Hill Tracts, expeditions, tigers and wondrous wildlife

Connecting the dots is essential in science. The practice gives us a birds-eye view, reveals patterns, and bridges information gaps. That being said, the Chittagong Hill Tracts confronts us with a glaring fact: our little understanding of the region’s biodiversity. The Hill Tracts belongs to one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots, a definition set by Conservation International for the wildest, most biodiverse places.

North-eastern Water Skink – a very rare and threatened species that occurs in the Hill Tracks. Photo: Monirul Khan

The Hill Tracts is on the western edge of the Indo-Burma Hotspot. Although the region has lost much of its splendour, it still holds around 5,000 square km of forested landscape with about 100 fold of biodiversity than any other place in Bangladesh. But the dots are sparse, rare, let alone the connection. Most bits are anecdotal, built upon old colonial accounts and ad-hoc ‘he says, she says’ approach. In certain places, there are no dots at all. The Hill Tracts, by and large, is an uncharted territory.

‘Parbotto Chattograme Pranboichitrer Sondhane’ (In Pursuit of the Biodiversity in the Hill Tracts), the latest book by the eminent zoology professor, Dr Monirul H Khan, is the first contemporary account of the biodiversity splendours of the Hill Tracts.

Penned with sheer eloquence, the book takes readers on a captivating journey into the enchanting world of biodiversity in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

However, connecting the dots is not always easy. It requires effort, patience, and the willingness to challenge assumptions. It may involve exploring unfamiliar territory, embracing ambiguity, and questioning conventional wisdom.

It requires us to be open-minded, adaptable, and willing to learn from diverse perspectives. Dr Khan’s passion for biodiversity overcame all the challenges. His determination to document the vanishing wilderness shines through every page. We badly needed a work that would pull up everything known about the Hill Tract biodiversity. And Dr Khan has provided us with one.

Lost chances and hidden potential

The pursuit of the Cambridge scholar to understand the Hill Tracts and the telling encounters introduce the reader with a glimpse into the unique flora and fauna that make this region truly exceptional. The book is an anthology collection of 10 essays detailing Dr Khan’s multiple expeditions to the region.

It delves into the rich tapestry of wildlife, plant species, and ecosystems that thrive or once thrived in the Hill Tracts region. From rare orchids to elusive mammals, the author takes readers on an immersive adventure, sharing his personal encounters and shedding light on the fragile balance of these ecosystems.

The author’s expeditions were carefully designed. On one occasion, Dr Khan followed the path of the famous surveyor Hamilton-Buchanan and provided a vivid comparison between the looks of the Hill Tracts in the colonial era and the present. On another occasion, he trekked the forests visited by Bangladeshi zoologists in the ’70s and ’80s. The book provides a region-wise setting, and gradually takes us through all the major forest stands of the Hill Tracts.

In parallel to the portrayal of the immeasurable and irreparable biodiversity losses that the Hill Tracts is facing since the pre-independence period of Bangladesh, the book ushers in hope. Dr Khan’s close encounters with large carnivores from tigers to leopards, and his astounding discoveries of rare bats, fish and butterflies inspire us. The stories remind us that there is still plenty to protect and conserve in the region.

Championing challenges

Braving the unknown is only for the brave. The zoology professor from Jahangirnagar University conquered several barriers to traverse the challenging landscape of the Hill Tracts. He had grown the taste of discovering wildlife in the hills in the early 2000s when almost nothing contemporary was available in black-and-white.

Dr Khan visited lands ridden with leeches and troubled by insurgencies. He had to try out unique platters in the most unique of places. He had to outrun charging wild elephants and endure near-death experiences.

His expeditions to the Kassalong and the Sangu-Matamuhuri is a testament, and somewhat a justification, to the meagre status of recent works done in the region. Working in these virgin forests is not for everybody. One has to have exceptional navigational and communicating skill and mindset to treks miles after miles of treacherous tracks, ravines and gorges. Above all, one has to have an unbound and selfless interest in rare wildlife that almost nobody cares about in the country.

The book has the secret recipe on how to start working for the Hill Tracts biodiversity.

A much-needed conservation literature

In present time, Dr Khan is the first in Bangladesh to give us conservation literature on our very own wildlife biodiversity. The genre has gained popularity since the 1950s. However, the number of contemporary works coming out yearly is — although experiencing an upward tick — still scanty across the globe. What sets apart the genre from hunting stories and fictions is how the accounts are built up.

Unlike fiction, the writing does not deviate much from reality. The tales are also not heavily concentrated on the zeal of killing wild animals — a common feature that plague the Bangla hunting anecdotes. They are immensely helpful to extract historical data but not much in terms of building psychological connection with the reader and the wild places.

Conservation literature is realistic, and at the same time, elegiac. This genre takes the readers through trials and tribulations, joys and despairs, and successes and failures of biologists who are living their lives to make a difference for the rapidly disappearing biodiversity. Conservation literature is written in a balance between scientific terminologies and layman languages, and draws a sense of humility for both wildlife and people of the wilderness.

These works can pace up conservation efforts and sway public opinion and policies alike. Take ‘The Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson and ‘The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert’ for example.

Dr Khan’s desperate attempts to explore the last of the white-winged wood ducks or his dismay at experiencing the utter destruction of the lush forests of Kris Taung fuse the reader with jubilant excitement and strange sadness equally.
He effortlessly weaves scientific knowledge with engaging anecdotes, making complex ecological concepts understandable for readers from various backgrounds. Whether you are a seasoned naturalist or a curious reader seeking to expand your knowledge, the book strikes a handsome balance between depth and readability. Not many Bangla books, if at all, can strike this combination. The only thing that would make the book even more interesting is a map of the terrain.

Skull of a Tiger photographed in 2009 which was hunted in the eastern fronteir of Bandarban a few years earlier. Photo: Monirul Khan Already, many others are taking up pens to write their stories. Making dots is the first step to connect. Dr Khan’s books show the way. Following the daring tales to understand Sundarbans tigers that came out in 2021, this is the second release under this category by the country’s first PhD scholar who specialises on tigers and large carnivores.

And Dr Khan has had some of the closest encounters with tigers in the Hill Tracts. I made a quick count of mentions of tigers and leopards in the book. Between 2009 and 2021, there were at least seven first-hand accounts of tigers. Dr Khan, where almost nobody has any faith on the conservation potential of the Hill Tracts, has always been a staunch proponent of the opposite.

As tigers are at the helm of our conservation interest, we need to look to the hills outside the Sundarbans. The accounts in the book connect the dots and reveal the pattern. Our hills still have tigers.

Khan’s ode serves as a timely reminder of the importance of conservation investment in one of the world’s lesser-explored, hidden gems of a region. I, myself, am into the wild carnivores. Upon finishing the book, I have set a goal: accompanying Dr Khan during his hill expeditions and setting camera-traps. The book truly ignites a sense of pride and appreciation for the country’s wild hills.

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