I am a 90s kid, born and raised in Dhaka. I am an eyewitness to how, over the years, the horizonless wetlands of Banasree and Aftabnagar were turned into a concrete jungle.
I, being a field biologist, know how the metropolis is still expanding in every direction, engulfing one wetland after another. This is the habit of all the fast-growing cities of Bangladesh.
This is the sad saga of our wetlands, which are being filled up and sold as residential plots, poisoned and converted for farming, and forgotten and destroyed at an unprecedented rate.
Today is World Wetlands Day and it calls for Wetlands Action for People and Nature. In despair, I looked at the map. From the haor basins of the northeast to the southern mangroves, to the riparian systems of the Hill Tracts to oxbow lakes and wetland depressions of central and western Bangladesh, I saw wetlands everywhere. I saw numerous blue areas of all sizes and shapes that are holding this riverine country together.
I noticed the Sundarbans and the Tanguar Haor for they are the Ramsar sites, wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, which is an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by Unesco that had eventually led to this yearly observation.
I noted the Marjat Baor, Chalan Beel, Hakaluki and a few other locally recognised protected wetlands. But more than 90% are unprotected and left to their fate. I saw no umbrella species, conservation of which means conservation of the wetlands.
The Business Standard Earth, today, features an array of threatened species that can be guardians of wetlands of every kind. These extraordinary wildlife can restore our severed relationship with wetlands.
A cat in love with water
Fishing cats live in almost all wetlands of Bangladesh. Weighing a maximum of 15kg, these small cats are slightly bigger than a domestic pussycat with a robust palate for a fish-dominated diet.
The rapid destruction of wetlands and being in continuous conflict with humans has forced this feline to a severe extinction crisis. These cats live at the top of the wetland food chain and saving them will save the wetlands.
A beauty queen
The queen loach is undoubtedly the most beautiful fish living in our wetlands. This small fish with yellow vertical stripes on a greenish-black base is mostly concentrated in the Chalan Beel and other haor areas. Although a delicacy, other than during monsoon, the fish is very rarely caught. It is endangered in Bangladesh, and dependent on pristine water quality. This beauty queen can be treated as an ideal ecological indicator.
A ruler of the haors
Our haor basin of northeastern Bangladesh is the breeding ground of the massive and majestic Pallas's fish eagle. Every year in winter, this bird visits its natal place far from the northern hemisphere. It raises its chick, then starts for the cyclic return journey. A study published last year in Oryx counted 53 breeding pairs in haors.
This is a globally endangered raptor, which means less than 2,500 of them survive on the earth. The eagle can be the banner of our haor conservation scheme.
A stream guardian
The recently discovered short-clawed otters by a team of scientists from the University of Dhaka usher in hope for the forest streams. Up until last year, these otters had been completely unheard of.
It has now been found that these globally vulnerable otters live in good numbers in almost every stream-fed forest of Moulvibazar, Habiganj and the Hill Tracts. These otters are ideal keystone species to protect these riparian ecosystems.
An underwater king
The humped featherback or chital is a predatory indigenous fish. It can attain a huge size, sits atop the underwater food web and is commercially harvested. Its status is fast deteriorating, now marked as near threatened. The Chalan Beel, one of its refuges, has shrunk 98% in the last 30 years under the brunt of human-induced pressure.
Putting the species at the frontline can restore a sustainable fishing practice at the wetlands.
A mangrove spirit
The creeks of the Sundarbans are home to one of the world's most elusive birds, the masked finfoot. The forest supports an isolated population, which is very likely one of the two breeding populations in the world.
Increase in salinity, overfishing, poison fishing and poaching are the reasons behind its demise. A 2020 study published in Forktail deemed it as the 'next avian extinction in Asia' and suggested further downgrading of its status as critically endangered.
Measures to save this bird are urgent, success in which can globally exemplify our marshy mangroves.
A tune of the flooded grasslands
The bristled grassbird is a master of music and a roamer of dense and tall grasslands. It is a very little known bird. There are only a handful of recorded sightings from the meadows of the haor basin and the seasonally flooded grasslands of the Ganges-Brahmaputra River.
This bird is globally vulnerable, meaning its heavenly tune is getting fainter every day. This is an ideal candidate to save the seasonal grasslands, an even further ignored wetland habitat.
A peacock with a shell
In Hindu mythology, it is said that our world lies on the back of a giant turtle. That way, the fate of our wetlands lies on the back of the peacock softshell turtle.
Named for having four eyespots on the back resembling those of the peacock, this elegant species is globally endangered. The turtle is reported from every wetland of the country including those nearby cities, which pose the greatest risks.
Turtles are ecosystem indicators. Upholding the species can also secure the fate of more than half-a-dozen other globally threatened turtles, mostly residing in non-protected wetlands.
Wetlands around the world are in peril. These delicate habitats are home to up to 40% of the world's species. Moreover, life of about one billion people depends on wetlands.
These fragile, easy-to-destroy habitats are disappearing three times faster than forests. A practice to embrace the wetland guardians can turn the tide of destruction.