Enam Ul Haque, the winner of Bangabandhu Award for Wildlife Conservation 2018 and the national coordinator of Bangladesh for Asian Waterfowl Census, shares his worry with The Business Standard as many birds are disappearing from Bangladesh.
Where do the birds of Bangladesh stand now?
Enam: The birds in Bangladesh are in decline as humans continue to invade their habitats and poison their food chain more than ever before.
There are two kinds of declines in waterbirds: population and species diversity.
In 2000, we counted over a hundred thousand waterbirds of more than 70 species at each of the critical sites such as Tanguar Haor and the coastal areas.
Now there are about 50,000 waterbirds of about 60 species or less at the same sites. Waterfowls like Eurasian spoonbill, comb duck, falcated duck, and fulvous whistling duck have disappeared from the waterbodies of our country.
A few other species like Baer's Pochard, white-winged duck, spoon-billed sandpiper, and Nordmann's greenshank are vanishing fast from Bangladesh like everywhere else in the world.
Are things getting worse?
Enam: Trapping or shooting birds is on the decline. The rich are not hunting birds like before, as it is becoming socially unacceptable. With the availability of more rewarding professions in rural Bangladesh, not many poor people are trapping birds for a living now.
But poisoning waterbirds is becoming more widespread, killing many birds with minimal efforts. It is like a piece of cake and requires less skill than trapping or shooting. Only 20 years back, no one knew how to poison birds.
In 2003, for the first time, we heard that hundreds of birds were left poisoned at Hakaluki Haor. While visiting several beels, we found dead birds killed that way.
We collected dead and dying ducks for forensic tests.
Since 2003, the poisoning of ducks for trade has been spreading. For several years, ducks are being poisoned in the coastal areas of Bhola. This year, we got news of poisoning of ducks from Rajshahi.
Bangladesh is considered a crucial stopover for different migratory birds as it has abundant wetland resources.
Many restaurants of Sylhet Division are now serving meat of winter birds. And people do not seem to care about how and from where the meat is coming.
What is your take on the news that the Wildlife Crime Control Unit rescued 22,879 birds from poachers since 2012, a number much higher than other rescued wildlife?
Enam: The Forest Department did a great job, but it is just the tip of an iceberg compared to the level of poaching and illegal wildlife trade going on in Bangladesh.
Hunting birds is like picking low-hanging fruits. To chase a tiger, one has to enter the Sundarbans, but birds can be trapped and killed everywhere.
The news of birds being rescued is heart-warming, but the widespread poisoning of them rings an alarm bell. The government should intervene and check this crime seriously. Such a practice will be tough to stop when it becomes popular.
We talk a lot about big migratory birds. What about the small ones?
Enam: Bangladesh is the winter home of several families of shorebirds, and many more bird families known as minivet, swallow, lark, pipit, warbler, thrush, chat, flycatcher, wagtail, pipit and bunting.
In summer, these little birds go back to their breeding habitats to the north, the Himalayas, or beyond it – to taiga and tundra. During August-September, when these places become too cold for the birds, they return to Bangladesh.
Although people rarely trap, poison, or eat these birds, they are also under serious threat. Most of them thrive on insects that we kill thoughtlessly.
Using pesticides in cropland, herbicides in tea gardens, and aerosols in houses, people are killing environmentally-friendly insects. So the little birds are starving to death.
How is climate change affecting migratory birds?
Enam: Climate change is doing more harm to birds than what we humans have already done. For thousands of years, birds have been laying eggs at the tundra areas, most of which are getting inundated at an unprecedented rate.
Wild birds cannot cope with changes if it happens too quickly. With the sea level rising, the birds now have little space for breeding. More birds in smaller areas mean lower breeding success and population decline.
How human activities destroy birds' habitats?
Enam: We share the earth with birds. Some birds like the sparrow, starlings, and crow are good at living with humans. But for foraging and nesting, most other birds need exclusive habitats.
Intruding into grassland, mudflat, shoal, scrubland, and forest, we have driven many birds away from their places.
A lot of these winged creatures thrive on floating water weeds, submerged vegetation, and molluscs. Mindless development work and encroachment is not sparing the lakes, ponds, and puddles. Most wetlands have been brought under intensive shrimp and fish cultivation; no bird can survive there.
The only places still left for the birds are the remote haors and coastal mudflats. Usually, the mud remains soft and good for the shorebirds for hundreds of years before becoming hard enough for human use. But hoards of cattle are now being grazed on all the emerging shoals, ruining the natural ecosystem.
These shoals belong to the people, not to the land grabbers. The administration must do something.
Bangladesh has thousands of jalmahals – waterbodies – leased out to the fish traders by the district administration. The leasing process has failed to conserve biodiversity and fish resources.
The jalmahals should be brought under a department like the Forest Department with the responsibility of biodiversity conservation, and not just revenue generation.
But there is Haor and Wetland Development Board.
Enam: Yes. But the district administration owns the haor, not the board. If a department holds the haors, its staff can develop their expertise in waterbody conservation.
No district administration officer can grow that expertise as they have to administer many other things.
As a leasee removes water from haor, its biomass depletes and eventually turns into a paddy field. Though withdrawing water this way is prohibited, it has been in practice as a leasee can fish without incurring the high cost of netting. It changes the character of the waterbody, leaving it less fertile for aquatic vegetation.
The practice took a heavy toll on many haors, namely the Pasuar Beel of Gurmar Haor. During 1993-94, it had around three hundred thousand birds; now, it is just a paddy field.
Besides the loss of biodiversity, a haor turned into a paddy field faces other losses.
What is more valuable: fish or rice? The value of fish in a haor is usually ten-times higher than the paddy cultivated in it.
Does monoculture destroy bird habitats?
Enam: Always. Diversity is the heart of wildlife. Insects, animals, and birds can thrive when there is a great variety of plants. An increasing number of domesticated plants like mango and mahogany is not good enough for biodiversity and the birds.
Biodiversity is better-served by letting wild plants thrive, and wilderness grow.
In Bangladesh, what we call the "agachha" – worthless plant – are the most valuable plants and protected as a national asset in many countries.
Wild plants are invaluable even though they don't give us fruit or shade. They support insects and all life forms on which birds thrive. We must give nature a chance.
The IUCN categorised 55 birds as "data deficient" in its survey. You were the lead assessor of that survey. Is further research needed to protect them from extinction?
Enam: The IUCN did it during 2015-16. We didn't have enough information on those birds then.
We know a little more now; of course, further research should be done. The IUCN will update the Red List after fifteen years.
In between the two assessments, a lot of work needs to be done. The government should invest big in biodiversity conservation.
Fortunately, many volunteers are providing information on birds with their photography. Regularly, they are giving details of the birds. Now is the time for the government to harness these social forces to conserve the country's biodiversity.