LAMPI ISLAND, Myanmar – Off a remote, glimmering beach backed by a lush tropical forest, Julia Tedesco skims the crystalline waters with mask and fins, looking for coral and fish life.
"There is almost nothing left down there," the environmental project manager says, wading toward a sign planted on the shore reading "Lampi National Park."
Some 50 meters behind it, secreted among the tangled growth, lies the trunk of an illegally felled tree. Nearby, a trap has been set to snare mouse deer. And just across the island, within park boundaries, the beach and sea are strewn with plastic, bottles and other human waste from villagers.
The perilous state of Lampi, Myanmar's only marine park, is not unique. Though the country's 43 protected areas are among Asia's greatest bastions of biodiversity, encompassing snow-capped Himalayan peaks, dense jungles and mangrove swamps, they are to a large degree protected in name alone. Park land has been logged, poached, dammed and converted to plantations as Myanmar revs up its economic engines and opens up to foreign investment after decades of isolation.
Of the protected areas, only half have even partial biodiversity surveys and management plans. At least 17 are described as "paper parks" — officially gazetted but basically uncared for — in a comprehensive survey funded by the European Union.
So rangers rarely see a tiger in the 21,891-square-kilometer (8,452-square-mile) Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve. It's the world's largest protected area for the big cats, but has been overrun by poachers supplying animal parts for traditional medicines in nearby China.
And Myanmar's first nature reserve, the Pidaung Wildlife Sanctuary set up in 1918, has been "totally poached out and should be degazetted," says Tony Lynam, a field biologist for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
Inaugurated in 1996, Lampi fit squarely into the paper park category until possibly last year, when six rangers from the Forestry Department were finally assigned to protect this 79-square mile (204-square-kilometer) marine gem. It had been, and still largely remains, a do-as-you-please place.
Local residents and staffers with Italian Instituto Oikos, the group Tedesco works for, say dynamite fishing persists even within earshot of the ranger station. They say Thai and Burmese trawlers encroach into no-fishing areas, and that natural forest on one park island, Bocho, is being converted to rubber, encouraged by government policy.
Without any management plan in place, four settlements in the park and a fifth within a proposed buffer zone have grown dramatically and now total about 3,000 people, many of them Burmese migrants from the mainland. Blast fishing has become so intense that the Myanmar navy sent four vessels to the area in January in an attempt to curb it.
Despite the ongoing depredations, the park retains an incredible variety of natural life, according to a report by Oikos and the Burmese non-government group BANCA.
Its evergreen forests harbor 195 plant species, including trees soaring as high as 30 meters (98 feet), and many of the park's 228 bird species. Sea life ranges from dugongs — large mammals similar to manatees — to 73 different kinds of seaweed. Nineteen mammal species, seven of them globally threatened, are at home here, including macaques seen on rocky headlands hunting for some of the 42 crab species. There's even a wild elephant, lone survivor from a herd earlier transported from the mainland.
These wonders have sparked a recent push by tourism developers into the once isolated Mergui archipelago where Lampi is embedded amid some 800 stunning, mostly uninhabited islands. Tedesco says that a Singapore company has already been granted permission to build a hotel within the park "even before a management plan is in place."
She says the onset of possible mass tourism carries risk, but also potential benefits.
Pressure from scuba diving outfits and divers was largely responsible for halting blast fishing in many marine areas of neighboring Thailand, where some parks have curbed illegal activities by providing tourist-related income to the local culprits who once carried them out.
Tedesco says the Moken, the sea nomads who have inhabited the Mergui archipelago for centuries, would make ideal nature guides.
"We need community participation to preserve the parks," says Naing Thaw, director of Myanmar's Forestry Department.
He says the government intends to expand the protected areas from 5.6 percent of the country to 10 percent by 2020, adding eight more reserves. But he says authorities face "material, human resources and financial constraints" in turning demarcated areas into viable havens for wildlife and natural habitat.
Plans are underway for a major infusion of funds from foreign donors to focus on upgrading more than half a dozen parks. Inland wetlands, estuaries and marine areas, which contain Southeast Asia's largest remaining coral reefs and some of the world's most important biodiversity, and underrepresented in Myanmar's parks, and environmentalists are pushing more of them to be protected.
Before the civilian government took over, foreign conservation funding amounted to roughly $1 million a year. It is expected to reach up to $3 million in 2014 and jump to more than $20 million with major players like Norway and the U.N. Development Program coming in.
"The most critical intervention is to expand the marine protected area to protect it not only from tourism but more serious impacts such as bottom trawling and blast fishing before emerging vested interests render the designation of marine protected areas impossible," says Frank Momberg, based in the country for Flora and Fauna International.
Last month, the group said it hoped the formation of a new park in Kachin state would help save a primate species discovered by scientists just four years ago. At most, 330 snub-nosed monkeys survive in the northern frontier area, and they are threatened by illegal logging.
Foreign experts working with Burmese are impressed by the high level of dedication and professionalism by some in the government, especially given the powerful forces they must challenge to guard depredation — generals, government cronies, Thai and Chinese dam builders.
Lynam, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, works with elephant protection in several parks and says patrols he has accompanied have caught villagers hauling timber out of parks who confessed to working for the local police and forest rangers. Even some Buddhist monks are involved, he says, with logs "donated" by illegal loggers who split the profits with log-laundering monasteries.
He sees the accelerating infusion of foreign funding for the parks, and the general environment, as a two-edged sword.
"As the resources are made available, I think you are going to see some very good parks emerging in five to 10 years. There's lots of hope," he says. "But foreign money can also help empower the powerful guys who abet corruption. I've seen it in other countries.
Lynam says a lot of foreign money intended for conservation will be "going through the system and into somebody's handbag, but even if a fraction of it is used it will be a great help."
A number of international environmental groups have already set up operations and more are eager to come in.
"We know the experiences of other countries that have so-called opened up, like Vietnam, where most of the mangrove swamps were lost in a decade. We can see the dangers of what could also be lost in Myanmar in the next 10 years or so," says Robert Mather, Southeast Asian head of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
"It's a moment in time with golden opportunities to save something that is still out there."
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win contributed to this report from Yangon, Myanmar.