During my childhood, in the late 1950s, I spent a jovial life in a remote (in those days) village named Borobari, Ballia in Dhamrai upazila in the Dhaka district, some 60 km north-west of Dhaka city. Our only suitable communication link with the capital was a motor launch that was operational from June-July to October, when the nearby Bangshi River became navigable for launches and smaller cargo ships. The rest of the time, we had passenger boats called gohnar nouka that would take us to Khushuria or Kalampur. From there, you would have to walk to Dhamrai to avail a small launch bound for Dhaka via Savar, Kornopara Khal, heading to Turag in Mirpur and finally moving on to Sadarghat. We had only kerosene-lit hurricane lanterns at the time, or kupi bati or cup lamps, as they were called. Palanquins, horse-driven carts and bullock carts were the other modes of transport. Few used bicycles at the time.
When we would cross the many rivers during these journeys— our own Bangshi River, the river by Saturia Bazar, the Dhaleswari River near Gorpara or Jaigir and Tara Ghat—using wooden boats operated by a single boatman, we would often enjoy the sight of the Shisu, Shushuk or River Dolphin in every river, sometimes even a few metres from us.
The walk from Ballia to Manikganj at the time was also quite comfortable because all the villages had age-old trees—especially fig, banyan, tamarind, silk cotton, mango and kalo jaam trees—as well as bamboo clumps, jute and paddy fields. Along the bridle paths, horse-driven cart tracks and aisles of the fields we passed on those journeys, I would often see jackals, mongooses and sometimes bagdash or civets. There was, possibly, not a single moment that passed when I did not see or hear flocks of birds, or hear the melodies of koels, cuckoos, bulbuls, mynas, shrikes, drongos, leafbirds and others.
There were sal forests around Dhaka, Mymensingh and North Bengal, and the greater Chittagong and Sylhet divisions also still had some naturally growing patches of forests holding quality wildlife.
However, exponential and unchecked human population growth always negates the principles of wildlife conservation. This is a picture that has been painted everywhere in the world for many centuries, especially after the Industrial Revolution. Bangladesh is no exception. It is a nascent country—just half a century old, but its wildlife footprints are as ancient as in other parts of the subcontinent. The dynasties before the Mughals also saw the leasing of the natural wealth of land and animals for human utilisation, but as the human population was proportionately small then, this did not really lead to the massive destruction of forests and wildlife wealth.
The land area under Bangladesh has witnessed two major geopolitical changes, first in 1947 and again in 1971. Both have led to the mass movement of people and the loss of wildlife wealth. When Bangladesh became an independent country in December 1971, it had already lost its megafauna, such as three species of rhinos, buffaloes, gaur, banteng, swamp deer, nilgai, wolves, possibly cheetahs, almost all three species of bears, two species of peafowl and the notable mugger/marsh crocodile. By this time, most of the surviving wildlife—such as the gigantic Bryde's whales, Asian elephants, Bengal tigers, leopards, dolphins, clouded leopards, binturong, hornbills, gharial and saltwater crocodiles—were already dwindling. These species might disappear from our territory at any moment, in 20 or 50 years.
This year's World Wildlife Day will be celebrated under the theme "Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet", as a way to highlight the central role of forests, forest species and ecosystems in sustaining the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people globally, and particularly of Indigenous and local communities with historic ties to forested and forest-adjacent areas.
Bangladesh does not have virgin forest anywhere in the country—rulers and subsequent governments have leased out forest lands for extracting timber and wildlife from as early as the 1600s. In the forests that were not under any direct control of the ruling powers, the Indigenous populations have cleared large areas in the name of slash-and-burn agriculture, and animals have been hunted as well.
The only exception is the Sundarbans, which has never seen a permanent settlement of people inside it. However, rulers from the 1600s and finally the British after the mid-1700s started the wholesale removal of trees from the Sundarbans and other forests in mainland areas around Dhaka-Mymensingh, Sylhet and Chittagong divisions. The path of forest and wildlife extraction shown by the British was soon followed by Pakistan and Bangladesh almost up to the 1990s.
So, this year's World Wildlife Day theme applies very loosely to Bangladesh simply because modern forest-inhabiting people—such as the Garo and Hajong in sal forests, Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Lushai, Pankho, Bawm, Mro, Khyang, Khumi and Chak in Chittagong and Khasia tribes in Sylhet—cannot survive on the produce obtained from the forests. They are part forest dweller and part living with the mainstream populations of the country because they cannot get sufficient livelihoods from the forest to support themselves.
The mainland populations and governments have mismanaged the forestry sector, and the overall environment of the country in water, agricultural and industrial sectors. Also, the subsequent governments after 1971 have had no constructive or sustainable plan to save government-owned forests, privately-managed forests and the forests that are inhabited by Indigenous populations. There were also no plans regarding village groves, rivers, wetlands and coastal areas, and on tackling excessive pollution. All of these have been compounded with massive changes in world weather patterns and the effects of global warming. The ultimate result is the massive destruction of forests with wildlife, the silting up of rivers, the drying up of wetlands, and polluted water and air. These have had devastating effects on hill/Indigenous peoples and the overall environment of the country.
To manage whatever resources are left in the denuded and human-altered forests, the scanty wildlife populations in disjunct natural and man-made habitats could be partly saved through the creation of an independent Wildlife Department. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change should also be renamed to the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife, Forest and Climate Change to incorporate the new department and give it more prominence than what it enjoys under the current Forest Department—as a subordinate unit with stop-gap arrangements for employees without clear policies of hierarchical succession.
This Wildlife Department will need to have policies to manage all wildlife wealth—plants, animals, soil, water and air, from the village level to the highest mountain in the country, from the tiniest wetland to all marine resources. In areas with Indigenous populations, the Indigenous people need to be included in a partnership in all field-level activities and management when it comes to village forestry. It will partly be the job of the villagers to provide labour and services at the grassroots level at cost, whereas other, more qualified people will also need to be recruited through government procedural channels.
This new department should have recruitment policies similar to other government departments, where a junior wildlife officer/warden would eventually climb the ranks to become Chief Wildlife Officer/Warden and finally have a rank similar to the current Chief Conservator, Forests, before retirement.
The government must hand over all lands that have so far been declared as wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, Ramsar sites, ecotourist spots, marine parks, game reserves and other reserves or parks, zoological gardens, ecologically critical areas, migratory routes of birds and marine animals, etc, to the Wildlife Department. Even wildlife occurring in private lands, crop or agricultural fields, or on specific trees, waterbodies, etc, will come under the management of this department through revamping and modifying the existing wildlife acts and rules.
This department will manage all treaties related to wildlife, zoological gardens and biodiversity under the United Nations and regional agreements with various governmental blocs, donors, and international and national NGOs. It will be empowered not to cut a single naturally growing tree in any land it owns, unless there is an extreme necessity to have access to this area for better management. In such cases, the department, to supplement the loss of such trees, should plant double the number of trees in suitable areas before the old trees are removed. We need to urgently design and implement a far-reaching plan to save our wildlife and forest ecosystems through a separate department that is specifically designated for this purpose before it is too late.
Dr Reza Khan is a nature-lover and ex-head of Dubai Zoo.