Spring was only a week old in the Chattogram Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. The setting sun and spreading darkness bid the day farewell against a boulder-strewn stream. A seemingly normal daily event posed a great challenge to a group of five young men. They were attempting that particular brook. It was walled on both sides, fainting a mini-gorge. Nearly dried out, the streambed was beaded with a fine network of rocks; some as high as four meters forming crevices more than a meter deep–ideal to shatter shin bones.
With nightfall, the stake of making a stride any further appeared evident. Not accompanied by any guide and failed to reach the vantage hamlet in time, the men felt stranded. They decided to try the indigenous hut left behind a click away for the night hold. Three of the squad, at that time, were on their maiden trek to that part of the Hill Tracts. I was one of the three.
This is how the first day of my first journey to Kirs Taung Hill went.
Back in 2016, the hill was known among a few veteran bird-watchers and ardent wildlife researchers. The hill had had a mythical lore for her spectacular riches of wildlife fauna. Her beauty lured many, as it did us, and many afterwards.
But, since long, the Kirs Taung has been bled dry. At an unprecedented rate, her trees are disappearing and wild denizens are seeking refuge southward. Let this excerpt from my two visits at the peak and fabled experiences from avid biologists, trekkers and bird-watchers be a reminder to the ongoing irreparable biodiversity loss.
Without class, without protection
Roughly about 20km eastward of Alikadam - a small hilly township, the Kirs Taung hill belongs to the Chimbuk Range, one of several low-lying, corrugated, parallel arcs of the Hill Tracts.
Topographically, Kirs Taung, with these anticlinal ranges, forms the gradually sloping west wing of the Arakan Mountains. In a floristic sense, these ranges possess the last vestiges of the virgin evergreen forests of Bangladesh.
In terms of biogeography, the hill forest is a part of the Indo-Burma hotspot. As protective status, except for the more rugged and apparently impenetrable Sangu-Matamuhuri and Kassalong Reserve, Kirs Taung, like the rest of the south-eastern hills, is ill-fated bearing the title of Community Conserved Area. To a wildlife biologist, the Kirs Taung is one northward buffer for the Sangu Reserve Forest. This buffer, under an administrative jargon, is in its last leg.
Frozen under starry nights
Let's go back to my 2015 try. Without any further trouble, we went back to the hut. It was completely dark by then. It stood singly, yet, not unmanned. We realized an indigenous Mro family of four - a mother, her two children and another elderly lady were residing inside.
Differed by language, we couldn't express our cause. They didn't risk opening the door, either. Stating ourselves as slowly and as politely as possible; we decided to spend the night on the bamboo platform extending from the actual house. It was the characteristic of every indigenous house of the Hill Tracts.
However, what we didn't realize is the severity of a long chilly night. Dew set in within hours. Frigid and soaked, we shivered as sharp pangs of cold pierced our bones.
Intending to spend our time in hamlets, we didn't bring any camping gear. In that baffling situation, we had had to put on everything we had in our backpack, but to no avail.
The sky was star-studded, as if we were under one big lightened chandelier. We watched shooting-star in each passing minute. This was the only awe-struck respite.
This is all I can recall of the unusual March night. Undoubtedly, the wait for the morning sun will rank high in all of my past, present and future lists of cravings.
Arrival at a bird paradise
The next morning, we again set off. By noon, we arrived at a large Mro village, our vantage point for the previous day. From there, we took two young chaps as guides. By sunset, we reached the foothills of Kirs Taung. It was another Mro village, much smaller than the first one.
In 2015, it held only six structures. We spent the next two and a half days there. The time was as a bird-watching roller-coaster ride. Within a kilometre of the hamlet, we spotted around 70 species including mountain imperial pigeon, wedge-tailed pigeon, black eagle, rufous-bellied eagle, streaked spiderhunter, white-crested laughingthrush, bay woodpecker, blue-winged leafbird, orange-bellied leafbird and black bulbul to name a few. We encountered several trophies of a mega-species - the great hornbill.
More on birds
After our trip in 2015, Kirs Taung experienced a birder-rush. Many spectacular observations surfaced. Sultan tit, a small stunning bird, was seen for the first time in Bangladesh.
Streaked wren babbler, another secretive species, was spotted at the area, a second instance for the country. We come to know of two extremely rare hornbill species - the great hornbill and the wreathed hornbill, still soar in the sky of the hill tracts.
A professor-leopard affair
In 2019, Professor Dr Monirul H Khan, a stalwart wildlife biologist, in his two expeditions to Kirs Taung, made another jaw-dropping observation. He noted leopard presence thereby.
"I saw leopard pugmarks on a morning in February. Watching the pugmarks, I assumed the leopard had passed through the area last night. I followed the pugmarks deep inside the forest. It went close to the eastern steep slope and then turned right (south). In December, I again went to the area. During my stay, a leopard killed a full-grown cow in a grassland just below the hill. These indicate the presence of resident leopard(s) in the area," his incredible anecdote on the finding.
On a tractor trail
My second visit was in March of 2019. This time, I had an idea about the trails. The trail I took in 2016 was the longest of the three possible trails to that particular village. This time, in a team of five, I trekked the easiest one. It took about four hours of trekking to reach the destination. In 2016, I was thankful to nature to help me complete the trip unscathed. Despite the ease during the second attempt, I felt eerily numb.
We saw all tell-tale signs of heavy logging. Each of the huge century-old trees were gone. In 2016, these sentinel beings stood formidable. The hilltop appeared barren. The village expanded, doubled. There were even less birds. The whole team was heavily inflicted with guilt. Kirs Taung was bleeding.
Newly raised after 2017, this short trail is actually a road in-making meant to increase connectivity in the region. The road is designed to connect all the way up to the border. Thereby stands another proud hill forest, the Saka Haphong. Her days, too, are numbered.
Watching the demise of great forests is not an easy task.
Corona and the missing dots
Remember the scene from the 2011 movie Contagion? The train of bats ousted from a fallen forest eventually caused a pandemic. The scene was true to the core. With every wildlife stronghold stormed, their denizens abused, becoming refugees and disappearing forever. There incurs heavy repercussions - global warming, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Covid-19, the list is endless.
The unbecoming of Kirs Taung rang a similar omen. I wanted to present to you some exhilarated expedition memoirs. My sincere apology if the sketch looked like missing dots pointing to a bleak future.
But there is still time for reckoning. Covid-19 restrictions are giving us enough time for reflection.
And I believe nature is still merciful.