Of hippos and endangered indigenous denizens

Wasfia Nazreen

Published in BDnews24 on 21 June 2011.

This piece discusses displacements of humans and other species in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

On 19 June 2011 a national English daily reported that our honourable State Minister for Environment and Forests, Dr Hasan Mahmud, is planning to introduce hippopotami, imported from Africa, into the Kaptai Lake area of Rangamati, in the semi-autonomous region of Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The Minister, who got the idea during a recent visit to Kenya, was reported as saying, “if we can have hippos in the Kaptai Lake, it will draw many tourists and add a new species to our biodiversity.”

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Dr Mahmud, who has completed his post graduation on environmental science and has a PhD degree on Environmental Chemistry (i), seems to have forgotten about the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that Bangladesh signed on 5th June 1992 and ratified on 3rd May 1994 (ii). The convention sets a clear bar against states to introduce ANY non-indigenous species in to the local habitat where this is harmful.

Article 8 of the Convention states (amongst other relevant provisions) (iii): “Each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate:

(h) Prevent the introduction of, control or eradicate those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or species.”

A similar provision also occurs in the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan of 2004 (page vi).

We should draw lessons from the past on how alien species disrupted the CHT ecology. The first was teak, imported from Myanmar by the colonial Forest Department in the 1880. Mono teak plantations of the Department are still causing soil erosion, and biodiversity loss. The same happened with eucalyptus, which still do not attract our Bangladeshi birds. Introduction of the Tilopia in the Kaptai Lake has been condemned for the extinction of several species of fish and other marine life.

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Furthermore, this grand idea will need hipps (read heaps) of money to see its fruition. The news item also reported: “While inspecting the construction of a road by the lake, Hasan said the ministry has enough money in the Climate Change fund to buy hippos.”

To invest Climate Change money to further worsen ecological imbalance is hardly justifiable. Enayetur Rahim, personal assistant to the minister added to the reporter: “A pair of hippos will cost around Taka 40 lakhs.”

Of course, Tk 40 lakhs per pair is peanuts for a country like ours!

On a less sarcastic note, when will GOB stop this kata ghaye noon chorano policy? Why Kaptai lake, where so much blood of humans and animals has already been spilled?

Needless to say, it will be extremely difficult to maintain the habitat of hippos in an alien environment — the CHT is different from Kenya, unless the minister saw otherwise. We would need experts, caretakers and maybe even those species of plants that hippos are partial to? After all, we would not want under-fed and unhappy hippos staring into the lenses of the visitors’ Minoltas, Nikons and cell-phone cameras!  How about a hippo hospital as well?  This would surely irk the human denizens of the lake area whose ancestral homes, by the way, were devoured by the same lake in 1960, who crowd the understaffed and under-equipped Rangamati Sadar hospital.

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For those of us who seem to ignore facts, it is never too late to be reminded that CHT is already a rich mega-biodiversity zone of Bangladesh. Why not focus and take measures to safeguard the opulence of our OWN species? Of the 75 species of mammals, 100 species of birds, 25 species of reptiles, and 7 species of amphibians, almost all the denizens of our forests are facing habitat and species loss due to several factors (not excluding our Adibashis). The CHT has elephants, bison (Bos Frontalis and Bos Gaurus), Bengal tigers (largely threatened and on the verge of extinction), various species of leopards (also known as panther), deer (several species, including the near-extinct hog deer or Axis Porcinus and the widely threatened sambhur or Cervus unicolor), wild dog (one of the few places in the world to have them and again threatened), wild boar, lizards, snakes (including python, cobra and viper), hornbill (two species), thrush, drongo, egret, parakeet, mynah — just to name a few. The rhinoceros, porpoise and several other species of mammals and birds are now extinct.

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Since our honourable minister seems to be so amused by the hippos, we propose that the Forest Department wardens keep the hippos in their bathtubs or maybe a pond with imported African clay and slush, to indulge in a gargantuan jolokeli as work and play.

We may never know the real reason behind the proposed unjustified use of scarce funds available to us. One may think it is the notion of ‘exoticness,’ in the potential scene of indigenous children playing with ‘foreign’ semi-aquatic mammals — that caught the imagination of our minister to believe that it will give a tourist boost to the sluggish CHT economy.

In reality, those imported hippos will serve nothing but draw the perfect parallel of the miserable conditions of the Bengali settlers of the cluster villages in the Hill Tracts — who too were brought there to live in an alien environment.

But most importantly, why should we attract ‘tourists’ with ‘foreign’ species? Isn’t our own Shonar Bangla not shujola shuphola shoshsho shamola enough for our government?

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