Mro parabiologists set up camera traps, collect GPS data, measure animals, and conduct social surveys. Photo: Scott Trageser Photography / Creative Conservation Alliance.
Mro parabiologists set up camera traps, collect GPS data, measure animals, and conduct social surveys. Photo: Scott Trageser Photography / Creative Conservation Alliance.

In the beginning, Shahriar Caesar Rahman’s trips to the remote forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh would invariably end in frustration. Rahman was searching for reptiles, and based on what the local people were telling him, the largely unexplored forests of the Hill Tracts seemed to be home to a wide variety of them and other wild animals. But he could find no visual proof to confirm the claims.

“They would tell me ‘Oh, we saw a gaur, we just ate a turtle, or we found this or that,’” Rahman, co-founder and CEO of the Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA), a non-profit based in the capital Dhaka, said. “I would ask them, ‘Do you have any evidence?,’ and they would say ‘No.’ So every time I would feel frustrated that they are telling me about all these species but I don’t have any proof.”

In the years to come, the local people did hand him plenty of evidence. All it took were a few point-and-shoot cameras and some training to build a team of indigenous parabiologists — people lacking in formal education but trained to carry out specific scientific tasks. These parabiologists quickly went on to catapult both the Hill Tracts, and Rahman, into the limelight.

Mro parabiologists in Bangladesh have been critical to documenting the Hills’ biodiversity. Photo: Scott Trageser Photography/CCA.

Parabiologists uncover ‘firsts’ for Bangladesh

The expansive, rugged mountains of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), located in southeast Bangladesh and bordering Myanmar and India, cover 13,295 square kilometers (5,133 square miles), or 10% of the country’s total land area. The Hill Tracts are inhabited by nearly a dozen indigenous groups as well as Bengalis, the ethnic majority, and have the lowest population density in the country: just 120 people per square kilometer, compared to 1,237 people per square kilometer for the whole of Bangladesh. The region is also thought to be one of the last strongholds of biodiversity in the country.

But illegal logging and shifting cultivation, also referred to as slash-and-burn, have reduced the CHT’s forest cover by more than 30% between 2001 and 2014. Subsistence hunting and commercial poaching also threaten the forest’s wildlife.

In December 2011, Rahman began exploring the tropical mixed-evergreen forest lying within Bandarban district, one of three administrative districts straddled by the CHT. There, residing in the Sangu-Matamuhuri Reserve Forest, live the Mro people, an ethnic group of Tibeto-Burmese origin who occupy sparsely populated villages, each with around 15 families. The Mro grow rice on hills under a shifting cultivation system called jhum: they clear and burn a patch of forest, cultivate it for a year, then leave it fallow for two to five years while moving on to a new patch of forest.

The Mro people live in the Bandarban district of Bangladesh (in red in the inset map). Map: Shreya Dasgupta/Global Forest Watch/Google Maps.

For the first couple of years, Rahman pursued only reptiles. He conducted field surveys to document snakes, turtles and lizards, and interviewed the Mro people to both understand the reptiles inhabiting the forest and to establish a rapport with the local communities.

In 2014, he decided to do things differently. The Mro have historically hunted wild animals for subsistence, so Rahman gave point-and-shoot digital cameras to three Mro men and asked them to take pictures of all the wild animal that they came across, dead or alive. The Mro men were excited by the prospect of using cameras to document their wildlife. It also made them feel empowered, Rahman said, and soon the cameras’ memory cards began filling up with images of recently killed creatures.

“We started seeing bones of animals like clouded leopards, dholes, marbled cats, skins of giant reticulated pythons, tortoises — all dead animals,” Rahman said. “Of course, it’s very saddening to see dead parts of all those beautiful animals, but it was proof that all those species live there.”

The cameras revealed some surprises, too. Among the photographs were images of freshly dispatched Arakan forest turtles, a species that had once been deemed extinct until a few specimens turned up in a Chinese market in 1994, ready to be cooked. Surveys in the 2000s found wild Arakan forest turtles in western Myanmar. The photos that the Mro showed Rahman’s team, as well as live individuals they led the researchers to, were among the first evidence of the species in Bangladesh.

Arakan forest turtle. Photo: Scott Trageser Photography/CCA.

This sowed the seeds of what would become a fruitful relationship. Realizing that the Mro people held invaluable knowledge about the forest and its inhabitants, Rahman and his colleagues began formally recruiting Mro men as parabiologists in 2015.

They started with Passing Mro, a soft-spoken, revered member of the Mro community who understood why saving forest and wildlife is important, Rahman said.  Passing Mro in turn helped the researchers recruit other parabiologists. The CCA team did not approach women for the role because it required traveling to different parts of forests and villages that women in these villages typically did not do.

The Mro men learned to set up camera traps, collect GPS data, take external measurements of animals, and conduct social surveys to collect information on hunting practices and trends. They also used their knowledge from decades of hunting to help identify survey areas and camera-trap locations, and to bridge the gap between the researchers and the local communities.

Working together, the Mro parabiologists and Rahman’s team of CCA researchers have confirmed the presence of a surprisingly wide range of wildlife in the region. Besides the critically endangered Arakan forest turtle, they also recorded the presence of the endangered keeled box turtle, again a first for the country, in addition to the endangered Asian giant tortoise and Sylhet roofed turtle.

The team also recorded evidence of mammals like tiger, sambar, barking deer, gaur, leopard, marbled cat, leopard cat, and rare primates such as the western hoolock gibbon and Phayre’s leaf monkey.

Becoming conservation leaders

Today, the Mro parabiologists do much more than document the biodiversity of their ancestral forests for Western science. To reduce hunting of turtles, the CCA team has entered into a conservation agreement with six villages, establishing hunting moratoriums on highly threatened turtles and tortoises and other rare animals. In return, CCA helped the villages build six primary schools, where there were none nearby, and a Crafts for Conservation program that’s created a market for jewelry and other products crafted by the Mro women.

The Mro parabiologists monitor hunting and consumption of wild animals within these villages. If a parabiologist finds a turtle in a village home, he recovers the animal, takes its measurements, gives it an ID, and releases it back into the forest.

Mro parabiologists monitor and rescue turtles from villages, and release them back to the forest. Image credit: Scott Trageser Photography/CCA.

Menrua Mro, a 21-year-old parabiologist, from Dangli Para village in Bandarban district, is one such turtle and tortoise guardian. Menrua had seen Rahman since the researcher started visiting his village in 2011, he said. But, like most others on the team, he started working with CCA only after Passing Mro introduced him to Rahman in 2016.

At the time, Menrua had been unhappy working on a farm, and was “looking for something else to do,” he said. So training as a parabiologist seemed like a better option. Menrua now goes from one village to another trying to dissuade people from eating or harming rare animals and birds like tortoises and hornbills.

“What I like best about this work is that I get to make new friends all the time from different villages and even in Dhaka and from other parts of Bangladesh,” Menrua said. “With the money I got through the work I was also able to pay back the debt my father had.”

So far, the Mro men have rescued and released more than 100 highly threatened turtles and tortoises into the wild — 21 in 2018 alone. In fact, Rahman’s team estimates that the hunting of these reptiles has declined by at least 50% in the area they’ve covered. They have also established the first in-country, captive breeding colonies of Arakan forest turtle and Asian giant tortoise to help secure the reptiles’ future.

Shahriah Caesar Rahman with Arakan forest turtles in a breeding center. Photo: Scott Trageser Photography/CCA.

In general, though, wildlife populations seem to have declined in the area, Rahman said, and locals aren’t likely to find enough wild animals to hunt. Moreover, turtles and tortoises provide very little meat, so the Mro people have come to rely more on crabs and fish for their protein.

Apart from keeping an eye on turtles, some of the team act as protectors of nests of threatened great hornbills. The more senior parabiologists serve as community leaders, acting as a bridge between the research team and the rest of the Mro people. Others help with the plant nursery that’s been established to cultivate both bamboo to reduce the communities’ dependence on the forest for wood and rare native plants to help future reforestation efforts.

The researchers now work with 10 male parabiologists who each receive a monthly salary of about $100. They have upgraded to smartphones also to help with their monitoring work. “They take pictures and send me photos and all other evidence by Messenger — who is cutting trees, which hornbill is nesting where, and so on,” Rahman said.

The Mro parabiologists have become so critical to the researchers’ work that they are regularly listed as formal co-authors of scientific papers.

“As scientists, we often have this ego that we know everything, but I can have five PhDs and still never have the knowledge that these people have,” Rahman said. “These people read the forest like pages in a book. You show them a picture of a bird, and they would tell you about when it breeds, when its mating season is, which tree it nests in, where it nests, what its call sounds like.

“A lot of information that we collect and publish wouldn’t happen without them,” he added. “While this authorship may not matter to them at all, I think this is the respect they deserve.”

Sometimes, the Mro men end up surprised by the status of their own forests. For example, Proroy Mro, who co-authored a 2017 study looking at pangolin distribution in the CHT, said last year he used to think Bangladesh harbored lots of pangolins, but the surveys showed him how few there actually are, and that he felt lucky to have so many near his village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The Mro-CCA partnership has won Rahman several laurels, including, most recently, the 2018 Whitley Award, dubbed the “green Oscars.”

M. Monirul H. Khan, a professor of zoology at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka, said the Mro people had access to the deepest parts of the CHT, where the remaining forests and valuable wildlife occur, and they were the key to conserving whatever is left there. By gaining their confidence and partnering with them, CCA had “made a major breakthrough,” especially since no other organization had been able to develop such a mutual partnership, Khan added. “The Mro people live with the forests and wildlife of the CHT and their role is critical for any successful conservation initiative,” he said.

Rahman’s group has had less success partnering with the local branch of the Forest Department, though.

“They work separately, don’t communicate or share information with us, and don’t maintain good relations with us,” said S.M. Golam Mowla, a forest officer with the Chittagong division of the department. “They take permission from the Dhaka office, not from us, despite their site falling within the jurisdiction of Chittagong. If we worked together, we could jointly visit the area, we could help them with our local staff.”

Rahman acknowledged there was a lack of coordination between his conservation group and the local forest department. The Sangu-Matamuhuri Reserve Forest within the CHT region, where Rahman’s CCA team works, officially falls under the jurisdiction of the forest department. But the department has little actual authority over the area, Rahman said, primarily because of the complex political landscape, including local armed conflict.

“It is not their fault. It is because the area is remote, it is not safe, and they don’t have adequate resources,” Rahman said of the department. “If the forest department could find mechanisms to increase their presence there, the gap in communication will decrease and it would help us tremendously, and we could help them in return.”

Khan of Jahangirnagar University agreed that working in remote parts of the CHT was “extremely difficult, and there was very little or no presence of government officials in some areas.”

‘Not a fairy tale’

And local people have not always supported CCA’s actions. When Rahman first started exploring the CHT forests, some feared his goal was to collect resources from their forest and evict them from their land.

This mistrust stems from the region’s long history of political conflict. The hill people have been at odds with the government of Bangladesh over a series of policies that the groups felt marginalized them and threatened their identity. This includes the government’s recognition of only the Bengali language and culture, as well as the settling of Bengalis in the CHT, which, over decades, has led to land-grabbing and evictions of the hill ethnic groups, triggering armed conflict. Despite a peace accord signed in 1997, the CHT region remains heavily militarized and volatile. Promises of rehabilitating those displaced haven’t been met, and with the local people lacking formal rights to their traditional land, land-grabbing and violence continue to mar the landscape.

“As a result, some people think we’re going to evict them from their land,” Rahman said. “So while we have had success, we must admit that it’s not been a fairy tale. People are very complex, and there’s no magic formula. What we do may work in some villages, but it won’t in others.”

Hills in the Chittagong Hill Tracts lay bare from unsustainable logging and agricultural practices. Image credit: Scott Trageser Photography/CCA.

The parabiologists and Rahman’s team also have limited powers when it comes to tackling commercial hunting or poaching in the region. While the parabiologists are able to monitor and report on opportunistic hunting from villages they have agreements with, confronting organized poaching or wildlife trafficking is harder and would require official enforcement agencies to step in.

“If they see instances of logging or poaching, the parabiologists cannot intervene, because if they did, there would be conflict, and people will harm them,” Rahman said.

Despite this, Rahman remains optimistic. Local communities are not just helping reveal their region’s rich biodiversity to the world but are also changing their behavior. The latter is harder to measure, but in some cases quite visible: many of the parabiologists now serve to protect the animals they once hunted.

“One guy would go hunt elephants, skin them and eat them. Now he’s saving them,” Rahman said. “Another parabiologist used to hunt pangolins, and sell them. But now he’s working with us. One day he found a turtle, and when the turtle died, he couldn’t sleep at night because the death of the turtle had disturbed him.

“These stories give us hope, and I think we need that in conservation,” he added. “No matter how many species I discover or how many papers I publish, to see people who used to hunt avidly now protect those very species gives me hope.”

Both CCA researchers and Mro parabiologists co-author scientific papers. Photo: Scott Trageser Photography/CCA.

– this story first appeared in Mongabay. An original version can be accessed here