We returned from Tanguar haor and Baikka beel without seeing a single ruddy shelduck, the most distinctive duck of our wetlands. We are, however, not too disappointed by its absence since we did not see the duck there for quite a few years and gradually got used to it.
Over the past decades, the ruddy shelduck has been disappearing from the haors, the northern lakes of Bangladesh. The Hakaluki haor remained the only lake the shelducks continued to call their winter home where last year we found only four of them. The number used to be several thousand a decade before.
Usually, the shelducks are seen more at the banks of the Padma and Jamuna rivers and the emerging chars all along the coast. Even there, their numbers have not been comforting over the years. The number of ruddy shelduck has fallen from several thousand to a few hundred in recent years.
The survey team has found less than five hundred ruddy shelducks at the coast this year. The team is yet to visit the riverbanks, and we are keeping our fingers crossed. We do not want to see this elegant and iconic duck vanish from Bangladesh in our lifetime.
The declining population of ruddy shelducks pains us, particularly for two reasons. First, its steep decline is not global; this is happening only in Bangladesh. Second, ruddy shelduck is not just another wild duck; it is our beloved 'chokachoki' - an enduring symbol of undying love and fidelity.
For generations, Bengali folklore, fables, and poems have endeared the faithful chokachoki to us. The 'chokachokir mela' or the merry multitudes of ruddy shelducks at the riverbank used to make a blissful autumn day for the Nobel-laureate Rabindranath Thakur, the great bard of Bengal.
Rabindranath had possibly seen the gatherings of chokachoki beyond the paddy fields under autumn clouds many a time from his Shilaidaha-Kuthibari in Kushtia. That was only about a hundred years from today. It will be impossible for us to find as many chokachoki in the entire Padma River now.
We had the good fortune to witness a sizable gathering of chokachoki for the last time at a remote part of Hakaluki haor a decade ago. No haor can offer that spectacle anymore. The population of ruddy shelduck in Bangladesh has been shrinking very fast, certainly, faster than in any country in Asia.
We can guess what has been driving the population decline of ruddy shelduck in Bangladesh. Over the last two decades, the media has been carrying news reports of thousands of poisoned ducks from Hakaluki haor and showing us photographs of dozens of poisoned ruddy shelducks from the coast.
We did not take measures against those senseless slaughters effectively to halt the decline. When there are tons of well-meaning people in our society and government, we do not have the motivation, means and capacity to save our wildlife commendably.
The ruddy shelduck feeds mostly on grass and aquatic vegetation at the banks of rivers and the edge of beels which inexorably exposes it more to persecution. Moreover, it weighs over one and a half kilograms and has the reputation of being delicious when cooked.
The ruddy shelduck's orange feathers resemble the saffron robes of Brahmin priests, and it is called Brahminy Duck in India. As a result, it receives some protection from persecution there. Buddhists consider the shelduck sacred and are mostly free of persecution at its breeding ground in Tibet and Mongolia.
Clearly, no such antiquated and religious protection is there in Bangladesh for the ruddy shelduck. That the duck has been a vaunted symbol of marital fidelity probably, does not go very far in protecting it against the marauding individuals with guns or poisoned baits.
The marital fidelity of ruddy shelducks may actually be helping its population decline in Bangladesh now. We have been told that after killing the first shelduck, the hunter can easily kill a second if he waits for his mate to return to the site to mourn the dead.
Ruddy shelducks do form long-lasting pair bonds, unlike many other ducks that marry afresh on every breeding season. Although the female shelduck alone incubates her usual clutch of eight eggs for nearly a month, the male dutifully stands guard near the nest-hole and resists every temptation to stray.
Ruddy shelducks are also unusual in the way they shed feathers or moult. After the chicks grow up in two months, the parents float naked and flightless for a full month by dropping all feathers simultaneously. Most other birds moult gradually, always retaining some feather-cover and the capacity to fly.
Ruddy shelducks with freshly minted feathers leave the mountain lakes of Mongolia and China in autumn and cross the Himalayas to be at our wetlands. They would go hungry if they did not leave the mountains before winter as they would if they did not leave Bangladesh before monsoon.
The global population of ruddy shelduck is over two lacs and not declining except for some small feral populations in a few European countries. Since the duck is doing so well globally, many of us have looked at our waterfowl survey data the past two decades in disbelief.
It is hard to comprehend that the chokachokir mela exulted by poet Rabindranath is coming to an end in Bangladesh when ruddy shelducks continue to fare well in most other parts of Asia.