Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Stubborn Students and Kanai's Krait - The Bangladesh Python Project Part III ---Guest Post--

By Jon Hakim

Make sure to start at Part I.


“My name's Dean and I'm a wetlands ecologist by training.”

“My name is Hasan and I am the president of the Green Explore Society.”

“My name is Max and I'm a wildlife photographer and environmental consultant.”

“My name is Mehedi and I am the chief of GES-Studio.”



The Green Explore Society is a student-run environmental group at Shahjalal University of Science & Technology.  They deploy an impressive membership roll of 300 students into research, media, and animal rescue wings.  Not many people are environmentally inclined in Bangladesh, but GES is actively trying to change that.  One of the group's co-founders, Animesh Ghose, is an ecology student and frog enthusiast who has been studying the frog assemblages at Ratargul Swamp Forest, the last remaining swamp forest in Bangladesh.  Animesh interns with the Bangladesh Python Project and was our constant guide and advisor in Lawachara.


Halfway through our time at the national park, Animesh brought fifteen of his fellow GES students to our dorm. Scott Trageser and Ash Wisco led them in a workshop on wildlife photography, with a practicum where the students worked on macro shots of spiders and distant shots of gibbons. At night we split up the group and took them on trail transects, python and tortoise radio-tracking, and road cruising surveys. But the highlight of our time with GES was when we convened for a group experience-sharing session. 


The first to share were the foreigners.  We each had a story we hoped could inform or inspire them – wildlife impact assessments we had worked on, citizen science projects that had resulted in land being conserved for native species, even snakebite experiences.  Then someone asked if the students had any stories they would like to share.  Hasan and Animesh gave us this:

“In Dhaka there is a festival every year called Ratha Yatra, one of the auspicious programs of Hindu Religion. For several years we had visited a fair related to this festival and were surprised to wild birds sold right in front of the police camp - birds like Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis), Jungle Myna (Acridotheres fuscus) , Hill Myna (Gracula religiosa), Spotted Dove (Spilopelia chinensis) , Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto), Baya Weaver (Ploceus philippinus), Bronze-Winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus), Black Hooded Oriole (Oriolus xanthornus), Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio), and several parakeet and finch species.  



Many of these birds are protected under the Bangladesh Wildlife Preservation Act and also in Bangladesh Preservation and Security Act. We also found some other birds which are rare and uncommon residents in Bangladesh. We tried to take action through the police camp, the regional office of the Bangladesh Forest Department, and the Bangladesh Police and Rapid Action Battalion, but got no response.  


In 2013, the Green Explore Society organized from the beginning of this fair to contact with Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (a national environmental organization) and PRADHIKAR (a student based organization of Sylhet Agricultural University working for animal welfare). We then sat together and planned for stopping this illegal activity. We decided that from our three organizations we would submit a letter of concern to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, the Divisional Forest Officer and the Deputy Commissioner of the District Council.  We submitted this letter and watched for any change but unfortunately the things were going on as usual. Then we decided that we would made a raid on the fair together and we would call police for help.



As per our plan, we went to the spot on the evening of July 12th. We tried to convince the traders to stop these things but they did not pay any attention. On the spot, we decided if we did not stop this trade at this time then it would be our failure. We called the Metropolitan Police for help and they sent a police force with three members!!!  With them we started to stop the wild bird selling but some traders of this fair had already hidden the birds, and others escaped right in front of us.  When we picked up a few cages of birds some traders came along with bamboo sticks to hit us!!! 



A policeman tried to reconcile the dispute but failed.  After some time the “conveiner” of this fair tried to arbitrate.  He apologized for the incident and he promised that from next day on any kind of wild bird trade would be prohibited in the fair. We told them that if we saw any wild birds on the next day then we would again cease them on the spot.  After that we released all the wild birds which were recovered from the fair. After that day, there were no wild birds or any other wild animals in the fair premises.  This year we found only Common Mynas there, and when we complained for that to the fair authority they stopped things again.  

We think this was a success story for Green Explore Society on the conservation effort. This success story is not only from our part, this one is from our three organizations who work for nature conservation.”

This is Bangladesh, a country in which Walmart claims that it is powerless to stop the deaths of hundreds of workers in its own production factories, and where local governments claim that they are powerless to stop the poaching of the remaining trees and wildlife from their protected areas.  Yet a handful of university students were able to shut down a significant bird market with no personal authority other than their determination that it needed to be done.

It wasn't the only story the students shared.  After Hasan finished the bird market account, Animesh launched into a description of the group's Snake Photography Exhibition.  Under the auspices of an art exhibition, the group displayed local snake photographs in a university common space for six days, with detailed information on the ecological benefit of snakes.  The university's vice-chancellor inaugurated the exhibition, over one thousand students left notes in the exhibition's feedback diary, and GES reports that they've seen a visible change in their fellow students' attitude towards snakes.  

We had something to learn from these students indeed.

After the GES students' visit ended, our group turned our focus back to the field. 

In retrospect, it was a strange setting for a group herping expedition.  Kanai Das brought four of us down the dirt road that led to Fulbari Village.  We nodded at the plantation security guard as we entered.  Fulbari, like many of the villages within the park, is actually a worker settlement for one of the tea plantations which fill an area much larger than the forest land preserved in the park.  These tea workers work long and hard hours picking tea leaves while living in poverty on the outskirts of the fields.

A Brown Fish Owl (Bubo zeylonensis) the height of a toddler stared at us as we entered the village's rice paddies.  We explored the area around simple homes, locals looking away from Italy's World Cup soccer game to stare at the foreigners with their flashlights.  Our light cones cut into the darkness behind huts and into small fields.  Many herps in Lawachara can only be found in relatively older cuts of forest, of which there is precious little left.  But the Banded Krait (Bungarus fasciatus) feels most at home right in the middle of these rice paddy villages.  And Kanai was hoping to guide us to a krait tonight.

Kanai Das grew up in Lawachara and has been working for Caesar full-time for three years (Swapon Das, another local villager, is also employed in the project).  While wearing many hats on a day-to-day basis – radiotracking, outreach, dog and equipment care, etc. - Kanai has a special role as community liaison.  He is the primary contact for the snake calls that form one of the basic ways in which residents interact with the Python Project.  

The constant staring of the villagers would have made our search awkward if we hadn't had Kanai there to lead us.  He greased the wheels wherever we went, chatting it up and even getting a couple of men to join us in our search.  The Bangladeshis spoke to each other in Bangla, while the Westerners communicated to each other in English, with Kanai and I occasionally switching to Hindi in order to speak with each other and then translating that out to our respective cohorts. In this manner we poked and prodded the ditches and huts and fields, hoping to find a snake that no one else in the village wants to come across.


After 1.5 hours of searching, we had made our way to a fallow rice field on the outskirts of the village, well out of earshot of the villagers cheering Italy's loss.  As I crossed the field my eyes caught a striking black-and-yellow pattern intertwined with the grass.  “Krait, there's a krait!” I yelled.  And even better yet, “It's eating a wolf snake!”  Not only had we found our krait, but it had a still-moving Indian Wolf Snake (Lycodon aulicus) in its jaws.



The four of us white guys watched in wonder as the krait first tried to carry its prey away, then settled down and finished its meal.  We were in awe of its beauty, its venom, and its boldness.  Kanai stood alongside us with the two friends who had joined the search, proud as could be that he had led a successful hunt.  Here we were, seeing an awesome species continuing to do its thing right alongside the people who lived here.  For a night, it felt that all was right with the villagers and the snakes and the herp lovers.


Of course, the next day the proverbial feces hit the fan.

Don't Miss Part IV (The Conclusion) Tomorrow.

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