5:01 pm - Sunday December 3, 5358

Scientists uncover wild surprises in tribal Bangladesh

The locals said there were tigers in the forest. They also said there were sun bear, gaur, dhole and clouded leopard. Few took note, but it turned out, not surprisingly, that locals were right. Conservationists surveying the super-remote, little-known Chittagong Hills Tract region of Bangladesh have taken the country’s first ever photos of sun bear and gaur. And last month they discovered a 13-centimetre pugmark (or pawprint) of a feline, which experts believe is a tiger.

“Despite the tremendous challenges [facing] the natural heritage of Bangladesh – all hope is not lost yet,” said Shahriar Caesar Rahman, the co-founder of the new group, Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA). Rahman and his group, which organized the wildlife survey that employed camera traps, have been working in the Chittagong Hills Tract region for five years by partnering with the local tribes and securing support from Bangladesh’s forest department.

The Chittagong Hills Tract is a massive area of Bangladesh – 10% of the country and nearly the size of Northern Ireland – but few outsiders have ever heard of it. The hilly, forested landscape 2045is inhabited by 11 different ethnic groups who practise traditional slash-and-burn agricultural combined with hunting and gathering, living largely as they have done for generations.

“[They] practise the old way of life with little to no modern facilities of education and healthcare,” explained Rahman, who noted their culture was quite different from other parts of Bangladesh. Chittagong Hills Tract is also, arguably, the wildest part of Bangladesh.

“[it] falls within the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot and harbours many globally threatened species, including more cat species than anywhere else in the world,” said Rahman. “To date, little work has been done on the biodiversity of this region, mainly due to remoteness and political instability of the area.”

Chittagong was the site of a 20-year-conflict between tribal groups and the government due to attempts to settle Bengali people in the area. A peace treaty was eventually signed in 1997, though remains controversial today.

Istiak Sobhan, a co-founder of CCA and consultant with the World Bank, said that the decades of political unrest “was probably a blessing in disguise” for wildlife as it unintentionally safeguarded the region’s biodiversity.

“We need to protect these areas at any cost,” Sobhan added.

Doing so means working with multiple ethnic groups as partners, according to Rahman, who has built up a small army of what he terms “parabiologists”.

“We gave them a few camera traps and trained them how to set up those cameras. Now, they are monitoring the mammals using camera traps. It’s a perfect fusion of modern science and traditional ecological knowledge.”

Tiger, tiger

In mid-February, Rahman and his team discovered the pugmark they had dreamed of. They sent photos of the print to an associate in the US: Hasan Rahman, a student at the University of Delaware, who studies wild cats in Bangladesh and helped CCA secure camera traps.

Hasan Rahman said he was “sceptical” at first about tigers in the region until he saw the huge pugmark. The photos convinced him enough to forward them on to one of the world’s foremost tiger experts.

“Based on the photos and measurement, I believe it was a tiger track,” said John Goodrich, the Senior Tiger Program Director for Panthera, a global organisation devoted to wild cats.

Although Goodrich qualified the statement by saying he couldn’t “be 100% sure”, he called the discovery “significant” given that it could represent a totally unknown population of tigers in Bangladesh.

Rahman and his team have since set up camera traps where they discovered the pugmark in hopes to prove that tigers roam the Chittagong Hills Tract – just as locals said. But even if they succeed in capturing a living tiger on camera, questions would still remain.

“Dispersing tigers can easily cover hundreds of kilometers, so this could be just a wandering individual that has come from a ‘nearby’ population in India or Myanmar,” explained Goodrich.

To find out if there is an actual Chittagong Hills Tract population, conservationists would need to conduct a thorough tiger survey with camera traps and genetic technology.

“There was never been any proper survey of tigers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts,” said tiger expert and professor at Jahangirnagar University, Monirul H Khan, “but based on my conversations with the local hill tribes and considering the prey densities and forest condition I assume there might be around 15 tigers in the region.”

While 15 tigers may not sound like much, there are only an estimated 2,500 mature tigers left in the wild – and many populations continue to fall. So, even the discovery of a small population of tigers would be a major boon for conservation both in Bangladesh and globally.

Until now, scientists assumed just one tiger population was left in Bangladesh in the Sundarbans, the world’s biggest mangrove forest. The most recent survey estimated just 100 tigers there with these are threatened by overpopulation, forest fragmentation and a controversial plan to build two coal plants on the edge of the Sundarbans.

And way more than tigers …

But tigers aren’t the only big discovery by the CCA in the Chittagong Hill Tract. Using camera traps, Rahman and his group have been able to prove that gaur are not extinct in Bangladesh. Gaur are the world’s largest bovine and are categorised as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

The team also took the first photos of sun bear and marbled cat in the country. Rahman said that scientists currently believe sun bears are only “vagrants” in Bangladesh, but the team got so many photos of the world’s smallest bear (also considered vulnerable) that they believe this is a self-sustaining population. Marbled cats were believed to be in Bangladesh, but this is the first hard evidence. The CCA also proved the presence of clouded leopards in the country, which was “uncertain” according to the IUCN.

Moreover, the team captured photos of leopards, Himalayan serow (a strange antelope-like mammal), Asiatic golden cat, sambar deer, barking deer, leopard cat and dholes – wild Asian dogs with a fierce reputation – which are believed to be vanishing from Bangladesh as well as much of south-east Asia.

More surprises are likely in the future. Last year, locals in Chittagong Hills Tract led Rahman to a new population of Arakan forest turtles. Once thought extinct, the critically endangered species was assumed only to survive in neighbouring Myanmar.

“Until very recently it was considered one of the rarest turtle species in the world …our discovery of this species in Bangladesh has opened new possibilities for its long-term conservation from a global perspective,” Rahman told Mongabay last February.

The discovery of so many endangered species in the Chittagong Hills Tract presents a remarkable conservation opportunity for Bangladesh, according to experts. But threats are mounting. Poachers are crossing over from Myanmar to strip the forest of its wildlife. And, according to Rahman, traditional shifting agriculture, that has occurred alongside wildlife for millennia, is no longer sustainable because of population growth in the region.

“We must focus on improving the livelihood of the people to ensure the protection of the wildlife and their habitat. We need to be creative and find ways to reduce their dependency on the forest and subsistence hunting. We need to empower the local communities.”

Tiger expert, Monirul, said more was needed from the Bangladeshi government.

“Actual protection on the ground is very poor and poaching of wildlife and habitat destruction are common.”

A sambar deer on camera trap – an important prey species for tiger.

When it comes to tigers, Monirul suggested the whole region should be deemed a “tiger restoration landscape” with big cat corridors between the Chittagong Hills Tract and neighbouring India and Myanmar. This could go a long way toward fulfilling Bangladesh’s pledge to support the Global Tiger Initiative, which has promised to double the world’s tiger numbers by 2020.

“Naturally, one will think that there is no room for wildlife and wild places in Bangladesh,” said Rahman, pointing to the country’s infamous population density – more than 150 million people squeezed into an area little bigger than England. “But it’s amazing that we still have some incredible biodiversity which is worth saving.”

Courtesy: The Guardian