The country's precious forest resources remain largely unprotected due to an acute shortage of manpower and logistic support.
Around 1.52 million hectares of forests are being protected by only 1,859 guards, meaning each guard has to watch over an area equivalent to 30 Ramna parks (68.5 acres).
As these guards cannot cover such a vast area, the forest department has placed 1,254 boatmen as guards in different outposts. Even then, a guard has to cover an area the size of 18 Ramna parks.
The forest department has around 2,500 firearms for the guards. Ironically, most of the guards do not even have the training to operate these. So, they carry out their duties on foot, armed with bamboo sticks mostly, officials said.
As a result, illegal loggers and poachers are stealing trees and killing wildlife at will, and most of the forests, including the Sundarbans, Saatchhari and those in Chittagong and Cox's Bazar, have become dens of pirates and extremists.
Over the decades, encroachers have also grabbed a huge portion of the forest areas without facing any major challenge. As a result, the country's forests now cover less than 10 percent of the total land although government statistics show it to be 17 percent.
It is recommended that a country should have forests on one fourth of its landmass to maintain the natural equilibrium.
Though the government announced a target under the millennium development goal in 2008 to increase the country's forest coverage up to 20 percent by 2015, it's not going on well either.
“We won't be able to meet that target as we do not get adequate funds for tree plantations,” said Yunus Ali, chief conservator of forests (CCF).
The forest department now gets only Tk 181 crore annual budget, most of which is spent on staff salary and utility bills, he said.
“The department gets only Tk 7 crore for tree plantation, which should be at least Tk 70 crore, excluding the maintenance cost.”
Two sacks of venison seized by police in the Sundarbans west division in April. Venison is not rare in the area as several groups of poachers are active there due to poor monitoring of forest officials. Photo: Courtesy
According to Bangladesh Country Report of Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), at least five percent of the total forestland has been grabbed and converted into agricultural land in the last one decade.
While visiting the Lawachhara forest in Srimangal recently, this correspondent found a sorry state of forest protection.
Only four staffs -- a forest guard, a boatman, a junior scout and a beat officer -- were deployed to protect the 12.l5 square kilometer forest. Three out of their five firearms did not work. The only transport for this group of four was a 26-year-old 80CC motorcycle which can carry, if at all, a maximum of two persons.
The only car the forest rangers have is a decades-old jeep but there is no driver. So, local forest officials and members of the co-management committee have hired a driver with their own contributions.
“There are 18 villages around the Lawachhara forest and tree fellers can enter there from any directions carrying firearms,” said Manirul Islam, beat officer of Lawachhara forest.
Three staffs and a few villagers deployed by the local forest co-management committee keep vigil at some points of the forest so that none can escape with truckloads of tree logs, said Manirul.
The forest department has 10,240 approved posts, of which 2,668 remains vacant. The vacancy in field level posts is alarmingly high -- 1,396 posts, including 632 of forest guards, are vacant.
It is high time the government did something to provide necessary manpower and logistic support. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to protect the remaining forests, said a top forest official, seeking anonymity.
CCF Yunus Ali, however, noted that they already had taken initiatives to train the staffs in phases and around 2,000 staffs would be recruited by next year.
However, a forest official said the training was informal as divisional forest officers request superintendents of police to teach some forest staff the use a firearms during their annual training at different police lines.
“It is not very effective,” he said requesting not to be named.
“All the senior forest guards have become boss of a camp. So it is the boatmen who carry firearms in the Sundarbans. So it is really dangerous when a man supposed to row carries firearms without having any training,” he added.