The International Union for Conservation of Nature Bangladesh (IUCN) and Bangladesh Forest Department recently teamed up to go on an expedition in Kassalang Reserve Forest to study biodiversity.
The team – as part of the research – is carrying out a scientific study on the feasibility of a trans-boundary wildlife corridor in Chattogram Hill Tracts and Cox's Bazar with Myanmar and India – connecting large forest patches such as Kassalang, Shijok, Panblakhali and Sangu.
Marking the International Tiger Day observed on 29 July, the IUCN and forest department jointly organised a webinar on Saturday to discuss the possibility of a second tiger habitat beyond the Sundarbans.
During the expedition, the team also found specimens of Golden Crested Myna and Straight Pierrot Butterfly for the first time in Bangladesh, speakers revealed.
Addressing the discussion, which was based on the expedition findings, Professor of Zoology Department at Jahangirnagar University Dr M Monirul H Khan said, "I personally believe that tigers still remain in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
"But the numbers are in grave decline. When I was asked 10 years ago, by concerned parties, I estimated the number to be at less than 20. However, the number has now declined to less than 10, so it is a matter of serious concern and alarm."
The number may even become zero within the next seven years or so, if things do not change, said Dr Khan – who is the national tiger expert of feasibility study conducted under the Trans-Boundary Wildlife Corridor Project.
After speaking with local individuals and studying footprints on the expedition, Dr Khan said the team has found evidence supporting the presence of tigers, leopards, Asiatic wild dog or dhole, elephant, Asiatic black bear and gaur.
"Access to the Kassalang Forest Reserve remains a tall order. From attaining scores of permission from authorities to the limited nature of transport to our destination, the journey was not easy, but it was certainly worth the risks," said IUCN Bangladesh's Country Representative Raquibul Amin.
Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Conservator of Forests at the Forest Management Wing of Bangladesh Forest Department Md Jahidul Kabir said, "This expedition and the project is very important in the context of tiger habitat.
"One of the factors that should be examined further is the effect of seasonal changes in this reserve, food chains year round and if tigers can be sustained."
Chief Conservator of Forests Md Amir Hosain Chowdhury drew attention to the country's Tiger Action Plan, which was first introduced in 2009 for tiger conservation.
There is a serious need to break down forestry into production and conservation, said Chowdhury, adding, "It is time to consider production needs, and at the same time, the ecological balance in the country distinctly.
"We want to move away from the point of blame, consider socio-political and cultural realities, and pave a way forward with the help of the local experts."
Conservator of Forests at the Wildlife & Nature Conservation Circle of Bangladesh Forest Department Mollah Rezaul Karim said, "Even if we fail to double the number of tigers by next year as was promised earlier, there is a way forward. Let's use this report as a primary formula."
Cooperation with the local people is paramount, and their consent and engagement are important priorities in our work, IUCN Bangladesh's Country Representative Raquibul Amin said at the event.
2 new species sighted in Bangladesh for the first time
The expedition team found specimens of Golden Crested Myna and Straight Pierrot Butterfly for the first time ever in Bangladesh during the recent expedition.
The Kassalang Reserve Forest remains as the least explored forest and the second largest natural forest in the country due to its physical and political limitations, said the experts.
Based on their recent expedition findings and interviews with the local people, the IUCN and Bangladesh Forest Department said Kassalang Reserve Forest is a rich haven of biodiversity and wildlife, and it must be protected.
"We sighted only one [golden crested] myna, but with the Dampa Tiger Reserve in India nearby, it is possible that we will find more mynas residing in Kassalang forest reserve with further survey," said Dr Khan.
"We can learn and find a lot more here if we take more time to study the region," he added.
The team travelled through the forest reserve mainly by boats via streams. They also sighted six species of mammals, 59 species of birds, five species of reptiles, four species of amphibians and 44 species of butterflies.
"We also sighted a Purple Sapphire butterfly, which landed on our boat," said Dr Khan, adding, "This is the second record of this butterfly in the country."
Additionally, the team – among several other species – sighted Green Imperial Pigeons, Oriental Pied Hornbill, binturong, Indo-Chinese rat snake, Atlas moth and broadbills.
"From the Massalong Bazar through the Bhuiyachhari Para to the last point visited in the expedition, we covered about 40km of land with the help of around eight local guides," said Jahangirnagar University's zoology department Professor Dr Abdul Aziz.
The national elephant expert also detailed the challenges and obstacles the team faced during this expedition, a first in a series, at the time of the pandemic and ongoing lockdown, saying, "The journey was emotional, and the richness of the reserve is unbelievable.
"It really made me think how our country has much more beyond Sundarbans in terms of nature and wildlife."