Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary: UP chairman’s men plundering it for yrs
For years, under the nose of the Forest Department and the local administration, a syndicate led by a local union parishad chairman has been razing hillocks and tearing down trees at Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary in Chattogram's Lohagara upazila.
The country's first ever wildlife sanctuary, Chunati was widely lauded for its conservation efforts. Now a temporary road has been cut through the forest in Sufinagar area of Chunati union to transport the logs and sand from the hilly areas of the forest cover.
Visiting the area on December 17, this correspondent spotted workers dredging hillocks. A large part of a hillock was totally destroyed, resembling a dead patch of land.
Md Manik, a labourer, was shoveling sand into a truck in Sufinagar, adjacent to Chattogram-Cox's Bazar highway.
"This sand belongs to Md Kamruddin, grandchild of Chunati Union Parishad Chairman Joynul Abedin Jonu.The sand is being collected by cutting hillocks from the sanctuary," he told The Daily Star.
Md Junayed, driver of the truck carrying the sand, however, provided a false narrative at first. He claimed the sand was collected from Chakaria, a neighbouring upazila. After some pressing questions, he quickly admitted that the mud and sand was collected by razing hillocks at the Chunati sanctuary.
The sanctuary, overseen by Chattogram Divisional Forest Office (Wildlife and Nature Conservation), was established in 1986. It is a major corridor for the movement of Asian elephants -- categorised as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The government designates the sanctuary for the protection of wildlife and natural resources.
A study in 2021 found that about 16 percent of the well stock of Chunati beat was degraded by illegal logging and encroachment of reserve forest area.
Further havoc is currently being wreaked in various parts of the sanctuary, including Adu Nagar and Sufinagar areas.
The UP chairman spearheading the operation of damaging the environment, is known as a "hill-grabber", said Anwar Kamal, president of Co-Management Committee, which coordinates volunteers with the help of the Forest Department to protect Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary.
"The UP chairman has deployed people to extract sand from the stream and by ripping apart hillocks. A few weeks ago, a worker died while cutting trees. Last year this time around, he used to fell trees on a regular basis to feed brick kilns," he said.
Sanjida Rahman, whose family has been involved in raising awareness for generations to conserve the forest, also confirmed that the local UP chairman has been tearing down trees in the forest without any interruption.
"Every day, dozens of trucks take away sand, earth and trees from various parts of the forest. Once celebrated for its conservation feat, the forest has now lost its grandeur due to mindless grabbing," she said.
Contacted, Chunati Union Parishad Chairman Joynul Abedin denied his involvement in razing hillocks.
"I didn't touch any forest there, nor did I raze any hillock. You can visit the spot to verify the allegations," he claimed over the phone.
When this correspondent provided evidence of speaking to locals, labourers and truck drivers who said that he was behind the razing, Joynul Abedin abruptly ended the call.
Kamruddin, grandchild of the chairman, denied the allegation as well, claiming they did not even enter the forest.
Mahmud Hossen, range officer of Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary, told The Daily Star that the area was barricaded with bamboo so that no truck could enter the forest. He also mentioned that they have planted saplings to stop environmental degradation.
"We have utilised our sources there in an effort to collect evidence for filing cases against the perpetrators," he said.
Asked about the identities of the perpetrators, Hossen said they heard the name of the local UP chairman as well as another group. "But we can't file a case without evidence."
Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary consists of 7763.4 acres of forest land and is divided into two ranges -- Chunati and Jaldi.
Compared to other Asian countries, Bangladesh has less designated forestry -- only 17 percent of its total area -- according to FAO. Various research studies have warned against continuous degradation of the hill forest of the Chunati beat.