It was a chilly evening at the Dhaka Zoo. Back in the '90s, zoos were not in the terrible shape they are now, concretised and forlorn. Back then, zoos used to spark an adrenaline rush in kids. The lakes were frequented by wintering ducks, the enclosures full of remarkable animals. There was a cage, about 100 square feet big and about 15 feet in height. The plaque offered a view of an animal named the bearcat. What on earth could be a bear and at the same time a cat?
Enticed, I pressed myself against the horizontal bar that kept a safe distance between the visitor and the cage. There was a plank on the far side of the cage running across the middle. There was a wooden house on it. I could barely see anything. I stepped onto my toes for a better view. It was also getting dark, the fog creeping in. All I can remember now is a ball of dark, black fur curled up on the plank. What was that animal? Was it a bear? Was the information on the plaque wrong?
Bearcats, formally named binturongs, do exist. And they still do exist in Bangladesh. On first look, binturongs appear to be a hybrid of a bear and a cat. Regardless of the confusing appearance, they are a species of civet and belong to the family Viverridae. They are, in fact, the largest of all civet species.
Beneath a thick layer of long fur, the body is sturdy and muscular, on average two to three feet in length. The legs are relatively short. But the tail is as long as the body, prehensile, more muscular and often serves as a fifth appendage. Its conical face is studded with large, black eyes. The ears are short and round. The long tuft of black fur and the white streaking on the edge make the ears look big and lanky. They have a gland near the anus that, like in all other civets, exudes a musky smell much like popcorn. Binturongs are a complete wonder package.
To get a full view of the binturong, I had to wait till 2016. Sayam U Chowdhury, a colleague of mine, posted a photo on Facebook taken from the Hill Tracts. A binturong was high up in the tree. This time too, the animal was curled up but under the morning sun. The face was in full view.
Binturongs are adapted to an arboreal lifestyle. They are nocturnal, hence the large blackened eyes, and seclusive, hence the tendency to hide the face. Binturongs prefer old-growth forests. Their range is spread across South and Southeast Asia. Equipped with sharp, semi-retractable claws and a prehensile tail, the binturong navigates the intricate maze of branches with astonishing agility and grace. Its nimble movements and adept climbing skills allow it to explore the forest canopy, concealed from prying eyes below.
When the NGO called Creative Conservation Alliance posted a camera-trap footage, it showed a binturong disappearing in the background, walking through the forest floor, and its tail in an upright stance. The footage also came from the Hill Tracts. And it featured a rare behaviour—binturongs strolling on the ground. There are not many instances of this.
The animal is solitary except for the short breeding spell. They communicate via the scent emitting from the glands. Although scientifically a carnivore, the binturong has a taste for plant matter, plum, and fruits—a common feature known about civets.
Afterwards, my paths kept crossing with the binturongs. But not all memories are sweet. There was one poor individual that was rescued in 2017 from Tahirpur, Sylhet. It was drifting on the monsoon flood. Beaten and bruised, it was taken into custody by the Forest Department from a local menagerie which still practises against the existing wildlife law. Due to poor and inept treatment, it died later.
Binturongs are globally threatened. In 2016, the animal was declared vulnerable. In Bangladesh, it is also assessed as vulnerable. Binturongs, due to their furry appearance and lack of connection between the wildlife and the locals, are often misunderstood. They are mistaken for bears. Their dark look often gives allegations of gravediggers.
In truth, binturongs are harmless and they are not into exhuming and eating human dead bodies. However, the message is barely known by the locals. In 2021, a binturong was beaten to death at Nasirnagar, Brahmanbaria. People thought the animal had been munching on human remains in an old graveyard. In 2020, near Khagrachari, another was injured by dogs.
Binturongs are good pets. Demands are high in the illegal pet markets. A pair, in 2021, was released in Lawachara after Forest Department and citizen scientists had rescued them from a local mini-zoo. In the same year, another individual was released in Kassalong. It was raised as a pet in an indigenous village.
Binturongs do live in our north-eastern and south-eastern hill forests. My local contacts captured photos of it crossing the Muraichara Road, a birding hotspot. This year, we got camera-trap footage from another site.
Binturongs are extremely rare. Most of us do not know about it. Very few are aware of its perilous status, and even fewer have had close encounters in the form of direct sighting or camera-trapping records. Challenges of documenting binturong's presence are related to its habit. It is nocturnal and difficult to spot in the daytime. It is highly arboreal.
Conventional camera-trapping, thus, usually produces very few records. Its absence in surveys not designed to study arboreal mammals often misleads scientists to wrong assumptions. This is happening not only in our country. The challenge is similar across its range states. Binturong was recorded in Nepal for the first time near Pokhara Valley. The discovery came only last year. One study from Palawan, Philippines that came out in 202o in the journal Mammalia suggests placing remote camera-traps in the boughs can increase the detection rate of binturongs, which, in turn, can help monitor its status.
We need to devise this method and assess the forest cover as an indicator of binturongs' status in Bangladesh before coming to conclusions based solely on educated guesses.