We had trouble believing our eyes when a giant owl flew out of the ravine and sat on a tree right in front of us. We were standing on top of a hill at Himchari hoping to see an odd nightjar fly out of its roost to start its night-shift.
The loudspeaker of a distant mosque was calling people to prayer as the sun was sinking into the Bay of Bengal behind us. The narrow road on the hill was empty except for a few children of the settlers. The tea shops below the hill were shut down as the tourist season was all but ending.
The enormous bird sitting in front of us was unquestionably a Spot-bellied Eagle Owl, one of the rarest birds of Bangladesh. It is an exceptional event to be face to face with this bird anywhere in the world; but in Bangladesh it is like hitting a jackpot.
For most of us that was an encounter of a lifetime. The exceptional owl lived only in our hill-forests; and there were not many of them left in the crumbling forests. We were ecstatic to find that glorious bird surviving in the degraded forest of Himchari.
The owl fed mostly on nocturnal mammals like jackal, deer, civet, porcupine, rabbit etc. and those animals are certainly not abundant in our forests. Scarcity of food may be the reason why we do not have more of this owl in our country.
Probably the entire Himchari National Park is able to support no more than a single pair of hardworking Spot-bellied Eagle Owl now; and the future is not any brighter.
In a way it is good for these king-size owls not to be numerous and widely known in Bangladesh. No fanciful myth about the owl's magical power of killing people or their cattle is in circulation mainly because the owl has always been rare and unknown.
The tiny scops-owl people often hear in the village groves at night has always been dreaded and persecuted because of a terrible legend about its bizarre ability to foretell peoples' death.
Being the top predators, owls and eagles are in trouble all over the world, especially so in Bangladesh. The animals they hunt for survival are vanishing fast. On every visit we see that more and more of our hill-forests are cleared and its wildlife replaced by domestic animals
In Sri Lanka, the eagle-owl is called Ulama and widely considered an evil spirit. Its loud call, somewhat like a boy screaming, is believed to be vicious enough to frighten and kill people in Sri Lanka. If the eagle-owls were as familiar in Bangladesh as in Sri Lanka it would surely have generated as much popular terror and, probably, greater persecution.
Of the many unusual aspects of this great owl the most awkward is its English name, the 'eagle-owl'. A bird is usually expected to be either an eagle or an owl, not both. In his famous compilation of poems titled Songs of Experience, the poet-engraver and a great contrarian of the nineteenth century William Blake wrote: with experience 'the Eagle is known from the Owl.'
The English name eagle-owl creates an odd persona that is both an eagle and an owl. In fact, the owls are not very different from the eagles. Owls and eagles are both hunters; both catch their prey with their exceptionally strong feet.
The two groups of hunters simply have chosen two different timetables: eagles to hunt by day while owls to work at night. Owls are the nocturnal eagles.
Being the top predators, owls and eagles are in trouble all over the world, especially so in Bangladesh. The animals they hunt for survival are vanishing fast.
On every visit we see that more and more of our hill-forests are cleared and its wildlife replaced by domestic animals. We do not know how long the eagle-owl will find enough food to thrive there.
The first time I come upon the great eagle-owl was in Bandarban some 16 years ago. A beautiful Spot-bellied Eagle Owl was kept in a small cage under the glaring sun at Meghla to entertain the tourists. Obviously its keepers did not know that for a healthy life the bird needed a cage large enough to fly about and for comfort it needed dark recess in some part of the cage.
The keepers of the eagle-owl at Meghla probably knew as little about its feed as they did about its living quarters. Most likely the bird would not survive more than a few months. Even if it lived longer the poor bird would not be able to breed in the cage. It was unconscionable that a priceless bird should have such a miserable end before our eyes.
I wrote a letter to the district administration with a request to release the rare bird from the cage so that it could return to nature, get an opportunity to find a mate and make more owls for our children.
The district commissioner Abdul Majid Shah Akhand took my plea seriously and released the owl in presence of local journalists. The owl returned to the forest while Meghla lost its chief tourist attraction.
Not every one of the district administration was happy to see the owl go. One such unhappy person was the ADC named Md. Inamul Haq who later went to study nature conservation in UK where he had his soul overhauled.
Feeling more like a born-again man he wrote to me an email from Greenwich University. The born-again nature-lover candidly stated how he perceived the wildlife while working in Bandarban and how his sensitivities transformed while studying in UK. What a wonderful transformation!
After quietly sitting before us for about a half an hour the eagle owl flew into another tree far into the hills. We left Himchari hoping to return there and see the owl again someday.