© Hkun Lat / WWF-Australia
The ancient land of big cats

Tigers live in a diverse range of habitats: from grasslands and forests to mangrove swamps and mountains. Today we celebrate International Day of Forests by taking you on a journey into Dawna Tenasserim, one of the oldest forests in the world and one of 14 WWF-supported tiger landscapes.

Straddling the international border between Myanmar and Thailand, Dawna Tenasserim is a spectacular world of impossibly high waterfalls, deep valleys, dense jungle and towering mountains cloaked in clouds. This land lost in time is a treasure trove of life, recognised as one of our planet’s most significant areas for biodiversity conservation.

© Gordon Congdon
© Gordon Congdon


Though relatively unknown, Dawna Tenasserim is vast – covering an area roughly the size of Cambodia. It harbours 18 million hectares of contiguous forest, the largest in mainland southeast Asia, and still has an impressive 82% forest cover. Animal and plant species live here that are yet to be discovered. 


While there are no definitive tiger numbers for Dawna Tenasserim, individuals are expected to range from 180-220. The Thailand side is home to the largest population of tigers in mainland Southeast Asia, with around 150 tigers. In 2019, camera traps revealed evidence of tiger breeding on the Myanmar side of Dawna Tenasserim – a significant revelation in the wake of doubts over the species’ survival in that part of the country.

© Thompson Edwardes / ThailandWildlife.com
© Thompson Edwardes / ThailandWildlife.com


Tigers share the forests and rivers of Dawna Tenasserim with at least 168 mammal species and 560 bird species, many of which are endangered. Asian elephants, gaur, banteng, clouded leopards, Asian tapirs, Asiatic wild dogs, hornbills and Siamese crocodiles all call this ancient forest home. Uniquely, Dawna Tenasserim is also home to several endemic species that exist nowhere else on earth, including the curious Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, the world’s smallest mammal weighing in at little more than a large bumblebee.


This particular landscape is a hub of feline activity, earning itself the accolade of Land of the Cats. This is because a minimum of seven species of wild cats live here – almost one fifth of the world’s 41 cat species – all living under the same forest canopy.


On the Thai side of Dawna Tenasserim, the cave art at Khao Pla Ra dates approximately 3,000 years old, and depicts a way of life for the ancient communities. Today, many indigenous communities still thrive here. Among them are Thai, Shan, Bamar, Mon, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and various other groups. The largest group – the Karen people – speak 12 Karenic languages. Everyone who lives here depends upon the flourishing ecosystem and freshwater rivers for livelihood generation, building materials, food and clean water.

With Bangkok to the East and Yangon to the west, millions of people are connected to and impacted upon by Dawna Tenasserim. This is Southeast Asia’s largest set of lungs providing clean air, drinking water and many other critical ecosystem services to urban populations.


Though many of the communities living in Dawna Tenasserim have long lived in harmony with its nature, rapid development and an ever growing population is putting Dawna Tenasserim under immense pressure. A national and international demand for products grown in its rich soils is causing rapid deforestation, whilst infrastructure development projects like the Dawei Road threaten to slice through critical corridors, giving poachers easy access to swathes of land (and the wildlife inside) once protected by impenetrable foliage. 

© Hkun Lat / WWF-US
© Hkun Lat / WWF-US


Dawna Tenasserim is the last stronghold of viable tiger populations in the Greater Mekong, and offers one of the best hopes for the survival of tigers. Success in protecting these forests for tigers means success in saving so much more. WWF is working with communities, local authorities and government to develop sustainable livelihood alternatives that are better for people and for wildlife, and we are working to put an end to illegal wildlife trade to quell the poaching pressures on the tigers that live here.