Volume 4 Issue 18| March 19, 2011|


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Journey Through Bangladesh

Scare of a forest fire

Zahidul Naim Zakaria

The smell was unquestionable. Somewhere very close by, something was burning. “Come quick!” screamed Pankaj, one of our Forest Guards, who was leading us through a charted trail through the Sundarban Forest (Jamtola) towards Kotka beach. I was attending a research workshop on Environment and Natural Resource Economics on a cruise boat. It was a five-day trip, and one day was spent in sightseeing keeping the rest four for the workshop.

As we ran towards Pankaj, he pointed to fumes rising from dead leaves on the forest floor. Although there was no flame, the leaves were definitely burning. You could see red burning edges of leaves and barks turning to charcoal. The fear of a forest fire struck us immediately, and we rushed to handle the situation the best we could. We emptied our water bottles and jumped on the fumes to extinguish the flameless fire underneath. That didn't help much until we started to pour sand over the fumes. Women used their ornas and men used their t-shirts to accumulate sand and then poured it over the fumes whilst a few others continued to step down on it repeatedly. We were lucky since we got there before the burning spread beyond control, and, according to our Forest Guards Pankaj Kumar Haldar and Shyama Podo Das, we kept a great disaster from taking full form. Potentially, the fire could spread and burn a few hundred trees, completely ruining a locality habituated by a few dozen spotted deer, at least six species of birds, and hundreds of butterflies, insects, and perhaps also a small pack of Royal Bengal Tigers (we found fresh paw prints nearby soon after!).

What started the fire was most likely a cigarette butt that had been thrown into the wilderness. We reckoned that that it was most likely someone in a callous group of people who had walked past us a while back. This goes to show not only how irresponsible the common Bangladeshi tourist is, but also his lack of awareness regarding how his actions can impact the environment. On our way in, we had also seen how the same group violated the Forest Department's regulations and entered a narrow canal with their ship. Ships are supposed to be anchored outside the canal and tourists are supposed to enter the canal with smaller boats so that the disturbance caused to wildlife is minimal. To my utter dismay, in the very same week only 3 days later, I read in the newspaper that a fire broke out at Chandpai Range of Sundarban at Napitkhali (East Sundarban) on 8 March 2011. The same area suffered damage to different trees on over three acres of land of the forest on multiple occasions, on 28 February 2011 and 21 March 2010. It has been alleged that the fire at Chanpai originated from the burning ends of cigarettes smoked by tree fellers. According to reports, since 2001, eleven fires have broken out at various parts of East Sundarban, including Chandpai and Sharankhola ranges.

Tourists have a responsibility to at least attempt to minimize the effects of their visit on the tourist spot, or else they threaten the very natural resource that they gain benefit from. The night before, as Dr. Enamul Haque, a resource person at the workshop, was explaining to everyone why they should not speak much while in the forest and that they should not leave things like wrappers and water bottles behind, tourists at another boat not too far away were enjoying music on a loud speaker and screaming jubilantly. A few hours later, a few of them even tried screaming at the top of their lungs to see how the echo sounds like! Here these people were, aliens in the territory of wild birds and animals, going on about their activities as they pleased without giving so much as a thought to how they were affecting their hosts.

Alan Rabinowitz learnt the importance of listening to all species, even those who cannot speak and voice their rights. He did so because as a child, he had an immense handicap he could not speak. He felt the animal's plight very personally, as he faced the same disadvantage. He became interested in conservation because of his pet turtle and chameleon, as he states, "They weren't broken, but people mistreated them because they can't communicate." He eventually learnt to speak and used his voice to speak for animals. He went on to become a wildlife biologist and a leading Jaguar expert who, in the 1980s, convinced the American Congress to set up the first Jaguar reserve in the world in Belize. That was decades ago. Are we, Bangladeshis, still going to ignore those who cannot voice their rights? At this day and age, we can no longer ignore the fact that harming the environment and wildlife is not only immoral, but also harms the overall ecology which harms the human civilization in return. There exists a tremendous need to build awareness so that tourism in Bangladesh can flourish without harming natural habitats that attracts tourists out of their homes and into the wilderness. Or else we may not be able to protect the treasure trove we call Sundarban.


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