The Madhupur National Park was once a large and dense forest, home to many wild animals, including tigers and bears.
There are no tigers or bears there anymore. But these animals are not the only species that disappeared. Wild fruits and herbal trees are disappearing fast from the forest, causing an acute food crisis for the handful of primates and birds that still live there.
Sixty-three-year-old Mandi (Garo) leader Ajay A Mri reminisced about the forest he saw in his childhood, when he used to take his cattle herd into the forest for grazing.
They used to hear deafening cries of langurs and monkeys in the forest, said Ajay, leader of Jayenshahi Adibashi Unnayan Parishad.
He and his friends even sighted many deer, wild boars, rabbits, hedgehogs and wild fowls in the forests.
“While the cattle grazed, we would gather wild fruits and edible leaves and plants from the forest,” he said, describing the existence of plenty of wild fruit trees and medicinal herbs and shrubs, including Bohera, Haritaki, Amloki, Dumur, Anai Gota, Joina Gota and Tithi Jam in the forest.
Lintus Miah of Gacchabari village said, “The local Mandi people consider the fruits, eaten by monkeys, edible and they collect fruits like Dumur, Anai Gota, and Thithi Jam. Now only a few of these fruit trees remain in the forest.”
The fruits and fresh leaves of these plants were the main food sources for the monkeys, langurs, deer and squirrels and different birds, including Horial (green pigeon) and parrots, according to wildlife experts.
Most of these fruit trees have disappeared from the forest due to mindless felling of trees over the last few decades to grab forestland, said Somnath Lahiri, senior research officer of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela).
These wild fruits and herbal plants are among 36 varieties of trees which have become almost nonexistent from Madhupur forest, posing threats to its biodiversity, he added.
Once spread over 45,000 acres of land, Madhupur forest has now shrunk to only 8,000 acres due to indiscriminate cutting down and stealing of trees and encroachment, forest department sources said.
A few hundred monkeys that managed to survive in the forest now forage for food in the pineapple and banana orchards of nearby villages. Apart from a few dozen deer in the forest, there are some 64 deer being kept at a deer breeding centre at Luhuria. But there is a scarcity of food for the animal, said the sources.
Forest officials said they were unable to provide adequate food and other support to the deer at the breeding center due to a lack of funds, logistics and manpower.
Over 40,000 people living in 57 villages, built in and around Madhupur forest areas after 1950, are dependent on the forest resources for their livelihoods, they added.
Besides, numerous brick kilns built around the forest use firewood from the forest to bake bricks, said locals and forest department sources.
Plunderers cut down wild fruit trees and other trees, which have huge demand in brick kilns, they added.
MA Hasan, assistant conservator of forest in Madhupur, said the forest department under a project taken a few years ago planted 19 varieties of trees, including fruit trees, on 20 hectares of land in the forest.