Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Bangladesh’s wildlife and forest decline linked to misinformation

  • Illegal trade in tokay geckos endangers the species 
  • Experts urge govt action
Update : 04 Apr 2024, 12:20 PM

In October 2021, an unidentified wild animal attack in Harinathpur Union of Palashbari upazila in Gaibandha left several people injured.

The incident triggered widespread fear and panic among villagers, as the creature reportedly made several attacks in the following days.

However, no one managed to catch a glimpse of the mysterious animal. 

When asked, the locals described the animal in various ways, with some calling it a fox and others likening it to a hyena or wolf. Some of them termed it "Thealtheli,” a folklore figure that resides in the forests.

Responding to the situation, the Forest Department launched extensive operations throughout the jungles in and around the affected villages in Palashbari upazila. 

Led by the Rajshahi Wildlife Management and Nature Conservation Department, the expedition comprised Wildlife Inspector Jahangir Kabir, Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Officer Rahat Hossain, and members Rashed, Gazi Saif, and Jewel Rana. 

Despite all-out efforts and consultations with the residents, the forest officials concluded that the reported sightings were mere rumours and that the identity of the elusive animal remained unknown.

Unfortunately, amidst the panic, many locals ended up killing at least 15 foxes and a cat.

Inspector Jahangir Kabir said: “Freely killing wildlife by spreading false information is a punishable crime, which is done in these areas. In fear at that time, cats, foxes and other animals were killed and hanged.” 

He further said: “At the time of the raid, we were sitting at one place. At this time, I heard some voices and ran there. Someone exclaimed that an animal was chasing them. I inquired how they recognized the animal. They replied that it was chasing them and not running away would have killed them.”

Nationwide trend

Such incidents are not isolated to Gaibandha, as similar occurrences fuelled by rumors continue to endanger wildlife nationwide. 

In various regions across the country, wild animals are being mercilessly beaten to death fueled by rumors, fear, and panic. Additionally, certain individuals are spreading false information about deforestation, exacerbating the issue day by day. 

As a result, criminals are exploiting the situation for their gain, causing harm to wildlife and putting biodiversity at risk.

Sources say the illegal trade in endangered species like the tokay gecko exacerbates the threat to biodiversity. 

According to the Forest Department, at least 15 tokay geckos were seized by the police last year. 

Each tokay gecko is worth Tk1 crore and hundreds of tokay geckos are rumoured to have been killed in the past few years. 

Apart from that, valuable cancer drugs are derived from tokay geckos, creating high demand in neighbouring countries. 

Consequently, several conglomerates across the country are now chasing tokay geckos with aspirations of overnight success.

This exploitation by criminals is leading to the disappearance of this rare animal.

In this regard, Jamal Uddin, a professor of the Environmental Science Department at Jahangirnagar University, said: “The tokay gecko is a non-poisonous wild animal. They usually live in brick walls, cracks, and old trees from old houses. They eat insects, lizards, small birds, and small snakes. According to IUCN, it is enlisted on the red list. The animal's life is now in danger only because of rumours.”

IED study findings

The Institute for Environment and Development (IED) recently published a study with the support of The Asia Foundation on the impact of rumination on forests and wildlife. 

It reveals alarming trends in Bangladesh's forest areas, indicating a gradual decline attributed to rumours, misinformation, and superstition. 

The dissemination of false information has led to adverse effects on wildlife, posing a significant threat to biodiversity.

The study was conducted across six districts of Bangladesh, including Tangail (Madhupur), Cox's Bazar (Teknaf), Sherpur (Jhenaigati), Chittagong (Sitakunda), Bagerhat (Mongla), and Rangamati (Sadar), surveyed 100 residents from both Bangali and minorities aged between 18 and 55. 

Key findings indicate that Bangali forest dwellers exhibit higher levels of fear and apprehension towards wildlife compared to their minority counterparts. 

Concerns about forest encroachment and wildlife are prevalent among 88% of Bengali participants, largely due to their unfamiliarity with forest environments and settled lifestyles. 

Conversely, only 17% of minority group members express similar concerns, citing their familiarity with forest living.

Moreover, the study highlights a widespread belief in rumours and superstitions among forest-dwelling populations, with 72% admitting a lack of understanding about rumours and 92% professing belief in ghosts. 

Surprisingly, 48% of participants, predominantly Bangalis are implicated in wildlife poaching activities, exacerbating the threats to wildlife.

Instances of wildlife attacks are prevalent, with 48% of forest residents having experienced such encounters, notably Bengalis (67%) more than ethnic group members (33%). 

Concerns are particularly focused on specific animals such as elephants (57%) and snakes (62%), indicating prevalent fears among the population.

Superstitions surrounding forest spirits and beliefs in the efficacy of tree-cutting to dispel ghosts further underscore the pervasive influence of misinformation. 

Despite limited access to social media, with only 8% of participants having accounts, the impact of misinformation remains significant, with 88% recalling instances where their initial beliefs were debunked.

Raising awareness

Saeed Al Zaman, assistant professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Jahangirnagar University, has been researching rumours for a long time. 

He said: “Rumors are affecting society regularly. Now it is also playing a role in destroying wildlife.” 

He said that the government may be more concerned about rumours in society. But the state is still not aware of its impact on forests and biodiversity where wild animals are being killed.”

Environmental science professor Jamal Uddin expressed a similar view. 

The matter needs to be brought before people by the state. Forest land is decreasing every day. The lives of hundreds of wild animals are at risk, he said.

In this situation, he suggested,  people of the forest area as well as  people inhabiting the plains should be aware of the consequences of the disappearance of wildlife. 

“We need to protect our animals. Biodiversity must be protected. The government must take proper steps to minimize these issues,” he added.

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