Since the past few weeks, Bangladesh is experiencing an overwhelming row of news on wildlife seizures, each more unique than the other. We have seen law enforcement agencies rescuing wildlife from some of the most unimaginable places.
On a couple of occasions, gibbons, lorises and monkeys popped out of intercity air-conditioned buses that were destined to be smuggled out. One gigantic Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle, a globally endangered species, was en route to Dhaka on the roof of another intercity bus. The 22-kg strong specimen, trapped and packed alive to be slaughtered as prized bushmeat, was later rescued and released.
This week, in another separate but eerily similar event, about a hundred specimens of another smaller yet threatened freshwater turtle species were rescued. As the latest development of the matter, on two different occasions that were spaced only by a day, 27 specimens of two large African predatory birds, the Pharaoh eagle-owl and the African black eagle, were confiscated from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport for being imported from Africa.
Wildlife trades in Bangladesh have always been a concern to me. I know of stories, read reports at the interval, and there have been some first-hand experiences. But the bouts of recent events have somewhat crossed the tipping point. So, where does Bangladesh stand in the combat against illicit wildlife crimes? We share a border with Myanmar, one of the countries that form the golden triangle of wildlife trade. Then, there is Vietnam, known for its notorious and ever-burgeoning wildlife markets. Are we strategically tackling the illegal wildlife trade? Do we have an all-embracing plan at all?
A Focus Country for two consecutive years
According to the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Report published by the United States, made in consultation with the US Departments of the Interior and Commerce, and with USAID, Bangladesh is one of the 28 countries that are considered ''a major source of wildlife trafficking products or their derivatives, a major transit point of wildlife trafficking products or their derivatives, or a major consumer of wildlife trafficking products.'' The list of countries in the two editions (2020 and 2021) of the END Wildlife Trafficking Report remains the same. For all three designations, Bangladesh can provide a seemingly unending list of evidence.
The gibbons and lorises rescued this month were sourced from south-eastern hill forests. ''City people often offer a handsome amount of money to indigenous tribes for collecting gibbons,'' Hassan Al-Razi, a primate conservationist in Bangladesh, shared his experience from the Hill Tracts when asked about the confiscation. ''A chain surely exists there,'' he said.
In March this year, two Asiatic black bear cubs were seized in West Bengal, India. Their roots were traced down to the Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, a Times of India report mentioned. The practice is not limited to animals. In 2017, a fishkeeper from Assam, India, told me about an existing smuggling racket that targets the barca snakeheads, an extremely rare freshwater fish in Bangladesh but prized around the globe. Scientists are yet to pinpoint the population but traffickers are exploiting the stock well!
Bangladesh is often a transit between wildlife trade routes. Exotic wildlife endemic to South America and Africa ranging from the lamas, pudu, and capuchin monkey to the lion, leopard, and zebra are both literally and figuratively pouring in at all trans-border ports, often subject to falsified paperwork by traders and sketchy knowledge of port authorities.
A customs officer, a bird-watcher and a close friend of mine, once shared some lists of consignments containing bewildering names of animals and birds of all sizes and shapes. Just to name a few, there were ostriches, emus, mandarin ducks, several Antillean parrots, and even cranes. Some of them were approved by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), a regulatory body to monitor legal wildlife trades. However, many species such as the Abyssinian ground hornbill — 10 of them were 'legally' brought in along with the African black eagles that had no paperwork — are threatened with extinction but not included in CITES. So, loopholes exist.
There is also a handsome consumer market for wildlife in Bangladesh. A study by a group of researchers published this month in the journal 'Oryx' records ''928 wildlife or wildlife derivations from 13 markets.'' The birds, many common in Bangladesh, are the most sought-after items and are largely sold as pets, the study says. The turtle trade is another sector fueled by the demand for bushmeat. No month comes without confiscation news involving freshwater turtles.
Valiant efforts, too little but not too late
Bangladesh Forest Department has stepped up putting up gallant efforts to stem the tides of wildlife trades. In recent years, the department has rescued native wildlife and confiscated exotic consignments, about tens of thousands of specimens of different species. Even a hotline number has been put up to report wildlife crimes. However, these drives are often focused at terminal ends. While retail markets require continuous monitoring, things need to be scaled up. The team of the Bangladesh Forest Department tasked with monitoring — called the Wildlife Crime Control Unit — is severely undermanned and often underequipped. Nigar Sultana, a wildlife inspector of the department who is conducting an MPhil research on wildlife crimes and led the phenomenal drives at the airport, pointed out a flaw already reported in the news, ''We are assigned to monitor consignments at the airports but there is no workstation there for us.''
The department is also implementing technology to thwart wildlife-related crimes. SMART, a module involving Geographic Information System technology, and CyberTracker, a mobile application, are now being used in the Sundarbans, the forest that contains only source population of tigers in the country, and a few of the Hill Tracts forest to monitor trade, poaching, and trafficking of wildlife. The initiative has seen some initial success; however, it needs to be spread to every corner for the country which is a mega-diverse land and where the demand for wildlife is high.
In addition, the monitoring of markets needs to be strengthened to sort out species that are heavily traded and/or threatened with extinction. The scoping study on wildlife trade by the Wildlife Conservation Society Bangladesh and the 'Oryx' study only showed the tip of the iceberg. We need to delve deeper, regularly. Lack of evidence tends to divert good intentions.
Perhaps most importantly, to stave off the local demand for wildlife, small menageries, mostly private-owned and some by a medley of government organisations, need to be put to a complete halt. For such tendencies, bears, a large carnivore of the Hill Tracts, bear the heavy brunt. In Rangamati, bears are put up on display in less than 12 feet of iron cages, all extracted from the wilderness.
News about a sun bear, the rarest of two bear species and also extracted from the Hill Tracts, being kept in the menagerie by a Jessore-Jhenaidah Highway was relayed to me. When I passed it on to the authorities, to my astonishment, the response was slack, as the collection was being maintained by the armed forces. Bears are a common display animal in more than a dozen such collections that are mostly clustered near the evergreen forests of eastern Bangladesh. In stark contrast, bears, at the same time, are protected by the existing laws. Conflicting practices like this often rule out the good impact and fuel the demand in wildlife trade.
We also need to track down the buyers and the keepers of exotic pets. Sharks, rays, and sea turtles are protected by law. But, in Cox's Bazar, a very poorly maintained public aquarium puts them on show, all harvested from the Bay of Bengal. As Facebook and YouTube have evolved as marketplaces, wildlife trade in Bangladesh, like many other places, is skyrocketing. We need to trace the buyers like the ones who ordered the shipment of the eagle-owls, the black eagles, and the ground hornbills. A couple of months back, a leopard cat kitten, a small forest cat, was rescued from a young keeper hailing from an influential family and currently going through a re-wilding process in Moulvibazar.
When we put all these facts and findings on an evidence board, the seemingly unconnected events will surely offer a grim, hideous pattern of illegal wildlife trade scenario in Bangladesh. After all, we are fighting criminal activities. Like in any other combat, we need to be perceptive and take every factor into account. There is no room for laxity.