Nat Ma Taung National Park in southern Chin state, and the Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary in central Kachin state have been recommended as “priority candidates” for World Heritage Status, a designation conferred by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.
Sites up for the World Heritage list are considered ones of universal value in need of protection and conservation.
Despite Myanmar’s tourist boom, the eastern Chin and northern Kachin states have remained well off the beaten path, plagued by underdevelopment, decades of conflict and patchy transportation links.
The reserves, announced Wednesday, were selected during a meeting between government officials and UNESCO that looked at seven sites, including hundreds of coral-wrapped islets in the Andaman sea and a river that is home to a threatened freshwater dolphin.
If they successfully achieve World Heritage designation, the reserves will become Myanmar’s first UNESCO-protected heritage sites, joining a list of nearly 200 others that include the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon.
Nat Ma Taung National Park in Chin state is nestled between the Chin Hills, a distinct feature of the far-flung state that remains Myanmar’s poorest and least development. The area is home to Himalayan flora and 800 plant species, including a variety of orchids.
Indawgyi Lake, considered one of Southeast Asia’s largest, is home to 10 threatened bird species. It is also the habitat of the Burmese Peacock Turtle, an endangered soft-shell with a multi-hued shell.
With tourist arrivals soaring from just over 762, 000 in 2009 to more than a million in 2012 – and projections of 7.5 million arrivals by 2020 – environmentalists have started to worry about the footprint the rush of visitors will have on the natural environment.
Inle Lake, for example, a popular attraction in Shan state, is now teeming with hotels and guest inns. According to a 2011 report by state media, the lake has narrowed from an original surface area of 100 square miles to just a quarter of that size.
That’s why world heritage status is so important, says Tim Curtis, chief of UNESCO’s culture unit in Bangkok, noting that it provides a framework for the “highest level of international commitment to the protection of sites” considered rich in heritage and biodiversity.