It was 2018 when I first planned and carried out a camera-trapping survey on my own. Camera-traps, a special type of camera that can detect motion and heat, and get activated based on the changes in its surroundings, have revolutionised the study of wildlife.
We can deploy camera-traps on forest trails and we can set them up high on a canopy. With camera-traps, we can pry into the secret lives of tigers and leopards, count the cliff-hanging serows and mountain goats, discover animals such as the saola that come into the imagination of none, and pick trails of notorious, gun-wielding poachers.
Camera-traps let us know the most accurate number of the Sundarbans tigers. This weather-sealed, rugged, and expandable technological marvel is the game-changer in conservation. It was no wonder that I, being a graduate in zoology, was drawn to camera-traps – much like a moth to a flame.
However, I had no prior training. My graduate courses did not have anything on camera-traps. Up until 2018, my experience with camera-traps was limited to touching some old models used by senior colleagues.
To overcome this drawback, I borrowed 10 camera-traps from a conservation NGO. To get some hands-on experience, I chose my supervisor's workstation.
I programmed a unit and used some cookies as bait. The rats sharing the room had not disappointed me. So, you may say that it was the way of the rats I had followed, pestering but persevering.
I then looked for a forest that would be logistically feasible to carry out a survey as well as potentially host threatened mammals. The forest reserves of northeastern Bangladesh sounded like some ideal study sites.
I secured some small grants from the university that ensured support throughout the winter of 2018. However, the expert opinions walled up another hurdle. "You do not even find barking deer in these reserves," an expert on the Sundarbans tiger smirked at my perspective. "It would be a waste of time," I was told.
The mixed evergreen responded to my stakes. The small survey in a 2.5 square kilometre national park in northeastern Bangladesh was astoundingly rewarding.
Running for nearly 600 camera trap nights, the survey yielded 17 different mammals, including 10 carnivores. The study showed that the Asiatic wild dog – a globally endangered apex predator with a wild population of only 2,215 known mature individuals – uses the landscape frequently.
The finding was a milestone, a nudge to the perspective that traditionally looks down upon the forest reserves of Habiganj and Moulvibazar – a change to this precarious situation sounded imminent and befitting.
But, why do these forest reserves that singularly barely reach the 100 square kilometre mark need our help? Are they conservation worthy?
The geo-topographical features of Habiganj and Moulvibazar will surprise anyone. The forest reserves in these two districts share porous borders with Tripura and southern Assam, India.
These habitats are the northern fringes of the Tripura Hills and are known for 127 different land-dwelling mammals. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Bangladesh boasts nearly half of the entire carnivore diversity of the Indian subcontinent.
All of these 27 species reportedly live in these reserves. In the 1990s, there were even records of tigers. Close to human settlement, these reserves are easy to manage and ideal candidates for our hill forest biodiversity conservation plans.
So, is there any conservation and research investment into these forest reserves? To date, the answer sticks to zero.
Bangladesh's forests are full of surprises. How carnivores are faring in this challenging landscape that is fragmented and totalling only 500 square kilometres has been an enigma to biologists.
After the reappearance of the Indian grey wolf in Bangladesh after 70 years, which I investigated in 2019, this question took a paradoxical turn.
While the country's carnivores seem to appear frequently in stories told among colleagues, they remain more elusive in the wild – difficult to understand and never surveyed.
In this regard, Bangladesh holds some records not to be proud of. It is the only bear, clouded leopard, and leopard range country that comes with the least amount of research done on these animals that are no less magnificent than tigers.
The wildlife of eastern Bangladesh are hammered hard. Retaliatory killings, deforestation and 'patch effects' – where habitats are fragmented into isolated areas, or 'patches' that restrict species dispersal
from foraging and/or breeding, the list is endless.
Despite this, much of the wildlife seems to be surviving in these reserves with unbelievable resilience. For example, this year, some colleagues of mine discovered a new species of frog in a forest of Moulvibazar. I wonder what else is residing there? What is living in the streams of these riparian, rain-fed semi-evergreens?
My work eventually led to a Future Conservationist Award from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP). The timing of this support was opportune.
In August 2020, I received feedback on a manuscript reviewing research on the mammalian carnivores of Bangladesh. One reviewer, who is from Bangladesh and knows of me and my mission well had forwarded the manuscript to one of his students to do the review for him, landed an unexpected blow while observing, "Rare carnivores are rarely a subject of research, usually studied within the large-scale landscape-level projects."
I do not want to get into research ethics but it is true that back then comments like this instilled an imposter syndrome in me.
The leadership programme kept my morale unflinching. Support from my peers gave me the confidence to successfully defend the manuscript.
The work is now published and I am continuing my research in three of the six northeastern forest reserves of Bangladesh. While running systematic camera-trap surveys here, I try to shine a spotlight on the lesser-known carnivores using some unique approaches.
It has been four years since I started camera-trapping. The survey effort stands for 5,000 camera trap nights, making it one of the longest-running, if not the longest, camera-trapping surveys being conducted in eastern Bangladesh.
Now, we know of the jewels that call the forest reserves of northeastern Bangladesh home. We know that the small-clawed otters live in each mixed-evergreen forest reserve of the Sylhet division.
The population of otters was previously unknown to the world. Before this discovery, we considered only the Sundarbans, a forest that is more than 1,000 km away from Sylhet, for these otters.
We also know that the northeastern forest hosts golden cats, a medium-sized feline that can don six different coat patterns; that serows, an ancient hooved mammal, still clamber up and down its hidden cliffs; that unique, queer mammals like hog badgers and ferret badgers still skulk through its streams; that bears still love to munch on the berries and beehives that grow there; and that leopards and clouded leopards might visit our camera-traps on any day of the survey.
All of the findings have turned out to be the first time discoveries for these forests. It is 2022. What else is there to surprise us? When do we initiate the conservation work? Is there enough time?
Eastern Bangladesh is situated in a crucial position. In Tripura, it has been decades since the last mammal survey was done. Together with the forests of Tripura, eastern Bangladesh belongs to an ecologically uncharted territory in terms of carnivore research.
As we almost proverbially deem them 'unworthy', non-scientific and harmful development programmes like the zoo-style recreational safari park, large-scale bamboo harvest practices, etc pave their way through to hammer the last bolts while gun-wielding poachers and snares made of break-wires are wiping out every creature.
My ultimate goal is to give these uncharted northeastern forest reserves the conservation attention that they deserve. In the coming years, I dream of a community of carnivore ecologists emerging from Bangladesh.
For now, I am happily coordinating a camera-trapping hands-on session recently included in the curriculum. I hope that every form of wildlife will be treated with equal importance and I wish for more internationally recognised protected areas in eastern Bangladesh as, currently, only 9.2 percent of 5,500 square kilometre is under such protection.
I hope that every winter, a hoard of researchers will rush to do camera-trapping in different forests. We are giving our best to save the last 200 white-rumped vultures of Bangladesh.
Can we not be committed enough to save the last 30–50 bears or serows or 200 otters of eastern Bangladesh?
Finally, tell me, who wants a forest full of only tigers? Will conserving tigers secure our overall goal of saving wildlife? If we do not learn to love the other iconic wildlife equally, will we be able to love tigers properly? Beauty, indeed, lies in the diversity of these fantastic beasts.