If you want serious R & R from the trials of Myanmar travelling,. a ggod bet is Chaungtha beach. It lacks the swish Miami-style hotels of Nagpali further down the coast, but is no less (and in my opinion a bit more) charming because of this. The only downside is the slightly muddy-looking delta water of the sea; Nagpali offers a more Cancun-like experience there. 

For getting to the beach, the general consensus is to get to Yangon's  big bus terminal to buy your ticket, but to avoid paying double the fare to sit on a local bus which will drive you insane, opt instead to let your friendly hotel or travel agent do all the work - getting you a seat on an air conditioned and very plush, limited-stop coach for around $15 - $20.00 plus a small commission. You'll have to leave for the terminal early in the morning but it's worth it. Don't worry about finding a room when you get to the beach; your biggest test will be avoiding the hordes of touts besieging your bus when you come in. Most people agree not to take the first option on offer, but actually in my opinion the first hotel is the best one; I paid $12.00 per night for a limited-power bungalow, but many permutations are on offer regarding power and hot water, all the way up to about $35 - $45.00 per night for a room in this quiet complex, with great views overlooking the beach and with 24 hr power and hot water.

Shhhh! :-)

Back in Yangon, I met up again with Tony who was enthralled by the lures, sympathetic to my injuries, disappointed by the agricultural development at the 95 In lake areas north of Bhamo, and captivated by my enthusiasm. The fact I was clear I was determined to carry on looking for the Pink-headed duck despite all the pitfalls of the trip led him to show me an area he had on his computer. This area can't go on the website I am afraid as it is not for general consumption, but it's enough to say that the area is on the  border with India's Manipur and Nagaland states (but this side of India, without the hassle), and cosnists of an area that runs to the east and west banks of the Myttha river, west of Kalemyo.

According to Tony, "there are not so many areas left now," and this means it is very important to explore these areas now before Burma opens its doors completely. I's natural to assume that this means before the areas can be accessed by weterners, but actually something else may happen first; the Burmese authorities and others will learn of the extreme importance surrounding the possible survival of the Pink-headed duck and act accordingly, without the sensitivity and care that conservation demands for such an important scientific rediscovery, if indeed it is possible.

Tony believes that it is. There are a couple of habitats that are left to explore; Nawng Kwin has been afforded much attention with varying results, and a large area (ironically also called Indawgyi lake - see trip II) lies south of Bhamo at Shwegu, which I tragically only learned about after the event, down in Yangon (to my chagrin and embarrassment I learned I was actually there at the region, and on the ferry passing through Shwegu , but in fairness the lake is hidden by the banks of the Irryawaddy and lies north west by at least a kilometre). So that is an add-on for the next trip.

The KIA are still at war with the government up in Bhamo; this is likely to continue but Shwegu is open. The permit for the Myttha river will take two weeks, so Shwegu is an area worth looking at whilst permission is obtained. Of course, the Myttha river is my primary goal, and I am set for this trip for January-February 2014   

fig'10: Tony Htin Hla (eavesdropped by Rhodri and Cary) examines the possibility of the Myttha river site for 2014.

As Burma lurches towards its unsteady future, this push for a bird of the ancient past takes on a whole new meaning. The gold-rush for Burma's virginal resources as it emerges from isolation is not lost on the world; China sees it through envious eyes, as do we in the west, as we become ever more aware of the consequences of our own exploitation.

Can we afford the same treatment to Burma? How much of Burma do we want, and do we really care how we get it? What do we want, full-stop: Kipling's unspoilt jewel of Asia that could still stand as testament to our own folly, or the teak timbers of Kachin state; the rubies, gold and jade of the centre, and McMyanmar?

This is the painting on the world's wall that we stare at and debate amongst ourselves.

 Videoblog: Although I got a lot done, this was a fairly disastrous trip and one that set me back health-wise to this day Having said that, the flesh is weak but the will remains strong. If anything, it taught me a real lesson: it would be easier to spend more money on doing things through the proper channels and hiring official guides to go into the interior areas of Burma I was not allowed to go into.  This would not have been possible without the intervention of Paul Insua-cao from the RSPB and I am eternally grateful to him! Paul, if you are reading this, thank you! It took a long time for the penny - or kyat - to drop, but the truth was, I'd exhausted a lot of areas that one could go to and I could do no more. It was time to spend smart! The area of Kalaymyo Tony and I discussed was to be abandoned by me: I had heard of a very reliable sighting / report of pink-headed ducks in the north-west of Myanmar's Nagaland on the border with India. This trip was to cost a lot but it was worth it as I experienced for the first time the true, virginal beauty of Myanmar's preserved habitat for the very first time! To experience it too, please go to 2014 Search. To see the videoblog of the search discussed on this page: Every Which Way you Can't, click here.

Richard Thorns 2013.