During dry seasons a decade ago, the alluvial land of Nawdoba on the south bank of the River Padma would transform into a lush crop field.
Farmers used to channel water for irrigation from the creeks and canals of the Padma. Like now, tonnes of silt covered the river bank at Jajira of Shariatpur district during tides, making the land fertile.
When the water ebbed, muddy shoals emerged there. Eye-catching egrets and migratory openbills would forage on the shore while spotted doves occupied the muddy beds.
Sandbars too emerged and reeds grew there. Often in the afternoons, fishermen on country boats were seen rowing or fishing in the creeks, canals, and in the Padma. An abundance of fishes, including hilsa, boal, pangash, baila, air, chital, puti, koi, pabda and chapila, was available there.
In the blink of an eye, a Ganges dolphin would glide in the air.
Sensing the presence of humans, a lone jackal or a fishing cat would hide among the reeds and baya weavers would fly away. But whistling ducks or teals would keep swimming in the streams, with a serpent eagle perched firmly on a stick to monitor the movement of prey.
Sexagenarian Babul Jamaddar from Jamaddarkandi village of Pashchim Nawdoba recalls that farmers used to cultivate onions, potatoes, garlic, peanuts, black cumin, mustard, lentils, and other winter crops.
"During the monsoon even a decade ago, river erosion and formation of shoals were very common phenomena. Now the situation has changed," Babul says.
The changes Babul can see are due to the construction of the Padma Bridge. The river banks have been protected by guide bunds and varieties of trees and herbs have been planted to cover up the damage to traditional vegetation.
As the area was rich in wildlife, the government has gone for a 117.72 square-km Padma Bridge Wildlife Sanctuary, covering land segments of Jajira in Shariatpur, Louhajang in Munshiganj, Shibchar in Madaripur, and Sadarpur in Faridpur district.
Parts of the River Padma take up a three-fourths share of the sanctuary.
According to SMA Rashid, team leader of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project's biodiversity conservation programme, the project area houses 321 species of plants and herbs, 112 bird species, 89 fishes, 25 mammals, 35 reptiles, 20 butterflies, 29 gastropods, 16 amphibians and numerous insects.
The bridge construction certainly disturbed the wildlife habitation. And there will be more disturbances by human activities surrounding the magnificent structure. Uncontrolled tourism and commercial activities will flourish.
"The declaration of the sanctuary is aimed at protecting wetland and ensuring a congenial environment for the breeding or regeneration of wildlife," Rashid says.
In a gazette published on 26 November 2020, the government marked off an 89.19 sq-km area of the sanctuary as a "core zone".
According to the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act 2012, exploitation of natural resources such as fish and tree parts will be controlled in the core area.
"For the sustainable use of natural resources, the local communities will be guided under a co-management mechanism," Rashid adds.
Pashchim Nawdoba resident Babul Zamadder appreciates the move, expressing hope that the conservation initiative will shelter birds and animals as the area did a decade ago.
"Massive vegetation has been blooming here. We will benefit from this for sure," Babul says.
Before the construction of the Padma Bridge started, the New Zealand-based Maunsell AECOM consultant firm first recommended building the sanctuary, following a 2009-10 baseline survey.
In 2016, the Bridges Division appointed the Italy-based Agriconsulting S.p.A and Dhaka-based SODEV Consult International to update the biodiversity baseline survey. The consultants said bridge construction would threaten biodiversity. Following their recommendations, biodiversity conservation in the project area was launched in January 2019.
The conservation project with a tenure till 2023 has been looked after by the Padma Bridge Project's biodiversity conservation team.
Team leader Rashid tells TBS that a management plan for the sanctuary has already been drafted.
"The sanctuary consists of government khas land and some acquired land [for dumping dredged materials]. There will be no land disputes. Just what we need is sustainable natural resource management. Use of illegal fishing nets should be checked strictly," he says.
When contacted, Wildlife and Nature Conservation Circle's Conservator of Forests Mollah Rezaul Karim told TBS, "The sanctuary has not yet been handed over to the Forest Department. Once we take charge, the department will finalise the management plan."
Our Shariatpur correspondent contributed to this report