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World's Largest Tiger Reserve Created

The world's largest area devoted to protecting tigers has been declared by the government of Myanmar.

The entire Hukaung Valley in the Southeast Asian country will become a tiger sanctuary under the declaration, which officially protects an area the size of Vermont and is a major step forward for saving tigers — one of most endangered species on the planet. The number of tigers in the wild has plummeted from up to 100,000 a century ago to less than 3,000 today.

"Myanmar now offers one of the best hopes for saving tigers in Southeast Asia," said Colin Poole, director for the Wildlife Conservation Society's Asia Programs. "The newly expanded protected area in the Hukaung Valley will be a cornerstone of tiger conservation throughout this iconic big cat's range."

The world's remaining tiger populations exist in small, isolated fragments that are constantly threatened by the illegal hunting of tigers and their prey. The Hukaung Valley reserve joins a number of other areas of existing and potential tiger habitat that exist in many parts of Asia. The Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve covers approximately 8,452 square miles (22,000 square kilometers) in the northernmost part of the country and has the potential of holding several hundred tigers. Illegal hunting both of tigers and their prey has caused a steep decline in their numbers in the area; some estimates show as few as 50 of the big cats currently in the region.

In 2004, the Myanmar government designated 2,500 square miles (6,500 square km) of the Hukaung Valley as a wildlife sanctuary.

The new designation extends that protected area an additional 4,248 square miles (11,000 square km). The resulting wildlife sanctuary stretches 6,748 square miles (17,477 square km) and makes up the core of the larger Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve.

The designation was enacted after Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein Sein gathered 17 other Cabinet Ministers to fly to Hukaung Valley earlier this year to assess its conservation needs and convey the importance of the region for tigers, and other species.

The designation protects some of the last expanses of closed forest in the Indo-Pacific region and is one of the most important ecosystems for the long-term conservation of large mammals such as tigers, clouded leopards and Asian elephants.

Approximately 370 bird species, including the critically endangered Rufous-necked Hornbill, have been found in the region. Of the current global estimate of 13,500 plant species, approximately 7,000 are found in the Hukaung Valley and nowhere else on the planet.

"I have dreamt of this day for many years," said Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of the wild cat conservation group Panthera. "The strides we made in 2004 were groundbreaking, but protecting this entire valley to ensure tigers are able to live and roam freely is a game changer. This reserve is one of the most important stretches of tiger habitat in the world, and I am thrilled that the people and government of Myanmar understand the importance of preserving it."

Scientists and conservationists believe that tigers can make a comeback if the most critical threats to their existence — poaching of the cats themselves and their prey — are addressed effectively and immediately.

This article was provided by OurAmazingPlanet, a sister site to LiveScience.