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."

 Shwegu township, Kachin State. January 20

fig'1. (detail): The very rare taxidermed drake pink-headed duck in the Musee de Parc de Jardin, Paris.

Introduction.

Eighteen months ago saw the passing of  not only my friend, but also a great friend to the avifauna of Asia: Tony Htin Hla of Yangon, Myanmar. Tony was Chairman of the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association, and was instrumental in many projects, expeditions and surveys, not least the ongoing management and thriving of the spoon-billed sandpiper project, in partnership with Birdlife International, Indochina. Both Tony and his beloved B.A.N.C.A. enjoyed an enormously fruitful alliance, not only with that international organisation, but also with both the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust here in the UK. He will be sorely missed.

In his office in 2012, at the close of one of my searches north of Banmaw (see: Trip 4. Every Which Way You Can't), Tony showed me a map, with detail of a lake that lay to the north of Shwegu Township in Kachin State. He observed the remoteness of the location and said it would indeed be worth exploring the possibility of still-surviving small flocks of pink-headed duck in the area. My next trip a year later was actually devoted to an un-surveyed area down the Chindwin river, to the south of Khamti town (a chance too good to miss), but in the autumn of 2014 I decided to try Tony's lake, not only to follow in his emotional footsteps, but also to honour his memory. It was something of a personal quest for me.

And so, around three months later I found myself in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the office of the Myanmar Waterways Authority. It was very quiet; it felt colonial, there was dust in the air kicked up by a cleaner swishing away with a reed brush, old jacketless books stuck out from the shelves along with charts and reports. I felt nervous because I knew that disappointment was coming in my direction from the way the manager was jabbering away into his telephone. Issuing my ticket was taking too long.

The manager eventually put down the phone. "You can't go to Shwegu by ferry because the ferry doesn't stop there," he told me, "you have to go to Banmaw and then get the boat down the river back to Shwegu."

Banmaw lies about 20 kms north of Shwegu, promising the dubious event of sailing straight past where I wanted to get off, wasting a day in Banmaw, and then going back down south again. However, I had already scored a major victory in the UK, in that I was unsure in the autumn just gone as to whether staying in Shwegu was even possible; it's a fairly obscure township mainly for Burmese residents on market trade business; certainly there is not much there for tourists, so I was dreading commuting from Banmaw daily, missing out on early morning duck-hunts. At least this news meant I only had to do it just once, so maybe my disappointment didn't show as much.

The manager added helpfully: "And not by train or bus. Only river."

That didn't trouble me; I was more concerned about getting back to Mandalay. I only had a limited time, so the promised 3 night, 2 day journey to Shwegu I had planned for, but it only left about three days to survey the lake, and while this seemed a lot of time, I knew also that doing this would not be easy, either.

Ever since my third trip in 2012, foreign travel in Kachin State has been severely restricted, in an area never free and easy o travel around in any case. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has been fighting the government ever since the trouble really flared up back then, giving me major troubles in 2012. (see trip 3. Every Which Way You Can't). The consequences seem almost laughable: think of going to Brighton in the UK, only to be told that travel to Eastbourne isn't possible, or that foreigners can't stay overnight in Bexhill-on-sea and you get the general picture; the concept seems so strange to us, so alien to our way of life here in the West that one never really has a plan because, moving feely in the West, and planning trips to Mynamar, hope over realism always seems to take over.

So I had two major things to think about; three if you include the ferry not making it all the way up the very low Ayerrawady river as far as Banmaw: Tony's lake lay north of the river in a KIA zone, and the township of Shwegu was on the south bank: if my simple purchase of a  simple ferry ticket was anything to go by, I could imagine a police or immigration officer spluttering into his coffee at THAT proposal! As a courtesy, foreigners have to theoretically report to both offices; although the guest house mandatorily keeps a record of your address, plus your occupation: (looking at any guest book, it's surprising how many farmers live in Liverpool!).

So, I was going to report to both departments. And I was going to be as good as gold, and armed to the teeth with a high number of Myanmar's highest currency note - the 10,000 kyat note (or, in British-speak, a tenner).  To put this amount in context, any rickshaw driver in Mandalay would consider it a good day's work if he took home 1,500 kyat, so I was sure my one million kyat reward for evidence of a living pink-headed duck would help galvanise the locals who knew the lake enormously, concentrating minds, and if it cost me a few ten thousand kyat as well, paid to. There was just enough time to grab a quick dinner with my good friend and tour guide, Shwe Yi, before heading out at dawn from the jetty.My ferry cabin, on of around a dozen, was a little cramped, but it was wonderful not to be subjected to the deck; although enclosed, the morning damp and chill was always horribly unwelcome.

           fig's '2 & '3). Ko's Kitchen with my friend Shwe Yi was a last night of luxury dining for the next seven days; here my cabin awaits. It will be home for the next 3-4 days.

The ferry left Mandalay at around six-thirty in the morning. Upriver (apart from cargo stops and tying up at the bank) the next stop would be Kathar, a small town made famous by one Eric Blair (a.ka. George Orwell) who was stationed there during WWII and who used the various Colonial trappings of clubhouse and tennis courts as a backdrop for his novel: Burmese Days. But that would be for some forty hours later; for now, we were steaming happily upriver.

   (figs '4 & 5). One hour after leaving the dock, the dark gave way to a typically beautiful Burmese sunrise. Here a small teak tourist boat goes about its business - a new breed of tourism in Burma.

The day was spent largely chatting with various Burmese travellers going upriver (mainly to the far north); as always, the Burmese showed their super-friendly nature, and we shared a few soft drinks and snacks and played games with the children on board. The ferry had a resident cook at the boat's 'restaurant,' who slaved over a charcoal fire, and also a 'shop' selling snacks and drinks, varying from acceptable crackers to wooden slices of 'sponge -cake' and demonically alcohol-packed 'energy drinks'.

The next morning I was surprised to find us going nowhere. As usual, rumour became the default method of communication, but it transpired that the captain, eager to get away, had left the riverbank in the dark and as such had no guide at the helm (with a long bamboo cane) to feel for sandbanks, notorious at this time of year as the Ayerrawaddy dropped in level.

As a result, the captain managed to beach the ferry on a sandbank, and it was clear that this was no temporary beaching: the  ferry was typically overloaded at the base of the vessel and packed with people, but as usual there was no tutting or cross faces; the Buddhist culture and upbringing, and their general "what-will-be-will-be" take on life was quite envy-inducing, in its own way.

The captain tried everything: a small fishing vessel came over to nudge away at us; small boys were coerced into the water with canes to 'map' the surrounding sandbanks; all was to no avail. Rumour took over once again: a large ship was coming, not to nudge us or pull us or evacuate us, but to take off the tons of rice in the belly of the vessel. The theory being that if the sandbank couldn't go down, the ferry must come up! We would float off.

I was doubtful about this, and mindful of the time: a who day and half meant serious delays. There would be delays in Shwegu, for sure, getting around the police and immigration to get over the river to the north side; there was (as had been explained) no bus service from Shwegu / Mandalay for foreigners, and if this was to be the extent of travel on the river (albeit going downriver with the current on the return journey), then this would be a nightmare scenario: there would be very little time; I would almost certainly miss the plane out of Mandalay and Burma itself.

At around 2pm, a large steamer did indeed arrive (reinforcing the Burmese enigma of the simplest tasks being out of the question, yet something promised that seems extremely unlikely coming good). It made no attempt to push us off the sandbank, instead berthing alongside and thus began two hours of shouting, yelling and the transferring of hundreds of giant sacks of rice each weighing I should imagine some 40-60 kgs on the shoulders of ever-willing Burmese who appeared out of nowhere.

The engines started at around 4:30pm and it seemed that the re-floating of the ferry had been a success. We steamed out of the area and upriver, berthing ourselves a little later to pick up and offload passengers.  

(fig's '6 & 7). Keeping a careful eye out for sandbanks, we dock further up the river. The Ayerrawaddy river serves as provider  in many different forms, here it serves as a hairdressing salon.

(fig'8). A reproachful glance downriver to the scene of our delay, now lying some ten kms to the south: the sandbank that added so much to the journey time. After this night berthing, Kathar will be the next stop tomorrow evening; we should be there at this point.

 

The next morning, I considered my position: clearly I couldn't afford the same thing happening  when going downriver in a few days' time after Shwegu. I had very kittle time and, not for the first time I cursed Burma's pedantic rules - no foreigners allowed on a bus to Mandalay that would be hell on Earth but do-able and quick. I gnashed my teeth at the country's bizarre petulance.

I had been delighted to discover that the boast I was on did actually call at Shwegu: I had bought a ticket only to Kathar in order to catch the speedboat, and I had grinned in my cabin in revenge at the Mandalay harbourmaster who had told me: 'No'.  I had a free ride to Shwegu and a cabin instead of a hotel room at Kathar, plus I was let off the speedboat fare! Now I realised I had no choice but to get off at Kathar after all: the speedboat was shallow-keeled and fast - it was the only option and so a little sadly that evening, I said goodbye to my neighbours and my free cabin and free ride, and abandoned ship.

 

 (fig's '9 & 10). It's goodbye to my mobile hot tin roof, pictured a few hours earlier, and to my cabin neighbour, whose loyalty to a certain north London team seems apparent.

The next morning, after an uncomfortable and noisy stay in the one-and-only guest house that I remembered previously (and nothing had changed!), I had a quick breakfast and boarded the speedboat. The speedboat is fast by Burmese standards (although a little pricy), and as comfortable as wooden-slatted seats can be, and only five hours south of Shwegu itself!

 

  (fig's '11 & 12). .A game of 'Bo!' on the way upriver produced a clear winner!

 hwegu greeted me with fires on the south bank of the river, the roar of rickshaws and a general hubbub of noise. My first look, however, was to the opposite side of the river - this was where Tony's fabled lake lay, where surviving pink-headed duck may yet survive. I knew of the three areas of difficulty: the police and immigration;  the means of getting across the river with someone who would take me; the problesm with getting ba Nonetheless, I hailed a ride from a rickshaw and made my way up the strip to the hotel.

(fig' 12).  Journey's end! Shwegu, 180 kms from Yangon; 80 kms from Mandalay.

 (fig' 13). The mysterious village I could see through the haze on the north side eventually had a name: Elephant Army village!

The strip was lined with a fire station, police station and immigration station;  a few shops, bars and cafes on the south side. By contrast, on the north side of the strip lay shanty houses and docked boats, with the river beyond. I could see boats crossing and it looked as if I might be able to hop aboard one if I was lucky, but I was mindful of the KIA stronghold there on the north side of the river, plus the police and immigration on the south side.

I asked about the lake in many cafes and shops, but received no luck. In one café, however, I was finally was able to learn that the village I could see on the north bank was called 'Elephant Army' village (the other name was indiscernible), and that Tony's name of Indawgyi lake was misleading as the lake went by another name, typical of Burmese confusion: La Haje de Hale The fact that Indawgyi lake really IS another real lake (to the west - the biggest body of water in Myanmar) only added to the confusion.  I had an offer by a young boy to take me across the river and also lead me to the lake itself, but I thought more about this later on and concluded that the price was way too expensive; there was no reason that, following a ride across the river, I should not find the lake myself. I 'd established the fact that the journey was roughly three miles, I know the Burmese for 'lake' (In), and so I resolved to pack enough water to make the trip myself. I found my hotel and called it a day, dreaming of finding the lake the next day, and avoiding a bribe to the police and immigration, if possible.

The next morning, my waiting outside the café to tell the youngster that I didn't after all require his services was thankfully unnecessary as he didn't turn up, so I had some breakfast and made my way to the quayside. Here, life became very interesting: I was hailed by a villager who noticed my tee-shirt offering the one million kyat reward for evidence of a living pink-headed duck. We chatted away and very shortly his offer of a cut-price offer of a river crossing (for 500 kyat = 0.5 USD) morphed into an offer of: free transport over the river, plus an escort through the KIA territory to the lake. I was wary about this: I knew the KIA always needed funding (although they were friendly towards tourists and westerners, who had a working knowledge both of democracy and the English Premier League) and more importantly I didn't know much about my new friend. This eased after I established by his manner that he wanted to 'trade' his time and effort in return for a share in the reward.

 (fig' 14). The river's north side, negotiated successfully using (unprompted by me) a share of the one million kyat reward. The lake lies hidden "in between the mountains" (hills).

We crossed the river and tramped up the bank to be met by a hut belching smoke from a wood fire. The occupant was a retired army general - happy and karma-like to live on the same land as the KIA, and who made me a cup of tea and showed off his bullet-scars and memories. I liked him very much, and admired the peaceful existence he enjoyed, with a complete absence of any bitterness or vengeance. As we talked, a buzzing filled the air - my new friend was back, riding a moped he had 'borrowed' from someone (I never did discover from whom). At his gesticulating, I climbed aboard and we wobbled off along the main street of the 'elephant army' village, little more than a dirt-strip, to go to the lake.

The boatman / rider insisted upon continually turning around to me and saying: "I know everyone," "You don't worry." Or: "No problem." and this became worrying in itself. We passed the KIA stronghold and it appeared the rider really did know everyone on this side of the river: every large grand house we passed, or the home of someone popular in the area was stopped at in order for a mutual showing off, which became very tiresome, with me expressing feigned amazement / admiration of the occupants real age. I just wanted to get to the lake.  

Eventually, my wish came true; even farmers were stopped as they walked across the fields, but we shortly began to cross bamboo bridges crossing  deep streams and what were obviously tributaries of the lake. And eventually the lake itself came into view.

 (fig's '15 & 16). Shallow water and deep silence on the lake. An expanse of clear, fresh water and shady nooks and corners, but disappointingly non-wild, and quiet of birds.

The lake really was large, big enough to support a small fishing community who received me kindly, and showed an interest in my pink-hreaded duck picture. The guide asked for a boat and one was provided swiftly, and we pushed out into the lake. The lake was reasonably shallow and I could see strips of fishing nets  lying beneath the surface, containing the odd drowned snake. The lake was sunlit, but very quiet. There was an absence of much in the way of wildfowl, and it lacked the amazing wonders of the duck-heavy wild lakes of the 95 In trip in 2009 (my first trip - see The Flying Needle) and the perfect, un-surveyed lake setting in Nagaland on the fourth expedition (see: Putting it all on Pink). The lake seemed to split as it went around corners - it was a complex pattern, and my guide indicated to me after a conversation with a passing boatman that "Ducks were not here"; instead we should beach the boat and try another site of his recommendation. This was extremely muddy and clearly led to another body of water - which indeed it did.

 (fig's '17 & 18). A passing boatman advised a much better place where he knew that ducks congregated. This body was shallow and weedy, and held much more in the way of wildfowl, but sadly there were only two species to observe: red crested pochard and spot-billed ducks; there was no trace of the prized pink-headed duck.

 (fig' 19). Spot-billed duck go about their business in the warmth of late morning in an idyllic land of greenery and gold stupas, but of pink-headed duck there was no sign.  

 Going back, disappointment made the eternal stopping-off almost unbearable in the face of failure. The only exception was a school in its lunch hour, which I found delightful; otherwise, the naming of various Premier League teams, with the intonation of pronunciation the only indication of what the host thought of the team, plus the required gasps of disbelief at the host's age became very wearing. I waited for the inevitable bill  for the trip to come in, but to my surprise none came; the boatman / moped rider seemed happy enough to have had a day out.

CONCLUSIONS:

This lake is another step in the right direction in the hunt for pink-headed duck in Burma. The fact that it was in effect a fishing lake should not discount lakes from their possibilities; sightings and accounts of pink-headed duck came as much from fishermen and farmers as they did from the scientific body, so clearly there was some co-existence there, and it is also clear to me now after visiting so many lakes in Burma since 2009 that wildfowl in all the lakes visited so far do happily co-exist alongside humans, perhaps even to the wildfowl's advantage in some cases.

The Burmese talent for confusion happened one last time in Shwegu, but came good for me: yes, it was true that the buses did not let foreigners on, but everybody neglected to state that this was because there were plenty of private coach companies, offering a swift (by Burmese standards) journey back to Mandalay. This was a fact that would have saved me a huge amount of fretting, worrying and planning as I had travelled upriver - not that I would have stayed on the ferry at Kathar, in retrospect.

Tony's fabled lake should surely be discounted now and this is not just because I myself was unlucky there. I can report that the lake is surrounded by open fields and farmland, and there is plenty of human activity and encroachment. Pink-headed duck it would seem need the availability of either jungle pools , deep forest surrounded small bodies of water and / or isolated elephant grasslands and floodplain, and the Shwegu township on the north side of the river has none of this habitat.  Moreover, the 'Elephant Army' village is bustling (I have mentioned there was a school nearby) and I feel the human encroachment on a far more general level is far too invasive for this shy duck. But I am nonetheless glad wholeheartedly to have done this for Tony. It was a hunch he spoke of quite often, and it was the least I could do for him. Tony Htin Hla was a good friend to birds and their conservation in Myanmar, and this was such a small thing to do in return. Now we know that this lake is indeed discountable, and it is important to know what to discount as much as what there is still to explore, if we are to make a breakthrough that will ultimately lead to the possible rediscovery of this species.  

 

Richard Thorns 2015.