November 14, 2020. I was preparing for a visit to Lawachara National Park (LNP), a mixed-evergreen forest of northeastern Bangladesh. I was looking for information on carnivore mammals of the region when a young researcher Sabit Hasan told me about how they had found about 50 snaring traps at LNP during their recent primate survey.
A month before, I was having a meeting with William Duckworth, a carnivore biologist and one of the advisors of my ongoing carnivore research. As I was describing my research plan supported by the Conservation Leadership Programme, it was snaring that he had stressed on and queried about repeatedly. I was introduced to a unique term, something I was not familiar with: industrial-level snaring.
In simplest form, it is much like commercial tuna-fishing, only happening in forests.
It was raining heavily where Will was based. The Zoom connection was unstable. My workstation was dimly lit, with only a reading lamp to fend off darkness. What I had heard about industrial-level snaring through blacked out screen with downpour on the backdrop sounded exactly like an eerie podcast, pointing toward an ominous possibility.
However, I gathered up my confidence, tried to ignore the four snares I found at LNP and discard the notion that any such atrocities are going on in northeastern forests, which are relatively better managed than the rugged Hill Tract forests of Chattogram.
I was dead wrong. Wave of snares has already hit the last eastern wilderness of Bangladesh. The infestation is spreading rapidly.
What is a snare?
Cheap and easy to deploy but unimaginably insidious and highly fatal—these are the traits of a snare. And it only requires a cord around seven feet long. One end is attached to a fixed post, for example, wooden log, tree trunk or pole. A loop is formed at the other end, which can be hanged from a branch or cocked upright with loose support from twigs and shoots.
Snares are generally set close to the ground, on animal trails or watering holes. When an unsuspecting animal tries passing through the loop, fatality occurs. The noose gradually creeps in, and tightens harder with every straining attempt of the victim to break free.
The harder the animal tries, the trap only gets tighter, resulting in a horrific death. Animals usually get caught at the neck or limbs. Responding to last-ditch struggles and desperate attempts, snares also often bite in the abdomen.
Death is almost always guaranteed for a snared animal. The most ill-fated ones do bite their own limb off to set free, only to die later in a slow, painful and extremely gory process.
Adding more to the grim scenario, snares leave nothing behind. From animals as large as elephants and rhinoceros to the diminutives like weasels and porcupines – none gets spared. A single person can single-handedly set hundreds of snares.
One last thing to add to your horror, the snare-wires are generally made of two materials. Fast perishable rattan cords are now replaced by steel-made cables, used as motorcycle or bicycle brakes. A brake cable is more durable, easier than the weaving fuss that rattan cord demands and only costs Tk40-100 in Bangladesh.
A cancerous crisis
How pervasive is the threat posed by snares? Let us look at our eastern neighbourhood, Southeast Asia. Forests in this region are dense and formidable when compared to ours. But in heart-breaking contrast, ground animal density is extremely low, decimated by the snaring plague. In fact, Empty Forest Syndrome, a new term, has been coined for forests which have greens aplenty but bereft of wilderness.
In just five years, between 2010 and 2015, about 200,000 snares were removed by patrol teams and rangers from five protected areas of Southeast Asia. Only from the Cardamom Mountains, a protected area larger than our Sundarbans, more than 100,000 snares were retrieved, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Biological Conservation.
Now, why use an adjective to compare the crisis with cancer? Because snares are extremely hard to detect, requires continuous vigilance and trained and equipped forest patrols.
"Even the best-trained rangers can only find a third of the snares planted in protected areas," Thomas Gray, the lead author of the 2017 study, stated in a Mongabay interview. Like cancer, the snaring crisis demands a regular and strict control regime to keep disasters off the bay.
Dread on January 1
Having time in the wilderness to welcome a new year is literally the best plan I can think of. So, I planned accordingly to go to the Raghunandan Hill Reserve Forest (RHRF), one of the six northeastern reserves protecting about 45 sq km of semi-evergreen greenery. This is the same forest that, in 2018, greeted me with camera-trapped images of globally endangered Asiatic wild dogs.
This time, as with the tendency of any well-laid plan, the experience went sideways, with unsettling horrors. On the first day of 2021 came my first experience with an animal snared to death.
I was trekking, looking for carnivore signs and animal trails. Then, there was a prime-sized male boar, about 40kg, with a wire snare cut deep into his throat. The hapless animal was cold and stiff like frozen rock.
Rot was yet to set in. It was there for not more than two days – Haris Debbarma, my parabiologist company, and I both noticed. Perhaps, it was left behind, too heavy to be carried. Or the poachers just took a day off, forgetting their routine morning round. What a waste of beautiful life—I pondered.
The boar tried to tow away the branch anchoring the loose end of the wire. And, he did this for quite a distance. His snout gaping for one last breath and the cloudy dead eyes left me stupefied.
A timely drive
The next day, on the same trail, we retrieved 10 more snares. All were laid on deer and boar trails, found on a transect less than 1km. We shared the news with my team, nature-concerned journalists and personnel of Bangladesh Forest Department (BFD).
Within a couple of days, Md Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, divisional forest officer (wildlife and nature conservation circle), BFD, gathered up a 40-man strong team and retrieved 62 snares in total from certain parts of RHRF.
This bold move marked the first dedicated anti-snare drive ever carried out in Bangladesh. Or, is it the start of a new frontier to the never-ending struggles of wildlife conservation?
What is next?
I started sketching out this story in a light mood, just after I had returned from a brief drive to rescue five red-breasted parakeets, a threatened species being illegally traded. But no sooner had I opened my laptop, the mood faded. More images of snares from RHRF kept pouring into my Messenger.
One was shockingly spotted from the watering hole, famous among every bird-watcher of Bangladesh.
The images sent me in utter shock. I tried to gauge the audacity of the poachers. I tried to figure the whole picture of the forest. What did the cold, stiff boar carcass and his glassy fixed eyes try to tell? Is 2021 throwing the wilderness of Bangladesh a new challenge? Did the pause in vigilance caused by Covid-19 hiatus summon a new demon?
Snaring crisis has wiped out tiger and leopard populations from countries like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It is still the biggest threat to all ground-dwelling wilderness surviving there.
Our northeastern forests might not have tigers and leopards, but there is the Asiatic wild dog, an apex carnivore with only about 2,000 individuals—a number much less than tigers in the wild. In the last three months, we found its presence in two different reserves. Then, there are 26 species of small- and medium-sized carnivores, all equally enigmatic and threatened.
Are we ready to safeguard them from the emerging snaring crisis?