Exploring the wild is not just about stepping foot on unknown lands; the picture is much bigger. Apart from the lands, the waters of the great Bengal speak volumes of the wealth that lie beneath the waves.
Do you think Bangladesh is a lucrative destination for people who want to discover the diversities of flora and fauna?
The Sundarbans alone are a unique and rewarding destination for international travellers. The largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world, the last stronghold of the Bengal tiger, the home of part of the world’s largest population of Irrawaddy dolphins, and its amazing and diverse species of birds are just a few of the highlights.
Apart from the Bengal Tiger and the Irrawady Dolphins, what other animals are present in Bangladesh that is not given enough priority on a national level? Why do you think this happens?
The estuarine crocodile in the Sundarbans is one species that I think is not getting enough attention on a national level. Due to overfishing and human disturbance in its nesting habitat, they are vanishing rapidly. Twenty years ago we would see dozens of these large reptiles basking on the mud banks during a cruise from Mongla down to Katka. Nowadays, you can count yourself lucky to spot one. The masked finfoot is another such rare animal that should receive equal attention. The lack of awareness about the conservation status of this endangered coot-like bird is worrisome, and unless we can successfully stop people from robbing their nests, the future of its population in the Sundarbans looks bleak. Perhaps because they are not as charismatic as tigers or dolphins, they receive less attention and financial support for their conservation.
During the filming of ‘Exploring our Waters,’ what in particular raised your interest about the habitat of the dolphins in Bangladesh? Why?
Filming for the documentary Exploring our Waters happened while we were conducting research activities on bottlenose dolphins and Bryde’s whales at the Swatch-of-No-Ground in the Bay of Bengal.
I first got to know about our marine cetaceans during a survey of Bangladesh’s coastal waters for dolphins and whales in 2004 organised by Brian D Smith from the Wildlife Conservation Society, my mentor in dolphin conservation. We surveyed the entire coast of Bangladesh and found an amazing diversity and abundance of cetaceans. Since 2005 I have been spending three winter months every year out at sea studying different species in an attempt to understand their conservation needs.
How effective has Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project (BCDP), been in raising awareness about dolphin habitats among locals?
BCDP organised the first Shushuk Mela, an interactive educational exhibition on dolphins and whales of Bangladesh, in 2009 in Dhaka. We were overwhelmed by its success. As a result, in 2011 we installed the exhibition on a large wooden barge, with which we travelled for a month visiting local communities in remote locations around the eastern Sundarbans. We have continued to organise the Shushuk Mela every year since then, with new exhibits and attractions.
We are also working closely with the Forest Department to implement a science-based, community informed management plan for the new wildlife sanctuaries in the eastern Sundarbans established by the Government, specifically for the protection of freshwater dolphins.
Does BCDP encourage travellers to take part in their initiatives?
We welcome visitors to come join our research and educational outreach activities whenever possible. People from all around the world have volunteered their time and skills to our project. For many of our activities, including the Shushuk Mela, we strongly depend on Bangladeshi student volunteers.
There are various things to consider when preserving wildlife and nature. In the case of dolphins, it depends on the environment and the people. What steps are being taken by BCDP in order to avert manmade disasters that threaten the dolphin and shark habitats in Bangladesh?
Based on our recommendations, the Government of Bangladesh declared three wildlife sanctuaries, specifically for the protection of the Ganges River and Irrawaddy dolphins in the Sundarbans. A management plan for these three sanctuaries is being developed in consultation with local community members and a national technical committee. The plan is awaiting final approval by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. A large area encompassing the core habitat for eight species of cetaceans in our coastal waters, including the tip of the Swatch-of-No-Ground, has recently been declared as the first Marine Protected Area in Bangladesh.