It was 2015 when I first visited Panchagarh to photograph black francolin, one of the most elusive and Critically Endangered species of Bangladesh. This exceptionally beautiful, wildfowl lookalike bird is also the most difficult species to sight, let alone photograph.
But Panchagarh is the only place in Bangladesh where you have a limited shot at trying your luck. The onset of summer is the window. Search the maze of freshly sowed plots of maize and sugarcane. Fast reflex and steely nerves with a steady finger on the camera shutter are important prerequisites.
In 2015, me and my team of fellow photographers felt baffled and instead of photographing the bird, was content watching some black-and-golden flashes spurt from the most unsuspecting corners of the field.
In 2017, I again responded to the call of Panchagarh wildlife. This time the bird was a red-naped ibis. It was the second time the bird, a large heron in appearance with black plumage and unmistakably long down curved bill, had been spotted in Bangladesh. The news created a rush among nature-enthusiasts and bird watchers. This time luck, however, was on our side. We found 11 of them and managed to get some decent images. In the process, I also befriended some passionate citizen scientists and passionate photos.
In the following years, to look for exclusive, nowhere-to-find wildlife, I had been to Panchagarh a few more times. These experiences and events can be summed up in a single line: Panchagarh is different and dazzling, unique in geography and unparalleled in biodiversity.
Kissed by Kanchenjunga
In the autumn you can see the Himalayas in the northern skyline of Panchagarh. In the age of binge tourism, this is the first attribute anyone mentions about this northernmost land of Bangladesh. To be more precise, the Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak of the Himalaya Range,is what majestically hovers over Panchagarh. And, this happens every year from October to November.
Lying at the Himalayan foothill, Panchagarh has all the necessary ingredients to be exceptional in geography and nourish her biodiversity. Panchagarh is a plain land. But, there you can find a vast expanse of tea gardens, thanks to the elevation from sea-level.
This district also has stone-quarries. Credit goes to the rapid nature of the Mahananda and the Karatoya—the rivers that carry them all the way from the mountains. Rocks and boulders of mesmerising shape, size and colour are the other obvious features to notice while travelling to Panchagarh.
Black francolin and red-naped ibis are not the only avian attraction. Literally, the Panchagarh chapter of bird diversity of Bangladesh is beyond the scope of this feature. In winter, the land turns into an important passage route for vultures. Not one, but at least four different vulture species consider Panchagarh a resting ground. White-rumped vulture, cinereous vulture, the Eurasian and the Himalayan griffon are a sure sight if you spend winter days there.
The Indian grey hornbill is another exclusive bird of this district. This small hornbill is threatened with extinction; in fact, it had been considered extinct in Bangladesh before its rediscovery a couple of years back.
The riverbeds and shrunken lagoons of Panchagarh are a safe haven for wintering waders and ducks. Northern lapwing and not-so-common common merganser are undoubtedly the most beautiful rarities that visit this land on a yearly basis.
Imagine a snake that glows like a ripened orange. Yes, snakes of that colour exist in reality. Now, don't imagine that we are referring to some cutting-edge documentaries. We are speaking of a snake that lives in Panchagarh and is extremely rare in the whole world.
Red coral kukri snake is only known from about 20-22 specimens. Earlier in February, one live individual had been rescued from a fallow land being cleared up. Firoz Al Sabah, a nationally acclaimed photographer from Panchagarh, brought the news to the whole country. Shahidul, a Panchagarh local and snake aficionado led the rescue. Now, experts consider that there is a whole population of this super-rarity living in Panchagarh. Red coral kukri snake is a new addition to the snake diversity of Bangladesh.
The rivers that flow through the district not only bring high quality rocks and top-grade sand. The fast-flowing, oxygen rich water, the sand bed, and the crevices and crannies create a very delicate aquatic ecosystem. You might be surprised to know that Panchagarh waters are largely unexplored. Minnows, barils, barbs, catfishes and loaches living there are hardly found anywhere else. Many of them could be completely new to science.
A carnivore hub
After tigers, leopards are the only other big cat in Asia. Bangladesh is a range country for leopards. However, this graceful cat is considered Critically Endangered, meaning it is on the brink of extinction in the country. Panchagarh can be a pivotal ground in conserving the species.
Neighbouring districts of West Bengal, which are rich in tea gardens and forests, have a fair size of the leopard population. Many often venture into Bangladesh; only to get brutally killed most of the time. In the last six or seven years, at least two such retaliatory events occurred in Panchagarh.
Although there is no forest in the district, foray of leopards is important in two ways. Firstly, it indicates the sheer resilience of the cat. Leopard is the most adaptable of all cats. There is at least one population living beside the buzzing Mumbai metropolis. Secondly, if these stray leopards can be rescued unharmed and then released back in northeastern forests of Bangladesh, it will create a milestone in conservation success stories of the country.
Panchagarh does not welcome only the strays. The Bengal fox, a Vulnerable small carnivore of Bangladesh, has a good population in the country. This minute fox is common across the Indian subcontinent. However, much is not known about its lifestyle.
Much like ignored Bangladesh biodiversity, Panchagarh wildlife deserves a conservation spotlight. Almost a month back —I got a phone call from Firoz Al Sabah. Despite the biting cold, he was preparing a team to thwart some bushmeat hunting activity. The commitment and the passion that could be sensed in his voice was inspiring. A well-formed network among researchers and citizen scientists can light that flame of hope.