On a moonless starry night, I was lying in a tent at the farthest end of Kalinga forest close to the Tipra village, listening to the songs of the jungle.
A scops owl had been hooting for some time. An occasional distant chirp of a nightjar rose and fell.
Then the barking deer started calling, sharp and short like a dog's barking, very close to my tent. I lay there, listening to the deer. It must be on such a night Jibanananda Das had written those lines: "Here by the forest I have pitched my tent/ the southerly wind blows the whole night/in the moonlight, I hear a doe on heat/whom does it call?"
I remembered the last time I was on my way to a friend's resort at the dead of night a little distance from the Nurjahan Tea Estate. I was in a three-wheeler and the driver had lost his way. We were going by a wooded land. In the headlight of the three-wheeler I suddenly caught dozens of glinting eyes. A herd of barking deer had come out of the forest and were trotting by the side of the road hardly 30 feet away from us. A mesmerising sight.
But then I remembered what I had heard the day before – that deer hunting was common in this forest.
With all these thoughts crowding into my mind, I didn't know when I had drifted off to sleep. But I opened my eyes to the crowing of a jungle fowl in the next patch of forest.
In the morning, as I was sitting outside the tent, I met Madai Barman who was walking his cows to the forest for grazing.
I fell into a conversation with Madai who gave a startling information. Last year a pack of wild dogs, or Ramkutta, as the villagers call them, raided his cattle shed at night and had killed two cows.
"They tore the belly of the cows," Madai described the horror of the night. "We were sleeping and woke up by the blood-curdling screams of the cows. We charged out of our house and saw this ghastly scene. A pack of 10 or 12 wild dogs tearing at the heart of the cows."
The villagers had their revenge too. They mixed poison with the carcass and left it out for the dogs. The next morning, six wild dogs or Dholes were dead.
Now this story was really interesting. Once there were wild dogs in Bangladesh. But not anymore.
Wild dogs are top predators. The forests simply do not have enough prey population to support them. Once there were plenty of deer and wild boars and rabbits and gaurs roaming the land. Now with the habitat loss and poaching, their numbers are nothing but something to talk about.
These wild dogs must have come across the border from India, where they are better off but still under threat, foraging for food and entered the village.
And it is no wonder that the wild dogs are gone and the deer are vanishing. The patch forests that we have, Satchhari, Lawachhera, Adampur, Rema, Kalinga and the hill tracts have all lost their glory.
They were once the jewels in the crown of the forest resources in Bangladesh. When we used to visit these forests even in the early 1990s, they were quite different from what they are today. They were stacked with perfect shades and shapes. There were numerous gigantic trees to support the canopy dwellers such as the hoolok gibbons. And the medium trees to support birds and the thick shrubs for the ground dwellers such as quails and jungle fowls.
All you had to do was just cross the rail line in Lawachhera to find the gibbons – the black males and the brown females – swinging from branch to branch. Their shrill yet sonorous cries could be heard from miles away.
Once on a misty wintry morning, I just crossed the main entrance to Lawachhera and saw a flock of sizzling bright jungle fowls accompanied by dull-colored hens. One monsoon morning, as I was crossing Lama on a car, I saw the jungle fowls dotting the roadside, pecking the ground for food. Along with them were their domesticated cousins. No wonder that jungle fowls are no more pure-bred. They have inter-mixed with domesticated chickens.
I have not met them for quite some years. They still are there but in smaller numbers. Probably they have become quieter too, in anticipation of the future. Meantime, Lawachhera has turned into a lime orchard, and so has Satchhari forest. In the name of community participation, forest lands have been turned into citrus orchards.
Long ago, when Remakri was unknown to tourists, I had heard groups of gibbons shrieking in groups from the trees across the Sangu. Last November, I did not hear any. On another summer afternoon, as I entered the Para, I saw a hunter with an ancient muzzle-loader carrying his prize of the day – a rhesus macaque.
Whenever I had been to the Sundarbans, as our boat passed through the Jamtala canal, I would invariably meet the rare pink finfoot. Hardly a thousand of their pairs are left in the world, and yet we had quite a number of them here in the mangroves.
Now they are not found there, and Sayam U Chowdhury, who had studied them, thinks it is the climate change that is partly to blame because as salinity increased these birds have moved north to find new nesting grounds or maybe they have just perished.
And so we have caused to perish many such species and their habitats. The hill tracts are today a denuded landscape. Truly a hellscape. Renowned zoologist Reza Khan, and I had once taken an extensive tour of the mountainous region and did not come across a single mother tree. Only the exposed red earth glared cruelly.
But I have seen what this place actually was. After a year-long try, negotiating with various armed groups, I had undertaken a seven-day journey to the remotest of the hill tracts on boat and foot to a place called Bulongtoli. The trees were 15 to 20 feet around, we looked like clinging lizards on their trunks. There we found leopard pugmarks. That is a place where only a few families had settled in, clearing the virgin forest. They live off the forest, their children hunting monitor lizards and squirrels for jungle meat. There we saw bay woodpeckers and long-eared nightjars in the evening.
I have no idea if that deep forest still exists or has turned into rice fields.
Human-wildlife conflict has now reached an unimaginable peak. Innocent forest animals are being ruthlessly killed off.
This past one year was an appalling calendar for our wildlife because in my estimation more animals and birds were killed in this time period than any time before. I have seen pangolins being killed and fishing cats beaten to death. Jungle cats are to be wiped out at first sight. In November last year, my friends rescued six jungle cat kittens from a rice field. Their mother ruthlessly killed by the villagers.
They tried their best to nurture them, but after three months all the kittens died of a virus infection.
Poaching went on unabated in the last one year. People even did not think twice before posting ghoulish pictures of themselves with their trophies in Facebook.
And meantime, our last of the forests are waning fast. We are today witnessing the sad demise of our great wildlife variation. We are witnessing a localized extinction.
But then again, Bangladesh never ceases to amaze me.
Despite the indiscriminate killings, fishing cats still survive; you can never be sure if the pond you are taking a bath in has a python lurking just beside you. Only the other day, nobody knew yellow-throated marten existed here until an amateur photographer CM Reza took the picture of one. The magnificent clouded leopard still exists in the hill tracts although nearing extinction by poaching.
Given a chance, given protection, nature can and does take care of itself. But will it get any?