Buffalo herding was the main profession of the family of Shamsul Alam. But the 50-year-old man from Moheshkhali Island of Cox's Bazar now fishes in the Bay for a living.
"When my father died 30 years ago, we had around 100 buffaloes. I left buffalo rearing as it started incurring losses," Shamsul said. He said increasing salinity has caused a huge shortage of drinking water for buffaloes and, consequently, a gradual decline in their numbers.
Another herder, Nurul Alam, had 50 buffaloes in 2000. Now he cultivates salt on his land that once was the grazing ground for his cattle.
By 2010, he had sold all his buffaloes as they were suffering from infertility, malnutrition and frequent illness.
"With the span of time, we found that the salinity in the fields was increasing. Then we were forced to cultivate salt and leave buffalo herding behind," the elderly man from Kutubdia Island told The Business Standard.
Increasing salinity also prompted Md Rezaul Karim of the same island in the Bay of Bengal to turn his bathan (grazing ground), an open space where over 100 buffaloes used to roam, into a salt field.
Buffaloes are vanishing from these islands. Bathans are turning into salt fields. Salinity is the key reason. Other reasons include diseases, cyclones, infertility, malnutrition, and shortages of grazing land.
In the 1990s, more than 8,000 native buffaloes grazed on the coastal island of Kutubdia, once a lush pasture land in southeastern Bangladesh, which facilitated buffalo rearing; however, now it reflects a different picture.
Two decades later, the buffalo population plummeted to just a little over 359 – which came further down to only 102 by 2020.
Buffaloes were once an integral part of the coastal economy and culture. The animals were the source of employment, protein and sacrifice during different occasions like Orosh and Eid.
In addition, treating guests with moisher doi (buffalo yoghurt) on occasions like wedding ceremonies used to be the order of the day.
The sharp decline in the buffalo population has caused people to shift from buffalo rearing to other professions such as salt cultivation, day labour and fishing.
It has also wiped out the island's famous yoghurt market and hit local people hard as the decline in buffaloes led to the loss of essential sources of protein and milk, both of which had been derived mainly from these animals in coastal areas.
According to experts, increasing salinity, development activities and extreme weather conditions corroded the grazing land, making it hard for native buffaloes to survive.
"Buffalo requires green fodder, they like to graze on swampy land," said Morshed Alam, deputy animal resources officer of Kutubdia.
But increased salinity in grazing fields, due in part to climate change-driven sea-level rise, made buffaloes sick. With few options left for earning a living from the land, herders have turned to producing salt, causing a decline in the amount of grazing land for buffaloes.
Around 90% of herders are cultivating salt on their land now, Morshed estimated.
According to the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation, salt cultivation in Kutubdia has increased six-fold during 1990-2020.
In 1990, salt was cultivated on around 1,000 acres of land, producing 30,000-40,000 tonnes, while in 2020 it was cultivated on 6,505 acres of land amounting to the production of 2,07,000 tonnes.
Referring to a survey, Prof Md Omar Faruque of the Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics of Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU), told The Business Standard that Bangladesh's buffalo population fell to 3.78 lakh in 2019, which was less than half the number in 2003.
"Nowadays weather abnormalities – sea level rise, storms, severe cyclones, erosion and salinity – not only displace people but cause a great threat to buffaloes too," said Pavel Partha, an ecology and biodiversity conservation expert and coordinator at the Bangladesh Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge.
Abdur Rahman Rana, director of the Center for People and Environment – a research organisation working on climate change issues – observed that because of the decline, buffalo curd, milk and meat are hardly on the food list of 4.3 crore coastal people, making it difficult for them to meet their protein demand.
Why the decline
In Bangladesh, three distinct types of Asian buffalo are found: riverine, swamp and their crossbreeds.
The main regions for native river buffalos are Chattogram, Cox's Bazar, Noakhali, Lakshmipur, Patuakhali, Bhola, Barguna, Barishal, Pirojpur and Jhalakathi. Sylhet, Habiganj, Sunamganj, Moulvibazar are home to native swamp buffaloes.
Some 75-80% buffaloes in Bangladesh are raised in coastal and haor areas, both of which are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts.
This correspondent spoke with at least 20 upazila livestock officers, veterinary surgeons and several farmers in the regions to determine the major reasons for the decline in the buffalo population.
Increased salinity in the water and soil is one of the main reasons for the rise in the diseases in buffaloes, explained Dr Md Fakhrul Islam, a doctor of veterinary medicine and upazila livestock officer in Hatiya.
Dr AKM Ahsan Kabir, a researcher and professor of Animal Science at BAU, told TBS that salinity might also cause infertility in bulls, leading to the country's current breeding crisis.
In his research conducted jointly with Lal Teer Livestock in Bangladesh and Mie University of Japan, it was found that buffalo meat from areas with high levels of salinity is found to be saltier in taste.
The salinity problem is likely to worsen in future.
The Bangladesh Soil Resources Development Institute forecasts, by 2050 salinity will increase over 55% in districts including Bagerhat, Barguna, Barishal, Bhola, Khulna, Jhalakathi, Pirojpur, and Satkhira.
Decreasing grazing land is another major threat to buffalo populations.
Experts say it is driven by the conversion of grazing land to commercial salt farms and chemical-based agriculture as well as corporate development and mega projects such as economic zones.
"Recently, development projects like those at Moheshkhali, Kutubdia, Matarbari, Sonadia, Cox's Bazar, and Mirsarai are a great threat," said Dr Md Omar Faruque of Bangladesh Agricultural University.
Anthrax, black quarter, haemorrhagic septicemia, and the Foot and Mouth Disease are also among the reasons causing reduction in meat and milk production and driving people away from herding buffaloes.
Md Alamgir Hoissain, a buffalo farmer of Bhedhuria in Bhola district said, "My three buffaloes were suffering from diarrhoea and died after drinking saline water from the river."
Efforts insufficient to stop further decline
The Department of Livestock Services has tried to address the decline in the buffalo population through various schemes, including artificial insemination, setting up a lab and setting up new farms or improving the old ones.
From 2010 to 2017 under the Buffalo Development Project 1, which cost Tk77 crore, around 20,000 doses of Italian Mediterranean buffalo semen were imported for artificial insemination.
Around 2,000 doses of semen were used in 39 upazilas where some herders were also given training on better animal husbandry practices.
"Due to a shortage of manpower, we could not use all the semen that time. We had only 55% success," said Tokabbar Hossain, who was the director of the project.
Old Italian semen stock is being used under another project titled Buffalo Development Project 2 (at a cost of Tk162 crore) taken up in 2018 and it will be completed by November 2023.
"Around 1,000 new buffalo crossbreeds have been born," said Prof Md Omar Faruque, consultant of the second project.
The project aims at training around 6,000 herders in 200 upazilas and importing 10 breeding bulls from India.
But experts say the project will not help save the native buffaloes.
Bangladesh is spending millions on increasing the buffalo population to meet the demand for meat and milk without taking into consideration the impact of climate change on buffalo fodder and habitation, said Abdur Rahman Rana, director at the Center for People and the Environment, a research organisation working on climate change issues.
Professor AKM Ahsan Kabir said, "Now it is time to take into consideration a buffalo adaptation project under the changing climate conditions, especially in coastal regions."
Indigenous buffaloes are tolerant to the coastal environment and are reared in an extensive environment, bathan, that the crossbreeds will not be able to cope with, he added.
"The alarming drop in the buffalo population in coastal Bangladesh needs to be studied urgently to determine the connection between the declining buffalo population and climate change and also to come up with solutions," said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development.
"The milk of indigenous buffaloes has a special quality. The yoghurt and cheese made from the milk of native buffaloes reared in offshore islands like Chattogram, Bhola and Barishal coasts taste better than those of crossbreeds," said Md Omar Faruque.
Unless conservation and improvement programmes are undertaken, indigenous buffaloes will not survive, he warned.
The offshore islands do not provide the required environment for the crossbreeds, Faruque said.
"I highly recommend that conservation and improvement programmes are undertaken to save our native buffaloes from going extinct," he said.
The story is based on a research under a grant fellowship of the Earth Journalism Network