A vast number of century-old trees have been felled by loggers at a remote reserve forest and wildlife sanctuary in Thanchi of Bandarban in the last two months, and as seen in satellite images, about a hundred acres of it have been totally razed over the last few years.
The Daily Star collected videos and photographs from multiple sources which provide evidence that century-old trees are being illegally felled and transported out of Sangu reserve forest via the Sangu river.
Witnesses and locals from Thanchi alleged a syndicate led by timber merchants from Bandarban town and Chattogram have been sending loggers to fell trees from the country's lone virgin hill forest in winter these last few years.
However, the Forest Department never took action against this and always maintained they were unable to remain vigilant in the reserve forest because of a "shortage of manpower".
There are even allegations of direct and indirect involvement of forest officials in the plundering.
The Daily Star obtained satellite images taken on November 30, 2016 and November 29 this year which clearly show that large areas of Sangu forest, which is 82,080 acres in total, have been deforested over the years.
The satellite images, taken and analysed by Bangladesh Space Research and Remote Sensing Organisation (SPARSO), show large areas were denuded in at least 24 spots.
Chief Scientific Officer of SPARSO Dr Md Mahmudur Rahman analysed an image of 867 hectares (over 2,000 acres) in Sangu reserve forest, of which at least 40 hectares (nearly 100 acres) were totally cleared of trees.
Comparing images taken in 2016, 2019, and 2020, it is clear that loggers are clearing the forest every year, Dr Mahmudur said.
The Daily Star also spoke to at least five witnesses from local villages, all of whom requested to remain anonymous.
They said loggers indiscriminately felled trees from Andarmanik, Dungdung Para, Milinga Para, Mronggong Para, Narisha Jiri, Boromodok Jiri, and Singapa Mouza Jiri areas of the reserve forest.
An eyewitness who recently visited the Andarmanik and Narisha Jiri area said the loggers he encountered were mainly from Chakaria, Cox's Bazar.
"They have put up tents at Narisha Jiri and are felling the big century-old trees from the Sangu reserve forest indiscriminately using petrol-run electric saws.
"If trees are felled continuously from Sangu reserve forest, one day it will be completely gone."
Thanchi local Nu Mong Prue said last month, "Trees were felled indiscriminately from Sangu reserve forest during the last couple of months. After The Daily Star report, the loggers stopped felling trees these last few weeks."
In a November 10 report, The Daily Star reported on a local platform's statement about the illegal logging and smuggling of timber from Sangu reserve forest.
Vice Chairman of Thanchi upazila Cha Sa Thoai Marma said, "Smugglers have already cut around 30,000-feet trees from Sangu reserve forest over the last couple of months."
He got the figure from a source who saw the illegal logging closely.
"The trees are being carried to Bandarban town by the Sangu river," added the vice chairman.
Photos and videos collected from witnesses show the logs piled up, waiting to be transported in rafts on the Sangu river. One clip shows a tree being cut down in the dead of night, as revealed by the flash of the mobile phone camera.
After arriving in Bandarban town, they are sent on to Dhaka and Chattogram.
Some locals alleged that forest officers engaged poor locals as labourers in the theft and transport of the wood. They also point the finger at a few influential timber traders from Bandarban and Chattogram for this daily plundering of the forests.
The timber merchants, on the other hand, maintain that they are not involved with illegal logging in Sangu forest. Long established in the trade, they instead allege that Forest Department officials seize illegally logged timber on a few occasions, as an eyewash.
In most cases, Forest Department officials -- directly or indirectly -- assist illegal loggers in smuggling timber from the reserve forests in exchange for hefty bribes, they claimed.
However, President of the Bandarban District Timber Traders' Association Abul Bashar said, "Around seven or eight unscrupulous businessmen, mostly from Chattogram, are engaged in felling trees from Sangu reserve forest."
A Thanchi local, requesting anonymity, said he took around Tk 14-15 lakh in cash from a timber merchant named Jamal to deliver wood from the Sangu reserve forest.
Local sources said Md Jamal Uddin, resident of Chattogram, is one of the most notorious wood smugglers of Sangu reserve forest.
Contacted, Jamal denied the allegations, saying, "I have no involvement with logging in the Sangu forest. I just buy timber from those who arrange and send it to Chattogram and Dhaka from Bandarban."
Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Bandarban Md Farid Meah denied that wood is logged from Sangu reserve forest but he said "sometimes trees are felled from mouzas adjacent to it."
However, he added, "We sent a letter to Bolipara BGB and Alikadom BGB to cooperate with us for protecting the reserve forest. We also formed a five-member vigilance team headed by the ACF [assistant conservator of forest] after The Daily Star report was published recently."
Chief Conservator of Forest Amir Hossain Chowdhury said they have heard about the tree felling in Sangu reserve forest and "We have formed a three-member probe committee to investigate the matter. We will take action after getting the report."
Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (BELA) served a legal notice to the secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and also to the secretary of the Ministry of CHT Affairs in this regard.
Last month, Parbatya Chattogram Forest and Land Rights Protection Movement demanded the authorities protect Sangu-Matamuhuri sanctuary and the Sangu reserve forest from destruction and take action against those responsible.
Declared protected in 1880, it is known as the only virgin forest in the country. The forest is home to 36 species of mammals, 48 species of reptiles, 19 species of amphibians, and 11 species of rare birds, it also said in its statement.
Botanist Farid Uddin Ahmed, executive director of Aranyak Foundation, said there are many rare species of old trees in the forest.
The most important tree species found in Sangu forest include Gamar, Garjan, Chapalish, Toon, Goda, Gutgutya, Champa, Civit, and Shimul.
Wildlife expert Dr Reza Khan, currently working with the Dubai zoo, said he visited Sangu reserve forest last year and he himself saw logging there.
"Actually, all the government officials posted in Bandarban know about the logging. It is not possible for anybody to continue these practices without the knowledge of law enforcers or the administration and forest officials," he said.
"Unless the government forms a separate wildlife department, it will not be possible to conserve the natural forest. Because the Forest Department does not care about the habitat of wildlife and natural forest."
OTHER BANDARBAN RESERVE FORESTS IN DANGER
The district has three main reserve forests -- Matamuhuri in Alikadom, Bamu Bilchhari in Lama, and Sangu in Thanchi upazila.
The total area of Matamuhuri and Bamu reserve forests combined is 1,04,881.42 acres.
At many places, these forests have become barren due to mindless logging and felling of trees, said two top forest officials of Bandarban, seeking anonymity.
Lumberjacks have already destroyed two-thirds of Matamuhuri and Bamu reserve forests mostly by the unabated felling of valuable mother trees, said an official of Lama Forest Division.
"It is really tough to protect the 1,04,881 acre-area of Matamuhuri and Bamu reserve with only 14 staff," said SM Kaiser, divisional forest officer of Lama.
"We will plant various rare seeds, which are currently non-existent in a 600 hectare-area of Matamuhuri reserve under a project 'Strengthening Inclusive Development in CHT'," added DFO Kaiser.