Baikka Beel is a large, shallow lake at the southern end of the wetland Hail Haor. It is located midway between Srimongol and Molvi Bazar. The haor, whose 4000 hectares swell to 14000 in monsoon, is vast, but Baikka Beel covers only 170 hectares. It was set up as a permanent wetland sanctuary in 2003. Fishing is banned in the beel and its healthy fish population encourages winter birds to congregate here every year. It is perhaps the closest thing to a real bird sanctuary in Bangladesh.
Just over a three-hour drive from Dhaka, Baikka Beel is popular among nature lovers and scientists. The former enjoy and learn about the workings of nature, while the latter conduct research in the life sciences, particularly ornithology. The sanctuary has two watchtowers. Climbing these, visitors can observe numerous birds going about their activities without unduly disturbing them. Boating is also possible at certain times, though approaching and disturbing birds is discouraged.
Conservation in Baikka Beel has yielded positive results as both bird and fish biodiversity has increased here over the years. For example, in 2013, 160 species of birds were counted in Baikka Beel. Today, that number has increased to 194, a result of vegetation growth attracting more birds and extensive field work by scientists (including using mist-nets for bird ringing) revealing more species. Similarly, fish species have increased from 98 in 2013 to 106 today.
I have been going to Baikka Beel since 2005 and on a recent visit it was as magical as I remembered from my first visit here. I walked through a garden of koroch trees to the second watchtower. Climbing it, I watched as flocks upon flocks of ducks – Pintails, Whistling Ducks, Teals, Gadwalls, etc – flew over the water body. Groups of brilliant blue Purple Swamphens flew back and forth between the lake's shore and the trees. Several raptors circled overhead looking for prey. These included Pallas's Fish Eagle and Eastern Marsh-Harrier. I felt I was in nature's playground.
But all is not well at Baikka Beel.
Speaking later with Dr. Paul Thompson, scientist and development expert, who had worked with the original MACH project that created the sanctuary, I learned of the difficulties. Paul mentioned that Baikka Beel, managed and run entirely by the local community through their organization Baragangina RMO which depends on funds generated from an endowment. In recent years the generated income has fallen behind inflation. Thus, basic costs of guards and upkeep are not fully covered.
A conversation with eminent birder Enam Ul Haque confirmed the issues faced by the sanctuary. Enam said that the sanctuary needs support to keep going. This support should be in both technical and financial areas. Technically, for example, it is important for the staff to identify and know more about the birds. Financial support will cover the costs of maintaining the sanctuary. In addition, the Baragangina organization needs moral support to deal with continued threats of poaching.
Paul and Enam mentioned Friends of Baikka Beel, an effort about to start that will shore up support to help Baikka. This “Friends of...” is a common model that is used in many countries to help preserve important places. The “friends” take initiatives to raise funds, train guides and volunteers and raise awareness of the project.
Setting up of Friends of Baikka Beel is ongoing, but as you can see the sanctuary is a treasure worth saving. Please watch this space for future news about Friends of Baikka Beel.
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