Tiger country? Scientists uncover wild surprises in tribal Bangladesh

The locals said there were tigers in the forest. They also said there were sun bear, gaur, dhole and clouded leopard. Few took note, but it turned out, not surprisingly, that locals were right. Conservationists surveying the super-remote, little-known Chittagong Hills Tract region of Bangladesh have taken the country’s first ever photos of sun bear and gaur. And last month they discovered a 13-centimetre pugmark (or pawprint) of a feline, which experts believe is a tiger.

“Despite the tremendous challenges [facing] the natural heritage of Bangladesh – all hope is not lost yet,” said Shahriar Caesar Rahman, the co-founder of the new group, Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA). Rahman and his group, which organized the wildlife survey that employed camera traps, have been working in the Chittagong Hills Tract region for five years by partnering with the local tribes and securing support from Bangladesh’s forest department.

The Chittagong Hills Tract is a massive area of Bangladesh – 10% of the country and nearly the size of Northern Ireland – but few outsiders have ever heard of it. The hilly, forested landscape is inhabited by 11 different ethnic groups who practise traditional slash-and-burn agricultural combined with hunting and gathering, living largely as they have done for generations.

“[They] practise the old way of life with little to no modern facilities of education and healthcare,” explained Rahman, who noted their culture was quite different from other parts of Bangladesh. Chittagong Hills Tract is also, arguably, the wildest part of Bangladesh.

“[It] falls within the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot and harbours many globally threatened species, including more cat species than anywhere else in the world,” said Rahman. “To date, little work has been done on the biodiversity of this region, mainly due to remoteness and political instability of the area.”

Chittagong was the site of a 20-year-conflict between tribal groups and the government due to attempts to settle Bengali people in the area. A peace treaty was eventually signed in 1997, though remains controversial today. 

Istiak Sobhan, a co-founder of CCA and consultant with the World Bank, said that the decades of political unrest “was probably a blessing in disguise” for wildlife as it unintentionally safeguarded the region’s biodiversity. 

“We need to protect these areas at any cost,” Sobhan added.

Doing so means working with multiple ethnic groups as partners, according to Rahman, who has built up a small army of what he terms “parabiologists”.

“We gave them a few camera traps and trained them how to set up those cameras. Now, they are monitoring the mammals using camera traps. It’s a perfect fusion of modern science and traditional ecological knowledge.”

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