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     Volume 8 Issue 65 | April 17, 2009 |

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Special Feature

Life in the Beautiful Jungle

Plagued with corruption yet brimming with life, the Sundarbans offers the visitors a glimpse into the life in the world's largest mangrove forest

Julfikar Ali Manik

Generally people become cautious while speaking on a critical issue when they come to know that a journalist is nearby. That is exactly what happened when I, along with a group of journalists went to the Sundarbans, the lone mangrove forest in the world. Some forest officials and lower level staff of the Sundarbans, which has been declared a world heritage site, narrated stories of neglect, which might bring disastrous consequences to the forest. They blamed everything on inadequate financial and logistic support, which has led to the failure to protect over six thousand square kilometres of the Sundarbans.

The pristine beauty of the Sundarbans has earned its position as a world heritage site.

At one point in the conversation, a forest official talked of his frustration openly to the journalists. Suddenly a man from behind loudly asked him not to blurt everything out, as journalists were present. But this did not deter the officer, who went on to say that the truth should come out, otherwise it would not be possible to protect and preserve the Sundarbans, which constitutes 45 per cent of the total forest area of Bangladesh.

"The remaining 55 per cent forest of the country is already about to be destroyed," he said. "Only the Sundarbans is still protected and preserved. If we cannot keep it intact, if we cannot maintain it properly the whole country would face grave danger especially at a time when the climate change issue has become a life and death issue for the people of this country."

The story of negligence, poor and improper attention, inadequate money allocation and logistics, corruption, and irregularities regarding our forest are nothing new. Year in and year out the plight of the forest has come to light, and whenever journalists visit the Sundarbans, they come across the same flurry of problems, which only shows that little or no improvement in the scenario.

Even the salt-water crocodile is at risk.

Many officials and lower level staff of the forest department in other areas say the same old stories. They have been employed to guard the forest and to monitor all irregularities. But the system is so fragile that anyone can steal trees from the Sundarbans and can make furniture for his home even before the forest officials get to know about the crime.

"Our system is so poor that we get information three days after the trees have been stolen and it takes a few more days to reach the spot because we have to arrange fuel for the boat to send forest guards," an official said.

When guards reach the spots they get only the leftover of the stolen trees, which they seize and then file cases, by that time it is impossible to find the people behind the crime. The system is farcical. One official who claimed to be an honest officer-- it is almost impossible to find any honest people in the forest department--also admitted the corruption of the forest officers and employees.

Osman Gani, ex-chief conservator of forest who has been convicted for corruption, has became a symbol of corruption in the forest department. An official I met in the Sundarbans said, "You will still find many Osman Ganis in the forest department, even more corrupt officials than him; arresting one Osman Gani would not bring any change in the forest department."

Despite incidents of corruption and neglect, the Sundarbans has remained a paradise on earth. Usually tourists come to the forest with a long nourished dream to see the Royal Bengal Tiger. But the reality is that even those who have made a dozen visits to the Sundarbans have failed to get a glimpse of the tiger. I, like many other visitors, wanted to call it a 'tiger trip' but the dream of seeing the tiger never materialised. But it was still worth the trouble to be able to witness the beauty of the forest and be mesmerised by some of the loveliest birds and butterflies.

Then there is Karamjal, where in the crocodile firm you will be able to touch baby crocodiles. Thousands of people visit Karamjal every year to get an overview of the entire Sundarbans and it has been designed in such a way that tourists can get an idea of the rich diversity of trees and animals of the forest.

Karamjal is at the centre of an effort to save the Sundarbans' wild life. Gradually the place has become a huge attraction for the tourists due to its crocodile breeding centre, the country's first ever such initiative which has been launched in 2000 to save the country's declining crocodile population.

Irrespective of age anyone can touch the crocodile, the baby ones of course. Md Abdur Rob, deputy ranger and a wild life expert at Karamjal briefs the tourists about the history of crocodiles in the country; he also brings in crocodiles for the visitors to have a look.

He holds a baby crocodile and offers the tourists to touch it, which they do after the initial hesitation. "Its really thrilling," a common expression of the visitors who become part of the Crocodile Show at Karmajal, and I recall instantly the excitement of watching the television show of Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin, who, because of his documentaries, earned the nickname "The Crocodile Hunter". Fatally pierced in the chest by a stingray, he died in 2006.

The dwindling crocodile population has prompted the setting up of Karamjal, the country’s first crocodile breeding centre.

Out of 26 species of crocodiles, only three varieties grace our waters. Of the three, fresh water or sweet water crocodiles have become extinct. Of the remaining two, one is known as Gharial and another one is called Marsh Crocodile or Indian Mugger. The Sundarbans has only the salt-water crocodile, and that too is facing extinction. Rob, who has studied crocodiles in Australia, told me that according to a census in 1985, Bangladesh had 150 to 200 salt-water crocodiles in the Sundarbans. Now the number has gone down to below a hundred, even though the waters of the forest can house seven thousand crocodiles.

There are reasons for the disappearance of fresh water and salt-water crocodiles: increase in human population; declining navigability of the rivers and wetlands; use of wetlands for cultivation; people killing crocodiles to get access to wetlands for cultivation.

The population of salt-water crocodiles has gradually declined due to many natural threats, of which the most recent one is global warming. Due to climate change, salinity has increased in the waters of the Sundarbans, which is the cause of the disappearance of many aquatic creatures. The crocodiles are no exception.

Many wild animals devour baby crocodiles when they travel to the surface of the water; fishermen also kill baby crocodiles when they get entangled in their net during the fishing. They believe that as the crocodiles eat fish, they, the fishermen, don't get enough fish in the net, so it's better to kill them whenever they get a hold of them.

Whatever the reasons are, the fact is the number of crocodiles in our waters is declining fast, which is the main reason behind the creation of the breeding centre. The project is also commercially viable as crocodile meat is popular in many countries and its skin is used for making expensive shoes and handbags.

Karamjal Crocodile Breeding Centre has not yet started to operate on a commercial basis. It has not even started releasing salt-water crocodiles in to their natural habitat so that their population is increased. "We will release crocodiles in the nature when the ones that we have will be at least two metres in length, and hopefully by one or two years we will be releasing them in to nature," said Rob.

The 127 salt-water crocodiles at Karamjal are mostly babies.

Rob has named some crocodiles; one is called Pilpil, but he is popularly known as 'submarine' as it always stays under the water. But the most famous two crocodiles in Karamjal are Romeo and Juliet.

When Rob calls Romeo and Juliet by their names, they rush to him from wherever they are. He feeds them if any tourist volunteers give a chicken for them. "Food is very important for the quick growth of crocodiles," Rob told me, adding that if we can provide enough food for crocodiles in the breeding centre we will be able to recover its lost population soon.

Romeo and Juliet are the only adult salt-water male and female crocodiles at Karamjal which is a pioneer in crocodile breeding in the country. They have initially produced 70 crocodiles from their eggs.

The dwindling crocodile population has prompted the setting up of Karamjal, the country’s first crocodile breeding centre.

"As these male and female crocodiles are the first pair from breeding in the country, so that I named them Romeo and Juliet, they are a symbol of love in the Sundarbans, they are a symbol of love in Bangladesh."--At this point, Rob, the crocodile master, gets uncharacteristically emotional.

The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.