While most of Bangladesh's semi-evergreen forests in the northeast are on their last legs, patches of forest in the Chattogram Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh – especially the Kassalong Reserve Forest – remain ecologically uncharted.
Kassalong was declared a reserve forest in 1881, yet very little is known about its biological diversity and it will probably disappear before its secrets are revealed.
In the Chattogram Hill Tracts, the Kassalong Reserve Forest borders Myanmar to the south and east, India's Assam and Tripura to the east and north, and Chattogram District and the extension of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region to the west.
According to Forest Department statistics, 117,000-hectares of land were covered with natural forest and bamboo in 1963; this shrank to 73,000-hectares in 1983 and further reduced to 65,000-hectares in 1992. The forest has declined by approximately 10 percent every 10 years.
However, in reality, the destruction has been even more massive, leaving only less than 20 percent of the natural habitat remaining, over the last 50 years. The centenary of deforestation hit its peak after the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord was signed in 1997.
Some might blame slash and burn or Jhum cultivation in the Chattogram Hill Tracts as the primary reason for environmental and ecological degradation. However, politics, unsustainable development and several other notable reasons also created this interconnected complex situation. For example, the Kaptai Hydroelectric Project inundated 54 thousand acres of land – this pushed a huge percentage of hill tract peoples to higher land or even outside of Bangladesh.
This reduction in fertile cultivable land significantly enhanced Jhum cultivation. Moreover, the decrease in land per person led to faster shifting cultivation. The traditional practice of Jhum would normally abandon a piece of land for 15 to 20 years to regrow its fertility. However, this period of Jhum cultivation has greatly reduced. Thus, the Kaptai Dam heavily impacted both the socio-economic and environmental condition of the Chattogram Hill Tracts.
A road was built through the heart of the Kassalong Reserve Forest in 2003 – starting at Baghaihat, via Masalong, and ending in Sajek – opening up a gateway to mass devastation of the hill forests and to its residents.
The remnants of the Kassalong Reserve Forest still host numerous rare and globally-threatened wild animals. Endangered mammals – like the Asiatic wild dog or dhole, Asian elephant, western hoolock gibbon, and hog deer – are fighting their last battle to survive on the fringes of the reserve forest. Moreover, the globally-vulnerable binturong, Asian black bear, gaur or Indian bison and sambar deer still live on the fragments of the reserve. It is crucial to save the remainder of this forest of global significance.
Is it too late for interventions to preserve whatever is left of Kassalong, and can measures be taken to put an end to the destruction? Of course, there is a room for that, but without pointing any fingers, it is important the right authorities, government, timber businessmen, and locals realise what they have caused and how far this can go before no trees are left to cut or provide shade.
Kassalong is just an example of what might be happening to many other reserved forests in Bangladesh. It begins with the construction of roads, then a display of bias and misuse of policies, and businessmen arriving to make profit. With that, Bangladesh grows less and less short of the right kind of green.
However, one must remain idealistic and believe it is not too late to conserve Kassalong's remaining forest and biodiversity. The government and other conservation-focused agencies need to step in to start restoring the destroyed forest. It is not an easy task but it is not impossible.