In the deep sylvan shadows of Rajkandi forest, there still roam globally endangered species like serows (Bon chhagol) and Asiatic black bear as recent camera trapping has unearthed.
But that rich natural habitat is now under threat thanks to the forest department, which in its strange logic has started turning the natural forest into a "woodlot" by planting fast-growing timber species, including exotic trees like acacia.
Stranger is the fact that the destruction of the natural forest is being carried out with climate funds aimed at mitigating the negative impacts of climate change.
When the trees mature right in the belly of the forest in Adampur, they will be chopped down wholesale and sold for commercial purposes. One can imagine the impact of such destructive "social forestry" projects on wildlife in a natural forest that Bangladesh lacks so much. Rajkandi is one of a handful of such natural forests.
In this way a natural forest is being turned into a commercial woodlot, and this is also the way in which most natural forests in Bangladesh have basically vanished.
Moulvibazar district forest officials call it a "reforestation" project that will create woodlots on some 75 hectares of forestland. They claim this will be done on patches where the density of trees is thin and covered only by bushes.
At least 1 lakh saplings of different species, including acacia, chikrashi, gamar, jarul, arjun, karoi, bahera and amloki, will be planted in the forest. After 10 years, the trees will be chopped down and around 180 project beneficiaries, who are among the forest-dependents, will get the lion's share of the timber price.
However, there is no explanation as to why a natural forest has to be turned into a social forestry project with mostly exotic trees. A visit to the area shows it is covered primarily with acacia.
This is the prime reason some wildlife experts and nature conservationists oppose commercial-based tree plantation in natural forests like Rajkandi.
Jahangirnagar University's zoology teacher Professor Monirul H Khan said the best sustainable way to restore degraded parts of a natural forest is either allowing regeneration or plantation of native species there.
"Native wildlife can thrive in an abundance of native plant species. A natural forest, if it is vastly degraded, should not be used in tree plantations to supply timber and fuel wood," Monirul Khan said.
Launched in 2019, the 5-year reforestation and infrastructural development project worth Tk700.41 million has been implemented to combat the negative impacts of climate change across Sylhet division. Under the project, woodlot development by co-managed social forestry started in the Rajkandi forest in February 2021, forest officials said.
The Protected Forest Management Rules 2017 allows fast-growing tree plantation under social and co-managed forestry in the buffer zone of a reserve forest but only on selection of the 'local species'. Then why such non-native species as acacia?
Sylhet Divisional Forest Officer Towfiqul Islam explained, "Local people prefer acacia because they can harvest timber from it fast. Since the department lacks enough manpower, we need the cooperation of locals in limiting forest degradation."
Towfiqul Islam said the woodlots are being developed only in the buffer zone.
Between March and July this year, Muntasir Akash, faculty member of Dhaka University's department of zoology, surveyed the mammals inhabiting Rajkandi Forest.
"Due to unabated encroachment, you cannot differentiate between the buffer zone and core zone in Rajkandi," Akash said.
Akash was overwhelmed at spotting Asiatic black bear and serows among other animals in camera trapping. At the same time, he was worried about the wildlife as he also spotted game hunting and forest encroachment by ethnic minority communities in the name of betel leaf plantation.
Amid these evident threats, the young zoologist questioned the logic of reforestation with fast-growing and non-native species like acacia.
Renowned Bangladeshi zoologist Dr Reza Khan, Principal Wildlife Specialist at the Dubai Safari Parks, Public Parks and Recreational Department, Dubai Municipality, terms tree plantation for periodical green coverage 'very dangerous' to a natural forest.
"You have developed a woodlot as well as an ecosystem for numerous frugivorous [fruit eater] animals, birds and pollinators [fed on nectar] like flower flies. One day you cut the trees for timber. Eventually, you destroy the entire ecosystem," Reza said.
He requested the Forest Department to bring more khas lands under timber-oriented tree plantation.
Citing a High Court judgement on 28 August 2019 on the protection of the Sal Forest from non-native and commercial tree plantation, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers' Association Chief Executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan said the court observed that the plantation of non-native and commercial species like acacia and gamar did not result in a reforestation of forests but instead caused a fast disappearance of native wildlife.
"The existing laws only recognise the rights of forest-dependent people on the resources until their activities do not harm the forest ecosystem. So, planting acacia is not acceptable in the reserve forest," Rizwana Hasan said.
Rajkandi Reserve Forest, comprising three beats: Adampur, Kurma and Kamarchara, is located in Kamalganj of Moulvibazar district. It was declared as a protected area in 1915 by the government of British India.
This tropical semi-evergreen forest area comprises 2,450 hectares of land that fall within the Indo-Burma hot-spot of biodiversity.
A collaborative study by the botany department of Jahangirnagar University and National Herbarium of Bangladesh was done following the taxonomic surveys from 2010 to 2017. The survey found at least 549 angiosperms (plants that produce flowers and bear their seeds in fruits) species in Rajkandi. The abundance of the angiosperm species was 15.20% of the total 3,611 reported in Bangladesh.
According to the study – An Annotated Checklist of the Angiospermic Flora of Rajkandi Reserve Forest of Moulvibazar, Bangladesh – Rajkandi forest houses 25 angiosperm species considered threatened in the Red Data Book of Vascular Plants of Bangladesh.
Plant taxonomist and conservationist Dr AKM Kamrul Haque, associated with the study, opined that Rajkandi Forest is a highly valuable natural resource for Bangladesh.
"For reforestation, animal supporting plants, including jaam, haritaki, bohera, jongli mango and other native species, instead of acacia, should be given priority. There is no use of acacia for the wildlife of Rajkandi," Kamrul Haque asserted.