A snakebird looked warily over its shoulder at our slender boat as the boatman paddled quietly through the fog. A flock of very wary Whistling Duck riding a raft of water-hyacinth intensely watched the manic motion of our unwieldy cameras.
Leisurely we were heading northeast leaving behind the long line of sluice gates of the Muhuri Dam. The dam at the confluence of Muhuri and Feni rivers fashioned a fresh-water lake that has been attracting migratory ducks since the early 1990s. Following the ducks, we also turned regular winter visitors to this lively lake. The ducks live here the entire winter while we come to spend only a day or two.
The dam is in Sonagazi upazila, some 18 km from the Feni town. It was built to retain river-water for irrigation and to protect farmland from tidal wave. In winter the migratory ducks come to feed on the underwater aquatic vegetation growing in the shallow lake the dam has created.
The migratory eagles, harriers and osprey come to feed on fish and fowls of the lake. Only two months back, the lake pulled in a large crowd of photographers who came to see and snap a White-tailed Eagle, a bird very rarely seen in Bangladesh. Unfortunately the photographers had only four days to do their work, at the end of which the young and famished eagle died after eating a poisoned rat.
Regrettably, we are about to witness a death at the Muhuri Dam in this visit as well. After floating quietly for an hour we heard a sharp report of gunfire ripping through the mist. We became conscious of sharing the lake with an invisible hunter.
Bang, he fired his gun a second time. Through the binoculars we saw a boat with four crews and the hunter in a gaudy jump-suite with a double-barrelled shotgun in hand. Soon the hunter's jubilant assistant pulled from the lake a dead Whistling Duck with its sodden body pitifully dangling and dripping blood. A flock of screaming Whistling Duck flew over the tree line to leave the lake.
Along with the screaming ducks we shouted some profanities at the hunter. He heard the ducks and fired upon them twice, with no success. We were spared, probably because he was too far to hear us. Besides, he may well be half-deaf with all those bang-bang going on next to his ears with no earmuffs or any other protection. No wonder, these hunters often go deaf young. I would like to meet this hapless hunter of the Whistling Duck and advise him to use earmuffs and tell him that no duck-meat can ever improve the damaged hearing or any other failing faculty of human beings.
Soon the hunter could see us through the fading fog and his response was swift. He laid his gun down immediately and turned away to hide his face from our cameras. Is he now ashamed of what he has been doing a while ago! This thought pleased me a bit since I know how many millions of hunters are there in the world who happened to be proud, not ashamed, of their needless slaughter. At least, this hunter at the Muhuri Dam knew damned well that it was not chic to be a bird-killer in Bangladesh. He is not the buffoon to pose for us with the gun in one hand and his kill in the other.
As our boat went nearer to the hunter's he transformed into a hunched heap of visible misery. Suddenly our camera is a weapon more menacing than his gun; and we are a gang of adversaries more monstrous than what he had been to the ducks! Possibly, the slain duck in his boat now hangs on him as heavy as the Albatross on the proverbial Ancient Mariner's neck. Here are those unrivalled lines of Samuel Tayler Coleridge to express the anguish of a bird-killer:
… … … … … what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
We turned our boat away and were content not to prolong the hunter's misery. Not so our boatman. He vowed to report the matter to the upazila administration. Proudly he noted that the hunter's boat did not belong to anyone of the Muhuri Lake boatmen community. He said, "We serve no hunter; we carry tourists who come here to watch and photograph birds. The hunter's boat must have come from some distant village upstream."
As soon as we came ashore our boatman called the upazila administration to report the bird-killing incidence. An upazila officer called us back seeking confirmation of the occurrence and requested us to send him photos of the hunter. Good job, Sonagazi upazila administration!