Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Search for the Pink-headed Duck commences

24th - 25th Oct 2017 Lonton Village arrival

Very weary from the seventeen plus hours of beating and pounding administered by our ancient train we were very relieved to be shown to our lodge in Lonton village opposite Indawgyi Lake at about 02.30am. On first appearances, everything seemed fine, basic but clean but then we were informed that the accommodation had no bathrooms or shower units apart from the rickety hut with a squat toilet, a ‘hold on for your life’ loo and an outdoor bucket shower next to the main road.

Outside appearances can be deceptive, all facilities 'al fresco'

This wasn’t exactly what we had been promised. If we had been told it would have been a different matter and to be honest Pilar and I have been accommodated in a lot worse conditions. It seemed, as we were to find out, the rooms we had actually paid for were across the road at the Indaw Mahar Guest House.

Our intended Lodge that had been occupied by the Germans!

It appeared that we had been downgraded to make way for the German Ambassador and her team who were arriving in five days to open a newly constructed Flora and Fauna International (FFI) education centre on the shores of the lake. The Germans were invading and we might have to fight them on the beaches for our rooms!

After a few heated words with the organisers of the expedition, we were assured that if we could stay just the one night in our current accommodation we could relocate in the morning. We caved in out of sheer exhaustion, brushed our teeth and crashed into spent oblivion.

(Tourist map of Indawgyi Lake)
25th Nov 2017 Search Day 1

After an average night sleep and a quick breakfast of sorts, we threw our bags over our shoulder and crossed the road to our luxurious, pre-booked residence for the next 5 days.

What can I say about Indaw Mahar Guest House without sounding spoilt, bitter and cruel? Well to honest, it left a lot to be desired and I will leave it at that just to be polite. At least we had a shower and toilet, of sorts.

Our guide, the ever smiling and chilled Lay Win had organised our first exploration of the famous Indawgyi Lake. We were to make the hour crossing to the very northern point of the lake and then another hour through the Indawgyi river marshes.
Our mode of transport was a locally made wooden longboat with a motor at the stern. The longboat was approximately 30ft in length and looked as stable and watertight as a long sieve. Errol and I again exchanged all knowing looks, no words were needed. Jungle Pili or Pixie, as Errol had nick-named her, held back and prepared her camera for any comical mishap while the rest of us climbed aboard. Myself, Errol, Richard, Lay Win and finally Pilar slipped and stumbled our way on board and took positions. Our initial fears were totally unfounded as we took off north across the lake; the water was like a shimmering pane of glass.

For the first time, we could see the jungle bordering the shores. Deep shades of greens and browns blanketing the hills interspersed with small villages, pagodas and temples. The religious shrines, rich with hues of red, blues and gold all magnified in their brilliance by the shimmering morning sun. As the morning wore on the heat started to rise and only the air rushing past us stopped the temperature becoming uncomfortable.

One of the many pagodas along the shores of the lake

“Where are the resident water birds?” asked Errol

I had noticed the same thing and already it was apparent all was not right with the ecosystem we had come all this way to explore. We were both expecting and eagerly anticipating a rich and diverse spectrum of bird species. All we were seeing were a few Small Cormorants and snow white Cattle Egrets, a Pond Heron here and there, common and adaptable species found on most freshwater systems.

The naturalist in me started to look for more clues as to exactly what was happening here.

“Errol, look at the water,” I said

We looked over the side of the longboat and saw an obvious problem. The water was thick with blue-green algae everywhere we looked. Visibility was no more than one meter in the water column and it was a green, lifeless void. We also found small dead fish every meter or so floating on the lake surface with no visible trauma or other cause of death. It appeared the lake was turning acidic and the life-giving oxygen was being starved out of the system, I've seen similar conditions even in my local lakes back home!

Looking both port and starboard blue-green algae in the water and not a 'duck' in sight

The most dominant species of plant was the beautiful Water Hyacinth which was floating in rafts across the entire lake, some were small and some of them were huge tapestries of lilac and green. I started to examine them as we glided past, looking for amphibians and invertebrates, the usual species of dragonflies, pond skaters and frogs that you’d expect on a healthy lake…..nothing.

Myself, Errol Fuller, Richard Thorns, Lay Win
The lake itself, to the untrained eye, is serene and picturesque; the jungle forest also looks vibrant and healthy. But both Errol Fuller and I agreed it is all an allusion. The jungle is second if not third growth, harvested for its hardwood and animals long ago. What is left is the occasional old, towering tree, usually, its survival is because it had happened by chance to have started its life on a steep hill or in a swampy area, both of which are difficult to cut and extract a tree of such size without modern and expensive equipment. The rest of the growth is made up of bamboo, young, fast-growing trees all smothered in a blanket of climbing, clinging vines and ivy. Sure you’ll find animal life in and around, species that have adapted quickly and that are resourceful. But nothing like the biodiversity a true, old growth pristine system can support.

My personal opinion is the water habitat and its biodiversity is heading toward collapse. Of course, this needs to be studied further with scientific vigour applied, this opinion I have come too is my own personal observations. I did test for the ph levels in several places in the open water and the marshes and the initial results confirmed my hypothesis.

The population on the shores is much larger than we had expected or had been lead to believe. These poor people, after coming through years of oppression and hostility, are trying to take advantage of the new gold rush: tourists. The little town of Lonton is all shops and basic restaurants to cater for the growing list of international visitors and scientists. The shops sell alcohol, sweets and junk food and locally source meals, mostly cooked in palm oil. If you’re a meat eater, your meals are running around and living with the population in the street: pigs, chickens, cows, dogs are everywhere. Not that this bothers us in the slightest, in fact, I could often be found rubbing a sleeping pig’s belly while kneeling in the powered, grey dust that covers just about everything.

The problem arises when you consider that all the water used for this growing civilization comes from and goes back into the lake. Cooking water, washing up water, toilet and shower water, all full of chemicals and bacteria. This and the slow depositing of layer upon layer of rotting vegetation, raining through the water column from the drifting reed beds are turning the lake acidic. Another problem is that historically this lake has been fished by the locals to sustain their families. But now with the rising demand from an expanding marketplace, the fisherman are depleting the fish stocks, fast. Not only are they fishing with traditional method, nets, lines and wicker traps, but they are also utilising modern technologies such as electrofishing, this probably explains the dead, floating fish we saw on the lake. This once pristine Eden and possible home to the Pink-headed Duck is being attacked from all sides and it’s losing the battle for existence.

The big question is, does or could the Pink-headed Duck still uses this lake?
Did it ever actually live here, or was it a very occasional visitor?

You’ll have to read on to find out these answers and you might be surprised at our conclusions.

Approximately one quarter across the lake and not that far from the shore side village of Lonkauk, rising out of the silky water is the famous ‘Shwe Myitzu Pagoda’ or as most tourists prefer to call it the ‘Floating Pagoda’. I believe it is home to a small group of devote Buddhists Monks.  To my cynical eyes, it looks like a wedding cake designer’s worse acid trip. Obviously beautifully crafted and designed with no expense spared. Layers upon layers of gold conical spires with extravagant ornamentation contrasted and framed by rich red borders and frames. The gold faced Buddha is housed in a glass-fronted room gazing out, unblinking for eternity across the waters of the lake.

‘Shwe Myitzu Pagoda’ the 'The Floating Pagoda'
 Above the doors, written in English and Burmese are the words RUBY DRAGON. I would imagine this is where the tourists hand over their dollars for the privilege of being in the presence of the golden one. The significance is mostly lost in my ignorance, but once again I’m reminded of the extraordinary wealth that can be spent in the name of religion while the local people live in squalor and ignorance. I wonder how many children could be given an education and a chance to build a better future for themselves with the money spent on such a structure. I know one thing for sure, no matter what flavour of God we talk about they all seem obsessed with money and gold. He might move in mysterious ways but I bet he has an accountant!

Right, after offending another deity and again securing myself an eternity in a fiery hell (I hope they have cable TV so I can fry while watching David Attenborough), I’ll get back to the expedition.

Our purpose for crossing the lake was to go up the Indawgyi River, through the reed beds, keeping an eye out for our quarry to arrive at ‘Chaung Wa’ village where we wanted to interview one of the local villagers as to a suppose sighting he had six years previously (more details to come regarding the interview).

Typical fishermen's hut
The reed beds along the river system were tall and dense. Scattered along the water line of the river were fisherman shelters, on stilts, made from bamboo and dried and woven reeds, primitive but functional, somewhere to sleep, eat and shelter from the searing sun.

For such a large habitat the species count we observed was disappointingly low. I observed and photographed common species such as White Throated Kingfisher, Pond Heron, Cattle Egret, Little Cormorant, White Wagtail, Little Grebe, a lone Purple Heron and one of my favourites the Purple Swamphen. What was really alarming, not a single duck, not a Mallard or Pochard, in fact not a quack.

Little Cormorant
In the skies above the marches and reed beds circled a number of Brahminy Kite and a solitary Hen Harrier. We also saw migrating Amur Falcons circling way above all other birds, specks against the blue sky. The Kites are common in S.E. Asia and I never get bored of seeing them. The snow white head of the mature Brahminy Kite contrasts strikingly against the chestnut body and wings. What exactly they were hunting I was unsure, probably fish, snakes and small birds but from the look of things, pickings were scarce. They seem to have filled the niche left by the many Vulture species that have been decimated by the widely used veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, during the last decade. 

Brahminy Kite
Black Kite

The population of vultures has crashed via a slow painful death because this drug been injected into livestock. These important scavengers fed on dead livestock. Vultures die from kidney failure within days of exposure animals with diclofenac-contaminated tissues. Many species are now on the edge of extinction. Have we learned anything? The simple answer is no. The ban may now be in force across Asia but now the drug is being used on the African continent and with the same devastating results.

Eventually, after an hour navigating the river through the reed bed, we started to see habitation along the river banks. Houses built on stilts, livestock roaming free along the banks, the fisherman in their longboats mending nets or using the river as a highway to deliver food and fuel to the village. Children, barefooted and in modern but ragged clothes greeted us with shouts, waves and broad, white-toothed smiles.

“Hello mister, hello” they all cried, we felt like arriving celebrities.

Not everybody was so friendly. Women bathing in the river or pounding clothes, beating out and endlessly rinsing to wash out the muck and grime gave us unforgiving glances from underneath sweaty brows. A pang of guilt gripped my heart.
These people cling to a moment by moment existence with no chance of reprieve and hear we were loaded down with expensive technology looking for a duck which would mean nothing more than the next meal for them. A sudden dose of reality and perspective is a humbling and lonely tune played with a conscious heart.

A local greeted us and pulled our longboat onto the shore, sliding it into the mud. We disembarked unsteadily and walked the few metres into the centre of the village. There were stalls surrounding the village square selling everything from locally grown fruit and veg, raw spices, lots and lots of sweets and water bottles filled with two-stroke petrol. 

Everything was happening at half speed and surreal in the village. There was no haste or rush to be seen, no hard sell and certainly no customers for the colourful and varied wares. We had needed special permission to visit this remote village of fishermen because it was in the zone where the KIA still operated. But all seemed relaxed. Feral cats slept in the baskets, dozing alongside strangely named cleaning products, sleeping away another hot, dusty day just like most of the villagers it seemed.

I did make a purchase, a large bottle of chilli sauce, it seemed the thing to do and can be a lifesaver if the local meals fell below culinary standards. Ok I’m an addict….but I can give it up, if I want, honest.

Interview Chaung Wa village 

We convened in the town square bar consisting of half a dozen tables, some wooden benches and a scattering of plastic chairs. Richard made enquiries with the head man of the village about a fisherman he interviewed during a previous, solo expedition who had claimed to have seen the Pink-Headed Duck in the local reed beds some six years previously. Out of nowhere a guy arrived and introduced himself. It turned out that the individual was not the original interviewee but someone who had been there at the same time as the mentioned interview. He was now claiming to have also seen the duck some nineteen years ago. Why he failed to mention this previously was beyond me, but we questioned him anyway, I listened to Lay Win translation of the conversation as I recorded the whole interview on my Nikon D800. We also handed out some laminate species I.D. and contact cards I designed offering a reward for information to the existence and whereabouts of the PHD. I expected more enthusiasm if I’m honest, especially as these people claim to have seen the duck in the local waters.

After a cold Mandalay beer, we left with handshakes and goodbyes. Richard seemed enthused and encouraged, myself, Pilar and Errol were however underwhelmed, to say the least. Lay Win said nothing, just his normal serene self, smiling warmly; he’d been here before chasing pink ghosts.

As we were about to leave the village, a platoon of heavily armed government soldiers marched through the village. They smiled at us while brandishing their bullets belts and AK47’s, and strode on past, where they were going we had no idea and we certainly were not about to inquire, it was a sudden and sobering reminder of exactly where we were.

we didn't ask questions, a true reality check

The journey back through the marshes was uneventful, we saw the same species sporadically and the hour across the open waters of the lake have again confirmed the peril the lake was in. We were treated to a beautiful, golden sunset that turned the skies a burnt umber as the sun dripped and slid below the hills surrounding the shores.

Pilar of the lake

perfect end to a long day

The team
Back at our palace (lodge) we all showered and made a hasty dash to the local restaurant that Lay Win had arranged for us. With some translation issues, Pilar and I were served fried watercress, fried peanuts and white rice. Richard had some form of a spicy meat dish and rice and Mr Fuller started his diet of chips and beer, explaining that we were all going to regret not following his dietary lead, the chips had been cauterized to near death and therefore safe to eat. Time would tell if he was right.

Our starving team wolfed down our meals with a couple of cold beers and made arrangements for a dawn start and the second day of our search before hitting the hay.