Myanmar opened its doors to tourism, investment, and development only recently. As a result, vast swaths of the country remain unexplored, salivating environmentalists, biologists, and explorers from all over the world at the prospect of discovering Myanmar’s most fascinating creatures. While some animals, such as the Burmese python, are well-known worldwide, others, such as the rare Burmese bamboo shark, continue to elude world scientists.
Myanmar’s biodiversity is unsurprising given its size in South East Asia and the greatest variation in natural habitats. This includes numerous fish species along its extensive coastlines and inland lakes, reptiles and amphibians in tropical swamplands, and magnificent mammals in its drier and temperate climates. And, in terms of insects, we are well aware that they are ubiquitous.
The following is a list of Myanmar’s top 10 most fascinating animals:
Burmese bamboo shark
The Myanmar Times published an article last year titled “Saving Sharks,” in which oceanographer U Zaw Lunn discussed spotting this rare shark near Kawthaung. These creatures, a type of carpet shark, are so rare that only one specimen exists in the world at the moment. The museum piece was discovered off the coast of Yangon in 1963 and now resides on the bottom of a display tank at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Visitors can admire the 57cm-long creature’s streamlined body and banded patterning. The Chiloscyllium burdens, as it is also known, has a long snout and fairly docile-looking eyes.
Before speculation about the coronavirus’s origins, little was known about these strange-looking creatures. They resemble the aardvark (the ant-eater) in appearance and behavior but are classified as Pholidota (which means “horny scale” in Greek). They, like the aardvark, forage on insects and live in solitude. Though they are indigenous to northern Myanmar and parts of southern Asia, China, and India, many visitors will only encounter them in the markets of Shan State’s border towns. Smugglers also cross the border into China, where their organs and skin are in high demand, sadly putting them on the endangered species list.
The Platalea pygmea is perhaps the cutest animal on the list, but fewer than 1,000 spoon-billed sandpiper breeding pairs are believed to exist. Spoon-billed sandpipers breed in cooler climates along Korea’s and China’s western coasts before wintering on the islands in Myanmar’s Bay of Martaban, which is home to an estimated half of the world’s population. With a short body and long legs, the bird’s broad-shaped bill aids it in foraging for worms and insects on the tidal flats.
Dugongs are gentle and graceful mammals that graze on seagrass as they swim through the oceans. Often referred to as “sea cows,” they are more closely related to elephants due to their thick grey skin and trunk-like mouth. Adults can reach a length of 4 meters and a weight of nearly half a tonne. Sightings have been reported along the Rakhine coast between Laung Kyo and Kan Tharyar beach in Gwa township, as well as around Mann Aung Island, according to the Kyauk Phyu Department of Fisheries.
In April of this year, a startled-looking wild black bear, also known as an Asiatic black bear, wandered into the Yangon township of Thanlyin. It was most likely captured in another location, possibly in the Rakhine mountain ranges, and released in the city. The bear, which was just over a meter in length, was fortunately captured and released back into the wild – following a brief recovery period at Yangon’s Hlawga Park. Black bears prefer high-altitude coniferous forests and are found throughout the Himalayan foothills, southern China and Russia, as well as Myanmar. Regrettably, they are hunted for their bile and claws, with China being the primary market.
The ET insect (extinct)
In 2017, etymologists worldwide focused their attention on Myanmar, following the discovery of a new insect species preserved in amber. The alien-ant-like insect, officially named Aethiocarenus burmanicus, was discovered in the Hukawng Valley in 2001, in Kachin State’s southwestern region. The specimen is estimated to be around 100 million years old and was first described by Professor George Poinar in a paper on his discovery as having a “triangular head with bulging eyes, with the vertex of the right triangle located at the base of the neck [which] enables this species to see nearly 180 degrees by turning its head sideways.” Poinar continued, perplexed by its unusual appearance, “With its long neck, large eyes, and strange oblong head, I thought it resembled ET.”
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Myanmar is home to five distinct crocodile species, ranging in size from the imposing Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) to the stout and tubbier Marsh Crocodile (Crocodylus palustris). The other three are the Siamese (Siamensis), the Indian Gharial (Gavialis genetics), and the Gharial (Tomistoma schlegelii), all of which are capable of tearing a fisherman’s arm off – as they have been known to do along the Irrawaddy River’s banks. Avoid these magnificent creatures in the wild, but if you live in Myanmar and want to see these ancient reptiles, the Yangon Crocodile Farm in Thaketa is the best place to go.
Burmese flap shell turtle
These small turtles with a dark brown or olive shell live in streams and rice paddies along the Salween and Irrawaddy rivers. They are omnivorous, feeding on insects and plants in wetlands, but can hibernate for extended periods. The monsoon season provides them with an abundance of water and food, and they typically give birth to clutches of between 5 and 15 eggs.
Also called lesser mouse deer, these shy creatures are the world’s smallest hoofed mammal. They appear to be the result of a breeding experiment, combining the genes of a kangaroo to create its strong back legs and protruding ears; a dear to create its round body and adorable eyes, and a mouse to create their small stature and long snout. It can weigh up to 8 kilograms and has a body length of up to 75 centimeters. It prefers to forage in South East Asia’s tropical and subtropical forest floors.
Boa constrictor is one of the world’s largest snakes, easily identifiable by its dark brown blotches and long body. Outside of Myanmar, eccentric pet owners enjoy breeding these snakes, though Myanmar residents are wise to avoid them – particularly near estuaries and rice fields, where they have been known to prey on dogs, livestock, and even children. Burmese pythons have become a scourge in the Florida Everglades, where annual eradication competitions are held to reward those who capture the most snakes.