Horse riding on the beach has long attracted tourists in Cox's Bazar. Tourists love to pose for photos and selfies on the horseback and post them on social media. Going to the sea beach is almost incomplete for many without a horse ride.
But tourism in Bangladesh – as all over the world – has faced a terrible blow because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tour businesses have slumped significantly.
And now, not properly fed and taken care of by their owners, these domesticated animals in Cox's Bazar are dying of malnutrition and diseases.
According to the Horses Owners Association, 26 horses have died since the beginning of the pandemic last year – 20 of them last year and six this year.
Horse owners said the authorities have halted tourist gatherings at sea beaches of Cox's Bazar to contain the spread of coronavirus, which has entirely damaged their business.
Tourists love to ride horses and take pictures with them which produce a substantial income for the owners. As there is no earning nowadays, the owners cannot take proper care of their horses as before, they said.
However, there are allegations that many owners do not provide any food for their horses and set them free to roam around the city to find their food.
As a result, these horses have become severely ill and are dying by eating rotten and toxic foods from the roadside dustbins. Some horses are getting injured when they are hit by a vehicle while crossing the streets in search of food and shelter.
Jane Alam, who first introduced horses on the beaches in the 90s, said, "Horses are royal animals. They are useful too. But they need proper care. Many people have bought horses and put them in business. Many people have become owners of cars and houses doing horse business. But no one is taking proper care of these innocent animals now."
"Horses have to be fed chickpeas and raw straw in the morning and afternoon. They need a clean bath every day. In the past, there was a lot of hay in the beach area. But those have disappeared due to various development works," he added.
According to people concerned, the owners earn an average of Tk2,500 to Tk3,000 per day with each horse during the tourist season (September-March). They earn Tk5-6 lakh in one season with a horse. Horses are also used in horse carriages, weddings and various festivals.
At present, there are 65 horses on the Cox's Bazar beaches to entertain the tourists.
According to horse owners, it costs Tk200-250 to feed a horse per day. But horse owners are now unable to make any income because of restrictions on tourist gatherings on the beaches.
They claim that they have no other way but to leave the horses on the road as they cannot afford to buy food for them.
Amir Hossain, a horse owner, said, "Our family had 12 horses. One of them died two days ago. It ate something out of a dustbin. I brought it home and called the doctor with a visit of Tk1,500. He examined the horse and found it had a high fever. The horse could not be saved even with many injections."
He said, "Eight horses owned by our family died in last year's lockdown. Some of the abandoned horses fell into the drain and died. Several of them died after being hit by a reckless vehicle."
"The Animal Resources Office never gives us advice on horse care. We do not properly know what to feed them. Many people buy horses for Tk30,000-50,000 and they are desperate to earn money with them. So, they don't pay attention to the animal's well-being. However, if there is no income, it is difficult to spend extra for horses," he added.
But tourism officials claim that many of the horse owners have become well-off except for a few.
On condition of anonymity, a horse owner said there are several horse owners who regularly use drugs. They can be seen running around with bikes all day. But these owners do not take care of their horses.
However, the local administration has claimed that they do not know anything about the death of more than two dozen horses in recent times.
Cox's Bazar District Livestock Officer in charge Asim Baran Sen said, "The Department of Animal Resources has formed an investigation committee on the news of horses' death. The committee has been asked to report within the next three working days."
Cox's Bazar District Administration (Tourism and Protocol) Assistant Commissioner and Executive Magistrate Syed Murad Islam said, "22 horse owners have been allowed to entertain tourists on the beach. We do not have a list of the number of horses that have been reported to have died. The owners never told us about it."
He added, "The district administration has distributed food for horses to the owners amid the pandemic. So, there should not be a food crisis."
Asked why the administration was not informed about the death of 26 horses, Ahsan Uddin Nishan, president of the Horse Owners' Association, said, "The matter was not taken seriously at the time."
Mohsin Sheikh, an official of a local organisation named 'We are the People of Cox's Bazar', said, "We are outraged by the inhuman behaviour of the horse owners. The owners have earned money by making the innocent animals a means of income. But in the crisis, the horses are being left to die. Horse owners should be brought under the law for such treatment of innocent animals."
Meanwhile, on the news of the food crisis for the horses on Cox's Bazar beach, a company has recently handed over one month's food aid to the owners for 55 horses.