Who Will Save the Sundarbans?

20 years ago, people could not have imagined that there will be only 11.2% forest left in Bangladesh, officially; that hundreds of plant and animal species will become extinct; that there will be only 100 tigers left in the Sundarbans, if not less. The more developed we are becoming as a nation, the more we are damaging our environment and the government is now encouraging such actions.

The National Environmental Committee, which provides policy guidelines and directives to ensure environment friendly development activities with the head of the government as its chairperson, has recently decided to legalize around 150 industrial factories in five districts around the Sundarbans. They have also decided to renew clearances of 118 factories that received primary clearance in 2015 and give approval to 16 new factories to operate in the very region. Some of these factories are LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) bottling plants or included in the ‘red category’, which create extreme pollution.

Ironically, in 1999, the Ministry of Environment and Forests of Bangladesh had declared 10 km area surrounding the Sundarbans as ecologically critical area (ECA) under section 5 of the Environment Conservation Act and it was not allowed for any polluting industries to operate in the ECA. That is until now.

If the government chooses to carry out the committee’s decision, they will soon permit hundreds of industrial factories to function in the ECAs of the Sundarbans. What will happen next if it becomes legally acceptable to pollute and damage the little amount of forest that we have left?

Broadly there are three different types of natural forests in Bangladesh – tropical evergreen or semi-evergreen hill forests in the Chittagong Hill Tracks and other hilly regions across the country, sal forests in the central plain regions and the mangrove forests, mainly in the Sundarbans. The sal forests have almost disappeared and the hill forests are also gravely damaged by human actions. Now the relatively less affected mangrove forest is facing similar threats and actions that are supported by the government itself.

Modhupur sal forest destruction in the name of social forestry

Reportedly, poachers are now using deer corpses covered in a type of insecticide called ‘Furadan’ to kill Royal Bengal Tigers in the Sundarbans. The number of tigers in the mangroves of Bangladesh has already reduced by half in the last 10 years (from 200 to only 100 tigers but most likely even less). On top of the already extinct species, many other species of animals, birds, and plants in the Sundarbans are on the verge of extinction. In this critical situation, what could possibly be the outcome other than a catastrophic one if hundreds of factories are encouraged to operate around the Sundarbans?

Then there are the controversies regarding the infamous Rampal Power Plant.

The Foreign Ministry of the Bangladesh government announced on July 7, 2017 that UNESCO has withdrawn their objections against Rampal Power Plant and changed their decision to remove the Sundarbans from the world heritage list if the plant is built.

However, the final report of the 41th session of UNESCO in Poland was published on July 30, 2017, which clearly stated that UNESCO has requested the government to NOT build any large-scale industrial infrastructure in the region without completion of a proper Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). And they PARTICULARY requested the government to carry out a SEA on the impacts of Rampal Power Plant.

Despite the pathetic efforts of the authorities to cover up this information, it is now clear to all that UNESCO recommended the government to not build any factory, including the Rampal Power Plant, near the Sundarbans before proper environmental assessment. However, the authorities are determined to not move away from their position even in the face of national and international criticism. Whatever may be the reasons behind this unfortunate attitude, the establishment of Rampal Power Plant will mark a grimmer chapter for our country’s already dire environmental condition.

sundarban-threat_02

No one is arguing the fact that the country needs to become more developed, which requires solving the problem of energy shortage. But shouldn’t the largest power plant of the country be built in a location that will not generate electricity at the cost of our most important natural heritage? Do we really need to choose between the two? It is befuddling to think that this is even happening.

The power plant will supposedly have the necessary technologies to reduce air, water and noise pollution. Will it? Why are most of the national and international environmentalists not convinced that this will be the case? In order to cause minimum pollution, the factories will need to strictly follow the terms and conditions that come with the approval. Will they?

These questions need to be answered. At the very least, a globally-accepted environmental assessment needs to be carried out before moving forward with the decisions. Otherwise, why should anyone believe such claims to be true, especially considering the recent unfolding of embarrassing events?

It is simply undeniable that a giant coal-based power plant and hundreds of other factories around the Sundarbans will cause fatal and irreversible damages to the habitat of many animal and plant species that are already extremely vulnerable.

Instead of taking the long overdue steps to conserve the Sundarbans, the government is building a giant power plant themselves and allowing other factories be legally functional in the very forest area they are supposed to protect. No matter whatever economic and political advantages they are to gain from this, the government needs to choose saving the Sundarbans over other options if they want the peoples’ support. Otherwise, this may lead to catastrophic events that will harm everyone involved.

Will we lose this majestic creature from Bangladesh forever?

*All the images were collected from different online sources.

Advertisements

A Street Cat Named Minu

I can’t remember the first time I met Minu. He was a scrawny, dirty cat with black and whitish fur. He has been a stray in our neighborhood for a long time. The thing I remember the most about Minu is when I came back home from the university or work, he would always be there downstairs to greet me every day. He would walk around my legs while petting me with his body and his tail would be upright with content. And he wouldn’t stop until I petted him back. I never got such a warm welcome even from my pets at home!

We used to give him food every day. My father was against it completely because it dirtied our staircase. We live on the second floor and our neighbor from the third floor also gave Minu rice, curry etc. on old newspapers like us. Several others of the building also didn’t like it since the food attracted other stray cats and they ended up fighting inside out building. Another reason behind people not liking Minu was that he was a sickly cat. He was tiny for a tom cat and it took him a long time to eat. He was pale and had some sort of skin disease. Maybe he was just old? We are still not sure.

My sister and I really liked Minu. He was so friendly to us. He really wanted us to adopt him. We could tell because he never wasted a chance to express his affection for us! But we already had a cat and we were allowed to keep only one animal at a time. We also didn’t have contact with a decent vet at the time. Even my mother and Mashi who stayed with us gave him food every day. But Minu was still a stray. He stayed on his own in our neighborhood and surprisingly he was a thug cat! He got into fights with other tom cats to keep his territory and always managed to dominate them! Even though he was always the physically weak one! Minu had a fighting spirit through and through. But whenever he came to meet us, he became this mushy, cuddly kitty. He was adorable.

One day, Minu did not come and mew outside our door as usual. Morning passed, afternoon came. He still wasn’t there. I started to get worried. I looked around our building from the windows and finally I saw him sitting alone behind our building. It looked like someone had peeled off most of his skin from his back. I was completely mortified. I called him but he couldn’t even look up. Mashi and I went downstairs immediately, walked through the dirty narrow passage between our building and the one next to it and then finally got to the small space behind our building. When Minu saw us he started mewing. He finally managed to get up and followed us from there to upstairs.

We didn’t know what to do. As I mentioned already, back then we didn’t know any good vet; we had to figure something out by ourselves. It looked like someone poured hot water on his back but we weren’t sure. Most of his fur on his back was gone and we could see his red flesh. We finally put some corn flour on his back since it’s supposed to heal wounds. He didn’t seem to like it that much. He eventually managed to eat some food and left.

He didn’t come back for several days. We were pretty sure that he was dead by then. I remember how helpless and horrible I felt for not being able to help this tiny, dirty ally cat who just wanted a home. Unfortunately, this is a feeling I am too familiar with. Every day I see stray cats and dogs on the streets of Dhaka who need someone to look after them. People here rather buy fancy breeds paying a shitload of money who often don’t even live that long anyway since they aren’t local and natural breeds. But to be fair, people who buy exotic breeds just as a status symbol often don’t really care about animals anyway. So strays are better off on the streets than ending up with that sort of people. But people in general, for some reason, don’t see that if you take care of a stray, it can become as beautiful as any exotic breed, if not more.

Miraculously, Minu came back several days later. He still had the horrible wound on his back but he at least wanted to eat. During the course of the next few days we tried different stuffs and finally figured out that aloe vera juice worked best for his wound. We have several pots full of aloe vera plants at home. We would cut a leaf, peel its one side and smear the slimy extracts on his wound. He would protest a little and sometimes lick off a bit of it, but it was working. Mashi patiently put on aloe vera on Minu most of the days for several weeks. His wounds were finally healing. After several months, he was good as new! His wound healed, his fur grew back in patches and he was again the over-loving scrawny cat that got into fights with big tom cats and managed to hold his ground against them!

We fed Minu for a year or so. Then something disastrous happened to our family. My mom was diagnosed with cancer. She is ok now but we went through a period of utter chaos and instability that lasted for almost a year. Since my mother was the one who fed Minu after I started to work, he had to go back from the door of our home in an empty stomach. We finally decided to shoo him off. We were also scared that Minu might spread diseases as he was sickly and shed a lot fur.

We still saw him every now and then in our neighborhood. There was one last time when he petted me when I got back from work one day. After that we seldom saw him. Eventually, he forgot about us and didn’t recognize us anymore. Or maybe he did but was angry with us. I think I saw him sometime this year as well. But now he is a complete stray. Wherever he is, I am sure he is doing just fine because he is a survivor. Because his movie human persona would have been Michael Corleone!

column_004-FUNNY-CAT-MEMES

African Cats

Spoiler alert: Here I will be discussing most of the plot twists of African Cats in detail. If you haven’t seen it yet and wish to fully enjoy the documentary film, then I suggest you read this after watching the film.  

I woke up pretty late yesterday and turned on the TV while having breakfast. Recently, my sister and I have been watching some great episodes of different series on the Animal Planet. So I switched on the channel. A whole litter of five absolutely adorable cheetah cubs and their mother were on. It was a documentary film titled African Cats. I have seen several great stories about cheetahs on the Animal Planet. Hell, the wallpaper of my desktop PC is a beautiful photo of Toto and Honey – a heartbreaking story of a baby cheetah and his mother from Big Cat Diary. But that’s a story for another day. I was drawn to the show immediately and called my sister to watch it with me.

Three different stories from the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya were merged in one film. The heroines of one story was Sita – a single mother taking care of five cheetah cubs in the north of the park and the other was Layla – leader of the River Pride of lionesses in the south of the park and fierce protector of her daughter Mara. I started to watch the film from the part where Sita hunts a gazelle after a very intense chase. I was amazed to see the quality of the scene. The way they captured the extremely fast chase scene was breathtaking.

open-uri20150608-27674-zudgmo_276b85a6
Sita – single Mom of five cubs

Then they showed Layla. The lioness has aged but she still is the best hunter in the River Pride. This pack of lionesses has many different-aged cubs and a single male lion, Fang who has a distinctive feature because of a broken tooth. In this scene, Layla leads an attack on a zebra pack by strategizing with the other lionesses –the way lionesses hunt most of the times. She is the fiercest among them all. But she gets injured during the hunt. As they finally managed to kill a zebra, they hurriedly begin to eat. Because in no time, Fang shows up and chases off the lionesses to fill his belly first. And he wasn’t even anywhere near when the hunt was carried out! This wasn’t the only incident which made me wonder why the males of most of the mammals tend to exploit the females, including humans.

open-uri20150422-20810-1rxg33c_63cf8d22
Layla – leader of the River Pride and fierce protector of her daughter Mara

Now enters the villain of the story – Kali. Kali is the most powerful figure in the park. He is an old, strong, ferocious and fearless lion. He has dark brown mane, which may be the reason why he was named Kali (from kalo in Bangla meaning black) even though it is a feminine name. Surprisingly, he formed a pack with his four full-grown sons, which is unusual for lions. The reason behind why Kali is not a lord of a lioness pack is unknown but in the film he and his sons are in search for a new pride. He and his sons rule the north of the park, thus coexisting with Sita and her cubs.

It is no surprise that eventually the single mother encounters Kali and his sons. With her cleverness and courage, Sita manages to distract the lions (who are five times larger than her) from her tiny helpless cubs. But in the process, she and her cubs get separated. Tired of chasing Sita (since lions are no match for the speed of a cheetah), Kali and his sons eventually leaves. Sita desperately calls out for her cubs and so do the cubs for their mother. It soon becomes dark and hyenas come out. In the end, Sita loses two of her cubs to the hyenas and is left with three (I almost cried during this scene). Nature can be really cruel.

4940_5
She wanted to protect them all …

Meanwhile, in the south, the River Pride has to travel far away to follow a herd of wildebeest – their food source. But Layla is injured and she needs to rest for a long time so that her body can heal. The River Pride decides to leave her behind because they have to ensure the survival of themselves and their cubs. Layla desperately calls them and her young daughter to stay. Mara is torn between the two but in the end, she decides to stay with her injured mother. You could tell how much she loves her mother from the way she kept going back to her and console her.

A few weeks or maybe a month or two pass by …

After almost destroying Sita’s family, Kali and her pack decides to cross the river that separates his part of the park from the south. The river is infested with huge crocodiles, which can be deadly for even fully grown lions. But even they are dominated by Kali and he crosses the river with one of his sons. The moment Fang sees them, he flees the scenes leaving the lionesses to defend themselves though he was supposed to be their ‘protector’. However, by this time Layla and Mara has managed to reunite with the River Pride. She and the other lionesses know that if they let the lions overpower them, they would take over the pride and kill all the cubs fathered by Fang. So in order to protect Mara, Layla leads the lionesses to attack the intruders and chases them off. Kali is forced to leave but his scheme to take over the River Pride has not ended yet.

open-uri20150608-27674-5xk8f9_21c659e7
Even the crocodiles are no match for Kali – the real life lion king

After the extreme fight with the lions, Layla is injured even further this time. She then spends a lot of time with her sister during the rainy season and a strong bond is built between them, which leads her sister to adopt Mara in addition to her own cubs. Layla knew it had to be done. She knew her time is cut short. One day, without saying goodbye to Mara, she leaves the River Pride and limps far off to find a solitary place where she can rest in peace. Maya searches for her mother not knowing that she will never see Layla again …

I was really surprised to see the complexity of relations in the pride of lionesses. Layla did everything within her physical strength to ensure that Maya was safe. And when she became injured and weak, she bonded with another lioness to ensure that her daughter will be taken care of after her death. It will always amaze you when you see how strong mother’s love in the animal kingdom. Many would say it is mere instinct to protect the next generation but when you see the extent to which a mother would go to protect her cub, it will make you question that theory.

In the meantime, Sita’s three cubs have gotten a little bigger and they are filled with wonder as every day they discover something new about the world around them. However, their safety is again threatened when three male cheetahs show up which could be deadly for the cubs. This time Sita cannot outrun them and they bully her around. Then they find the cubs unprotected and it seemed like a tragedy is about to unfold. But surprisingly, the cubs hold their ground and hisses at the male cheetahs. Then a passing by elephant chases them off as they realize, according to the narrator, that “the bullies can also be bullied.” But it was such a pleasant surprise to see that the small cheetah cubs were brave enough to stand for themselves. They have indeed learned from their mother how to defend themselves.

open-uri20150608-27674-ze6po2_99da814b
Sita’s adorable cubs

To be honest, some parts of the stories seemed a bit staged. It seemed almost unbelievable that the plots and twists of the stories were so dramatic. Maybe some of it have been fabricated, but I believe most parts of the film happened the way they showed it. I have observed stray mother cats for a long time and saw how much they care for their kittens. It is completely possible that big cats do the same in the wild. I am not saying all mothers in the animal kingdom demonstrate unconditional love like Layla and Sita. Not even all human mothers can do that. But all the mothers do what they can within their capacity to protect their children.

They finish the movie with a happy ending after unfolding some incidents that will determine the fate of Mara, Sita, her cubs, and the River Pride. Anyone who is intrigued by the complexity of relations and emotions of the wildlife should give this movie a try. The visuals of the movie are also stunning. More importantly, this movie beautifully portrays that the bond between a mother and her cubs is the strongest bond in the nature. We often forget that we are part of nature too and the kind of relationship that we have with our mothers shape the way we live our lives. In the wild, the mother is the one who teaches her cubs how to hunt, avoid danger and basically survive. And it is the same for us too. Mothers are the ones who usually first teach us about our culture, language, values, morals and how the world works. It is of course thousand times more complex than animals but in its core it is pretty simple. We simply would not have survived without our mothers.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

*Most of the images are collected from the website of Disneynature as this documentary film is produced by them. I was a bit bummed to find that out since I am not a big fan of Disney. Another fun fact: the narrator is Samuel L. Jackson! 

A Bat

I was having a very busy and stressful day. My father got back home at around 9pm (in Bangladesh, you usually live with your parents until you get married or move to another country). He called everyone in the house and told us to gather around. Then he reached for his laptop bag and brought out a tiny grey thing from the front pocket. It was a baby bat! I am still not sure if it was a fruit bat or insectivorous bat, but it was a bat for sure. It couldn’t fly even when we put it down. It crawled on the table and shrieked when it was held by hand.

My father then told us that he went to the income tax office and on the tenth floor he saw the poor little bat crawling on the floor and people chasing it to kill it. He took the bat, put it in the bag and brought it home. But none of us knew what to do next. I know how to take care of kittens but I don’t have a clue about what to do with a baby bat! My sister tried to feed it milk from her finger but it didn’t work. I vaguely remembered that bats eat bananas. So I told my sister to google it and turned out they do (the fruits bats do at least). So our housemaid fed it tiny pieces of banana from her finger! That was the first time I properly saw its face and oh my god … the baby bat was adorable. It had black beady eyes. The baby bat was so small! Also, I was amazed to see that our housemaid, Mashi, took it upon herself to feed the baby bat. Even I was too scared to touch it. The baby bat shrieked a lot when she was trying to hold her properly but it became quite after eating a little bit of banana.

20170617_211035
So tiny!

After it was done eating, I brought out my cat’s plastic basket that had tiny holes on it and a lid, put some paper and old cloth in there, and put the bat inside. Then I did a bit of research online on how to take care of baby bats and found out that lost baby bats are often dehydrated. So I filled a tiny bottle cap with water and put it inside. During my research on bats, I also found out that bats can carry a few types of diseases and a friend of mine also told me the same. I then contacted an animal rights group, who told me that I could try keeping the basket open near a window for the night and see if it flies away. Sadly, they don’t take in wild animals. In fact, I don’t think there is any animal rights organization in Dhaka that takes in wild animals. There are few to begin with and they mostly work for dogs, cats and other domestic animals.

As I was somewhat certain that the baby bat was not injured, I suggested to release it. When we went to take it out, we found out that it was hanging upside down from the side of the basket and sleeping! That just melted our hearts. Who knew how long it was since it ate and how tired it must have been. It could have also been injured or sick internally, which might not be visible. So we decided to give it some time to rest and keep it for the night.

In the morning, we fed it banana again and then I attempted to feed it some milk. I found some YouTube videos on how to feed tiny bats and discovered that you can easily do that with a cotton bud. So that’s what we did. Mashi wrapped it in tissue papers, dipped a cotton bud in milk and then put it on the baby bat’s mouth. It instantly started to suckle on it! Its tiny little ears were moving and it closed its eyes while suckling on the cotton bud. That was the first time I realized how adorable bats are, even though they look scary from a distance.

20170618_131510
Mashi feeding milk to the adorable little bat

But I also felt really bad about keeping it captivated inside a basket. I couldn’t keep it out in the open because my cat, Foxy, would attack it and also because it tried to crawl to corners which might be out of our reach. But inside the basket it would cling to a side for hours and it just looked so sad. My mother was also concerned that it might spread diseases or fleas. The vets in Dhaka barely knew how to take care of the big mammals, let alone bats. So there was nothing else that we could do except release it. Taking care of baby bats require professional expertise and there is none in our country. Also, it seemed like the baby bat is not injured and wanted to get away. So, with a heavy heart, I let Mashi take it away and leave it in a nearby garden. Apparently the moment she put the baby bat on the ground it crawled away superfast and got out of sight. I don’t think the little bat can fly …

It feels terrible to leave a helpless animal this way. Then again it seemed extremely frightened and uncomfortable with us around too. As far as I read, bats cannot be domesticated. Even if you keep one as a pet, it will always be frightened of you. I am not sure if it’s true. Maybe I am just trying to feel less guilty about it. But I think it was the right thing to do. Freeing the baby bat gave it more chance to find other bats to live with, as bats usually do, and also learn to survive on its instincts. Because often I see that once you domesticate an animal and keep it indoors all the time, they become too dependent on humans and forget their animal instincts.

20170618_131614-1
I wish I could take care of it …

A Joke

I started my morning reading the Prothom Alo – the most widely circulated newspaper of Bangladesh. The headline says: “Opportunities of employment has decreased: Recent BBS workforce survey.” No big shock there. But it might make you think twice if you look at the findings in detail. Currently there are 2.6 million people unemployed in Bangladesh. More alarmingly, employment rate is highest among the most educated – 9 in every 100 undergraduates or post graduates are unemployed. Ironically, only 2.2% of the uneducated are sitting at home. The article actually says that in Bangladesh, you have better luck finding a job if you are illiterate!

And it makes sense. I see this every day around me. Most of the people I know who are currently unemployed (including myself), are either Master’s or Bachelor’s degree holders. Whereas those who are from less affluent families, have received no or very little education in their lives, are all earning money; no matter how little the amount is. The reason for this is high expectation.

I, myself, is an apt example of this crisis in Bangladesh. I started to work full-time the next day of my last exam of undergraduate studies. The job did not pay much. I knew nothing about the job market or work environment. All I wanted was to gain experiences. I worked as an intern for six months and it paid almost nothing. Eventually I got better opportunities and started to earn more. For various reasons, I decided to enroll in a Master’s program. I ended up quitting my job because I couldn’t handle both work and studying at the same time (many others can but I am lethargic). I also began to look for opportunities of further higher education in a European country. Anyone who has ever applied for higher education abroad from a developing country knows how time-consuming and depressing it can get (or maybe it’s just me). I got accepted to a university but with no scholarship. So I couldn’t go.

Then began my search for a job here in Dhaka. But unlike last time, I was not willing to start from scratch all over again. I cannot work as a lowly intern again! I cannot work just anywhere! I am a highly educated person now for heaven’s sake! I want to work in a specific sector related to my field of study and interest. And this is the problem. This is the problem that has been holding back 9% of the highly educated people. And I cannot blame them. I think the same way. But I can also see it was a wrong decision to only pursue higher education, especially when I focused more on it than trying to find ways to get a new job.

And the funny part is this figure of 9% unemployed rate among the highly educated is what BBS (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics) says . The real percentage ought to be much, much higher (anyone who is aware of the ‘accuracy’ of BBS data knows this). People in Bangladesh just accept it as a fact that if you have the money to pay for it, then you must get a higher degree, at least a Master’s degree. It is a social norm here. We don’t even stop to think and ask ourselves: do I really need this degree? We continue fooling ourselves thinking this degree will ensure a better future. In reality, what really matter are networking, proper connections and specific skills that one should have acquired.

This social norm as well as this type of unemployment scenario are partly the creation of the absurd education system of the country. It forces us to be confined within the boundaries of text books with mostly bad teachers. It teaches us to conform to the system, to follow rules, to think within the box. It teaches us how to be good kamlas. It teaches us nothing about how to deal with real life and how to improve networking skills. It doesn’t encourage us to be innovators and entrepreneurs. The enrollment rate is very high in primary level education in Bangladesh, which the government shows off to the world as a huge achievement of theirs. They have managed to increase the quantity of education, not its quality.

Thus we end up thinking, ok, so I just have to pay lakhs of taka then one day it’ll pay off. But does it for everyone? The way we race with extreme competitions to reach that finish line seems like a never-ending marathon. I am fully aware that finding a job is not the only point of education. But the system needs to be changed in a way that actually helps  people to build their careers.