Lathitila is a mixed-evergreen, stream-fed hilly forest. The ecologically uncharted territory belongs to the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot, as part of one of the six trans-border forest reserves of northeast Bangladesh.
A plan to build a safari park on the forestland is underway. The park will house extensive infrastructure, African animals, dolphins, and exotic bird species. Fate of the biodiversity stronghold is at stake.
Lathitila is a dying forest—that much I have been told by several of my colleagues multiple times for the last couple of years. In the beginning, I did not pay much attention to their concerns.
Given Lathitila's remote position on the northeastern border, why on earth would there be a safari park there? This unbelievably biodiverse habitat could instead be a promising candidate to be an International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN)-defined protected area.
Protecting such a rich forest would help Bangladesh attain Sustainable Development Goals. It also goes with the country's Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan.
Some of my colleagues have a unique sense of humour. Every time I heard the ominous oracle, I used to interpret it as a joke. Well, that was a mistake. There was a rule I failed to remember: anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
So, when the proposal to establish the third safari park of Bangladesh in the mixed-evergreen Lathitila forest of Moulvibazar had been announced publicly, I was shocked.
When I obtained the draft feasibility study and master plan of the Safari Park , the graveness of the situation, the threats looming over the fate of Lathitila became evident to me. The 246-page report, prepared by spending Tk4.50 crore, plans to change the forest inside out.
Naturally, the whole plan, in its entirety and as a rippling effect, has created an outcry among the community of nature-concerned people. From the academics to the journalists, from the researchers to the Bangladesh Forest Department personnel, and from the naturalists to the citizen scientists. Every sensible person has decided not to ignore the threats posed by the plan and stood up for Lathitila.
If implemented, the Safari Park will certainly do more harm to Lathitila than good. It puts several globally threatened species at the risk of extinction which could initiate a disastrous ecosystem collapse.
Lathitila – an example of conservation neglect
Located around 60 km northeast of Moulvibazar, Lathitila, under the Juri forest range of Sylhet forest division, is a part of the Patharia Hill Reserve Forest (PHRF). The PHRF is one of the six trans-border forest reserves of northeast Bangladesh.
Administratively, the PHRF straddles two sub-districts in Bangladesh: Juri and Baralekha. As of the 2015 assessment, the reserve forest currently has a land area of about 80 sq km of forests; of which, Lathitila makes up 20 square kilometres.
The PHRF is the northernmost fringe of the Jampui range of the Tripura Hills and shares a border with Karimganj district in Assam, India.
In 1989, Shahriar Kabir, eminent Bangla Academy Literary Award winning writer, authored a juvenile thriller called Pathariar Khani Rahasso (The Mysterious Mines of Patharia). It was the book that drew a picture of the PHRF for me during my teens.
How is PHRF now in 2021? In the last two decades, the reserve forest has shrunk nearly 40 percent. In the meantime, not a single large-scale, long-term biodiversity survey has been conducted there.
By planning the Safari Park, by taking one-third of the current extent of the PHRF, are we hammering the final nail in its coffin?
Hotspot of wild mammals
As we all know, Lathitila has elephants. But what else does the forest have? I looked into the literature, only to find nothing. Lathitila being a cross-border forest, I looked for works from India.
A 2017 study published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation by two Indian researchers says the PHRF is home to 83 mammalian species. To name a few, the Hill Forest has valid records of the Asiatic wild dog, the Asiatic black bear, clouded leopard, greater hog badger, binturong, golden cat, gibbon, the Assamese macaque, bear macaque, otter, pangolin, slow loris, etc. All of them are globally threatened.
According to the feasibility report, we have the lion's share of the PHRF. Very likely, our side has a richer diversity. Then, why are we so adamant to give up Lathitila?
Let there be carnivores
According to the 2015 assessment of IUCN Bangladesh, about 28 carnivores, comprising nearly half of the carnivore diversity of the Indian Subcontinent, live in Bangladesh.
How many live in Lathitila? In the PHRF? All native extant carnivores but tigers live there. Aren't they a bit more worthy than to be placed in a safari park?
An ecologically blank spot
I looked for other works on other animal groups of the PHRF. There are anecdotal mentions of several herptiles. But I found hardly any scientific evidence. Considering the recent discoveries of frogs made in the Lawachara forest, the ecologically similar Lathitila should have similar species diversity, if not higher.
The streams of the Lathitila-PHRF are perennial, massive. In recent years, there have been some spectacular reports of new fish species from the peripheries of the PHRF. For insects, an educated guess cannot be made. The reserve forest and its surrounding regions are ecologically uncharted.
How many new-to-science species are living there? Can they be traded off with a safari park?
The report labels the safari park as a medium to protect the forest. It is indeed a strategic mistake. The floral and faunal inventory provided in the report was prepared by a survey effort of two months. How can a forest, rich or degraded, be scientifically inventoried in such a short period? Does this not indicate a glaring survey bias?
The plan is to bring the African carnivores such as lion, hyaena, cheetah and even the South American jaguar. Globally threatened rhinoceros, oryx, sable antelope, giraffe, hippopotamus, wildebeest, and impala are also potential residents of the safari park. How this extensive array of wildlife will be maintained in such a small area (20 square kilometres) as per the standard definition of a safari park has not been discussed in the report.
The plan neither discusses the potential adverse effects of constructing infrastructures including accommodation for 500 safari park personnel and extensive enclosure systems for animals to be kept.
When asked, Dr Reza Khan, the eminent wildlife biologist of the country, pointed out a grim fact, ''the existing two safari parks are nowhere near the safari parks we see in Africa, Malaysia, Thailand, many European countries, and the USA. So, instead of reforming them, creating a new one by diminishing the existing natural forest bears no sense.'' Dr Khan suggested to recruit foregin and professional safari park consultant to reassess the feasibility of establishing a safari in a hilly forest as well as in the management of the existing parks.
The plan proposes a dolphinarium to keep dolphins and beluga whales. Whether we have the expertise to maintain a cetacean enclosure can be a good question.
On the other hand, the idea of dolphinarium itself is controversial, experiencing a global scale shutdown. The plan also includes an extensive aviary for mostly exotic birds, a feature that could spark wildlife trafficking in the trans-border evergreen forest. Many experts including Dr Mostafa Feeroz, professor of zoology, Jahangirnagar University, feared this possibility.
I found the koi carp pond to be set in the park. Koi carps are one of the most invasive species on the earth. Keeping them in a torrential forest complex is a ticking time-bomb of disaster for the rich streams. No consideration of the potential impact of exotic species on the native biodiversity of Lathitla and Patharia Hill has been made.
The report planned to keep marine aquaria. Given the omnipresent serene beauty of mixed-evergreens, streams, and peripheral tea gardens of Lathitila, is establishing marine aquaria wishful thinking?
With years of experience as a fish keeper, I know how expensive and time-consuming it is to maintain a public aquarium. In astonishment, my eyebrows reached the ceiling.
Putting money to the better use
To construct the safari park, the draft report submits a staggering budget of Tk980 crore to the government.
''A safari park is set for amusement and educational purposes. In a sense, it is a large-sized animal enclosure which should be established near a locality, not in a bordering, remote forest'', stressed Enam Ul Haque, an avid conservationist and founder president of Bangladesh Bird Club.
''In addition to the threat of biodiversity loss, the safari park could be a white elephant to the government, incurring heavy annual loss. A similar scenario happened in Malaysia, which led to privatisation of the bird safari park'', he added.
To Dr Reza Khan, investing in the existing zoos and parks sounds more befitting. ''If proper attention is given, our zoos would generate more money than the proposed safari park,'' he said.
With significantly less investment, we can make some real conservation impacts in Lathitila. Yearly funded scientific surveys can bring out many remarkable discoveries. Money can be used to establish the forest as a national park or wildlife sanctuary.
Money can be invested in the field staff of the Bangladesh Forest Department to enhance their field skills and better equip and arm them. Money can be spent on conservation education and improving human-wildlife conflict scenarios, sectors where the country is seriously hindered.
Or are we to set up a large zoo by destroying a functional ecosystem?
"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe", said Albert Einstein.