Monday, September 15, 2014

Snake Call! - The Bangladesh Python Project Part I --Guest Post---

By Jon Hakim

I hadn't even settled into the dormitory when Caesar's announcement rang through the rooms.  “We've got a snake call in the village!  Who wants to go?”

I wasn't going to be left out.  My late arrival had caused me to miss the previous night's herp surveys, which along with an array of frogs and lizards had produced two Green Cat Snakes (Boiga cyanea), a Spot-tailed Pit Viper (Trimeresurus erythrurus), a Himalayan Keelback (Rhabdophis himalayanus), and a Zaw's Wolf Snake (Lycodon zawi), plus an indeterminate kukri snake (Oligodon sp.) whose scale counts and pattern belied easy identification.  Having missed that bounty, I wanted to get my feet wet quick.

Four of us jumped into the rental car and we were off to Fulbari Village, one of 30 villages scattered in and around Lawachara National Park in Bangladesh.  As we entered the village, people began to edge the dirt road to see the visiting foreigners.  We found a crowd of 20-25 people surrounding a man with a 1.5 meter adult Copperhead Trinket Snake (Coelognalthus radiatus) in his hands.  Shahriar Caesar Rahman, a Bangladeshi ecologist who is the founder and director of the Bangladesh Python Project, took the snake and began talking to the crowd in Bangla.  Those of us who were Bangla-ignorant took photos, sure that Caesar was educating the crowd about the value of snakes and telling them why they don't need to be killed.  Several children got the chance to touch the somewhat malnourished snake.  After just a few minutes, we were back in the car and off.

Later I asked Caesar what he had said to the villagers.  Caesar responded, “I was just asking them where they had found the snake, what it had been doing.”

“And explaining the ecological benefits of snakes?” I suggested.

“The people in this village, they are already converted,” Caesar informed me.  “We've been going there since 2012.  They know about the good that snakes do and know not to harm them.  They're completely on board with us.” 

I realized, not for the last time, that my assumptions about people and snakes in Bangladesh would need some adjustment.

We returned to the dorm with more work to do.  In the main area of the dorm were two Elongated Tortoises (Indotestudo elongata) that had been acquired after having been illegally caught in another part of the country.  Those tortoises, who had spent the previous morning disturbing bus passengers with their vigorous mating, were to be released in the park the next day as the pilot feasibility study for a tortoise relocation effort.  Elongated Tortoises are an IUCN Redlist Endangered Species due to habitat loss, human take, and their slow path to maturity.  Caesar is hoping that the park may become a destination for tortoises confiscated from poachers attempting to traffic them or villagers ignorant of the laws against their capture.  The fate of these first two relocated tortoises will help to determine whether more will follow.

But “Burao” and “Clang”, the relocated tortoises, would have to wait until tomorrow.  Today's star was “Alo”, a tortoise captured by a young village boy right here in Lawachara.  The boy's father had brought the tortoise to Caesar, and Caesar was releasing him back into Lawachara with a radio-transmitter attached to launch a study of the behavior of Lawachara's native tortoises.  It is a measure of the novelty of such work that three Bangladeshi journalists were on hand to document the proceedings.  Park rangers from Lawachara also attended, as did Dr. S.M.A. Rashid, an ecologist who alongside Caesar makes the project a reality.  Rashid is the founder and director of the Center for Advanced Research in Nature Resources and Management, a Bangladeshi NGO that works on conservation issues across the country.  CARiNAM provides the administrative support for the Bangladesh Python Project, and Caesar and Rashid co-write most of the project's scientific output.

A good bit of time was spent performing a final health check of the tortoise, affixing the transmitter, and posing for pictures for the journalists.  Scott Trageser, an American ecologist who has worked in Desert Tortoise capture-and-relocation projects in the States, directed the proceedings.  For most of us foreigners this was our first taste of transmitter work.  When the transmitter was securely in place and all appropriate hand-shaking and photo-ops were finished, we loaded up into the backs of two pickup trucks and snaked our way along rice-paddy roads to Baghmara Village, the village near which Alo was originally found.  Elevated above the paddies, the roads were barely broad enough to accommodate our truck.   We ended up being directed to a building on the outskirts of the village.  Over sixty villagers gathered to see why two trucks and so many foreigners had come into their world.  They didn't seem disappointed when the tortoise was brought out and Caesar and Rashid told them about it.

“This is the turtle that was found by the young boy last month,” Caesar told the crowd in Bangla.  “These turtles are endangered, there are very few of them left, and they are the pride of our country so we can't afford to let them disappear.  Please don't eat these turtles.  We have placed this radio-transmitter on the turtle so we can observe its movements and learn more about how it lives.  If you find a turtle, whether it has a radiotransmitter or not, please don't touch it.  Leave it alone and let us know that you saw it.”

A villager responded, “But what about the monkeys and the wild pigs in the forest?  They come out of the forest and destroy our crops, damage our trees.  What are you going to do about them?  How can you expect us to leave them alone?”

Not really the reply I expected.  The head park ranger took on his question.

“They're coming out of the forest because we're destroying their homes.  We cut down their trees to make our fields larger, and we're taking their fruit and branches out of the forest.  We need to remember that they were here before we were.  They're our friends, we need to live together.”

It was a bold line for a Bangladeshi park ranger to take in response to a public complaint (later that week, a different park ranger would be beaten by locals in an unrelated incident).  But active coexistence appears to be the only option for sustainability in Lawachara.  The 30 villages around the park contain well over 30,000 people, and outside of those are tea fields and larger towns.  If the tortoises, pythons, monkeys, pigs, and other wildlife that call the park home are to have any chance at a future, it'll have to be one where humans and wildlife learn how to accept each other's presence, despite the damage and take that will occur on both sides.  Over the course of my nine days in Lawachara, I found that the Bangladesh Python Project had made impressive strides in moving towards coexistence, and that it had a long, long ways to go.

The Bangladesh Python Project was founded in 2011 by Shahriar Caesar Rahman.  Caesar, who was born and raised in Dhaka, studied ecology at CUNY-Brooklyn but felt pulled to come back and root his scientific and conservation work here in Bangladesh.  “No one is doing work like this among herps [short for “reptiles and amphibians”] in Bangladesh.  In America I could be surrounded by people who thought the same way as me about animals, who were studying snakes with a value for conservation.  In America it is relatively easy to access resources, and people understand what I am doing.  The lack of resources and lack of understanding here are roadblocks.  But I wanted to start something in my own country.  This is where the need is.”

With seed money and technical assistance from The Orianne Society, the help of CARiNAM, and the contributions of several private donors, Caesar embarked on an attempt to study the behavior of Burmese Pythons (Python bivittatus) in Lawachara National Park.  It wasn't easy going.

“For the first year, we didn't see any pythons.  People began

to tell me that I wouldn't find any, that we were wasting our time.”  While Caesar waited for pythons to show up, he and his team used trail transects, a road-kill study, and relationships with the villagers to extensively survey the other herptofauna of the park.  In the first year alone Caesar's team recorded 63 species of herps, including 12 species of frog, 2 species of turtle, 15 species of lizard, and 34 species of snake.  Three of the species had never been found in Bangladesh before, and a dozen were new to the province.  Caesar authored three peer-reviewed papers and nearly two dozen herpetological notes based on this diverse assemblage of reptiles and amphibians. 

Then the pythons began to trickle in. With the lack of attention that's been paid to the reptile and amphibian life in the park, it's not surprising that some skeptics had doubted whether Caesar would find the pythons he wanted (they also doubted whether he'd find king cobras, until one tragically killed his dog on park property in 2012).  But in July of 2013, a villager excitedly called Caesar reporting a large snake...and soon he had “Asha”, a 12-foot long female Burmese Python, in hand  (“Asha” is the Bengali word for “hope”).  A few months later “Bonnie” and “Chaity” were also found, the first radiotransmitters ever used for reptile work in Bangladesh were surgically inserted into the three massive snakes, and the python project began in earnest. 

Before we get to the pythons, I should get around to answering the obvious question - how did a foreign field herper who doesn't even speak Bangla get involved in this project?

Don't Miss Part II tomorrow.

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