We were shocked to find a pair of Cotton Pygmy-goose hiding behind a floating bundle of water-hyacinth at Baikka Beel. We were shocked not because we found the two geese there; but because we could find no more. Through the telescope, we looked eagerly for more, but the entire beel had no more than two to offer.
Before visiting Baikka Beel, we were at Tanguar Haor and saw only a single Cotton Pygmy-goose at Chatainna Beel, one of the seven beels we surveyed. If that lonely duck at Tanguar Haor was tragic to look at, the sight of two at Baikka Beel was no less so.
There are only two geese at Baikka Beel, a wetland known as the preeminent nursery of Cotton Pygmy-goose! The number of geese there was tens in recent years, and in hundreds a few decades ago. Dr Paul Thompson, who knew the beel for decades, said: "Let's hope that the geese have moved to a better feeding place and shall return in spring to breed."
It is true that the number of Cotton Pygmy-goose usually grows at Baikka Beel in spring. In monsoon, the geese breed in the nest-boxes placed in the Hijol-Koroch groves at the edge of the beel; and in spring, they arrive to form pair-bonds and commence courtship.
But the question is, if the number of Cotton Pygmy-goose at Baikka Beel in winter becomes as little as two, how much it could grow in spring. Although the number of these geese of the beel in winter had been falling precipitously over the years, it did not go as low as two before.
We know that the population of every species of ducks is falling in Bangladesh. Even then, it is difficult for us to imagine that soon in Baikka Beel we may see no Cotton Pygmy-goose, our beloved 'Bali-hash'. It is especially heart-rending because Baikka Beel was the only wetland where it had been breeding in man-made nests.
Cotton Pygmy-goose used to live in nearly every village in Bangladesh once. That was when villages had beels, tarns and ponds with lush green vegetation for those little geese to feed on. And the villages had groves or woods full of ancient trees with natural cavities for the geese to nest.
Cotton Pygmy-goose preferred to nest in cavities as most other non-migratory wild-ducks of this county did. It would also nest in cavities of abandoned buildings and brick structures of the village cremation ground when suitable tree cavities were in short supply.
We began to miss the Bali-hash troupes from our villages as the beels, tarns, groves and olden wood all but vanished from there. Over a couple of decades, our villages became all hamlets and paddy fields. Nearly every wetland became fish-pond, and the ancient trees became timber.
The large and remote wetland called haor was the only place where the Bali-hash survived the hasty urbanisation of Bangladesh. Even there, its population was in steep decline. We had no idea what could hurt those little geese even at the haor.
Weighing only about 150 grams, the Bali-hash is the smallest duck in the world, and its meat is not known to be particularly tasty. Hunters and trappers usually do not target the Bali-hash, although they are not so kind to anything named duck as to spare it when found at close range or snared in nets.
The little Bali-hash happens to be the tiniest goose Nature has ever created. One may not even be convinced that it is a goose until they notice its short, deep and strong bill. Like a goose, the Bali-hash aggressively nibbles on the abundant aquatic vegetables of the haor.
While giving safe feeding grounds, the haor has little to offer in terms of breeding facilities for the Bali-hash. A haor is usually a very large wetland with nearly no tree old enough to have large cavities for a dainty bark-coloured female Bali-hash to enter and lay a dozen eggs.
To tackle the haors' shortage of tree cavities, a hundred nest boxes were placed on the young Hijol and Koroch trees of Baikka Beel at the southern tip of Haila Haor. After a few years of hesitation, the Bali-hash started nesting in many of those boxes.
We hoped that the population of Bali-hash at the haor would stabilise if not go up. Our hope proved premature, and the population of Bali-hash continued to dip. Even at Baikka Beel, its number was falling, and fewer nest-boxes were being taken up each year.
Thousands of Bali-hash and its eggs were sold at the wild-bird market of Kolkata at the beginning of the past century. Ornithologist Allan O Hume noted that the number of Cotton Pygmy-goose sold there over a decade stayed the same, although the numbers of other wild-ducks were declining.
Hume blamed that on the abundance as well as extreme tameness of Cotton Pygmy-goose, which made the bird easy to trap. The Bali-hash, however, is no longer abundant or tame in nature. They are also abundant in no wild-bird market. What should we blame now!
Now we fear that forces stronger than hunting or the shortage of feeding grounds and nesting trees are behind the ceaseless shrinking of our Bali-hash population. Could it be the poisoning of aquatic vegetation and insects as we pollute the water with chemicals used at factories, farms and homes!