Mro Tribe’s EcoGuardians Show Great Commitment

Authored by Caesar Rahman

EcoGuardians

I like turtles. I caught my first wild turtle in an urban pond while I was doing a high school project on the urban turtles of New York City. Eight years later I found myself in a remote area somewhere near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. The Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) is an extensive, hilly area in southwestern Bangladesh that’s part of the 1,800-kilometer mountain range running from the eastern Himalayas in China to western Myanmar. The CHT is bordered by Myanmar to the southeast and by India to the north (Tripura) and east (Mizoram).

Forests in the hilly regions are inhabited by indigenous people who practice swidden (known as jhum) agriculture where the vegetation is cleared, burned and cultivated for a year before being left fallow between two to 25 years, depending on the land available. Afterwards, farming is moved to a new area and the pattern repeats. Most of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, until recently, consisted of old-growth, semi-evergreen and bamboo forests. The majority of these forests, by rotation, have been cleared, primarily by these shifting agricultural practices and by logging.

The region is sparsely populated, with ethnic groups such as the Chakma, Marma, Tripura and Mro of Tibeto-Burmese origin. The southern part of the Bandarban district where we are having great success is inhabited predominantly by the Mro tribe, a very unique and “endangered” group of people with a global populous of less than 120,000. The CHT has a politically tumultuous history, including a military uprising in the 1970s due to land-related issues and the “fight for self-governance,” which resulted in the Peace Accord of 1997.

With support from The Orianne Society, I initiated the Bangladesh Python Project in 2011 with the aim to study and conserve the rare reptiles of Bangladesh using the iconic Burmese Python as our flagship species. I decided to conduct a herpetofauna survey in CHT—an area the size of the state of Connecticut which is considered the least explored area in Bangladesh. Due to the complex political situation and the presence of armed insurgent groups, this area is restricted by the Bangladesh government. As a result, no comprehensive surveys had been done in the CHT, especially in the southern part.

EcoGuardians

Some of the areas were so remote that surveying the area for biodiversity was very challenging. We kick-started an innovative survey program called Cameras for Conservation. Initially, we distributed half a dozen point-and-shoot cameras to indigenous people and asked them to take photographs of animals they encounter in daily life. The idea was to generate information on their hunting and get an idea of what species still exist in the region. The results were remarkable! We started getting very interesting and shocking photos of hunted wildlife including the clouded leopard (Neofelis lebulosa), marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata), Asiatic golden cat, great hornbill, pythons (Python bivittatus and Malaypython reticulatus) and King Cobra (Ophiphagus Hannah). Many of these animals are highly threatened globally and were getting identified and recorded for the very first time in Bangladesh.

Then there was a photo of a turtle shell which didn’t look like any species I’d seen before—it was the Arakan Forest Turtle! Arakan Forest Turtles are listed as Critically Endangered and considered one of the world’s rarest turtles—the secretive forest dwelling turtle was declared extinct in 1908. The first wild population was rediscovered in Western Myanmar in 2009 and was thought to be endemic to Western Myanmar until now.

EcoGuardians

With the help of the Mro people, we uncovered recently killed shells and live individuals in nine different localities, realizing that this species is widely distributed in the southern part of the CHT. I realized that my discovery of this population—where no one thought it could exist—would open new doors for conservation of this high priority species.

In the process I also discovered some of the last remaining strongholds of five other highly-threatened turtle and tortoise species: the Asian Brown Tortoise (Manouria emys), the largest tortoise in Asia extracted from most of their native range due to harvesting (it warrants higher conservation status); the Keeled Box Turtle (Cuora mouhotti); the Sylhet Roofed Turtle (Pansghsura syslehtensis), a very unique aquatic turtle species with 13 marginal scutes only found in few restricted localities in Northeast India and Bangladesh; the Elongated Tortoise (Indotestudo elongate), a species that was very common throughout the range that has been declining rapidly due to over-harvesting; the Malayan Softshell Turtle (Amyda ornata); and at least two species of Asian Leaf Turtle (Cyclemys spp).

EcoGuardians

Although this has been great news discovering turtle populations in the remotest part of the country, they still remain heavily threatened. Fortunately I’ve found no evidence of commercial turtle harvesting in my study zone. However, opportunistic subsistence hunting by the tribal people is widespread and is the most immediate threat to the species in this region. With no intervention, subsistence hunting would likely cause the eventual extinction of these critical species in the region. If the hunting continues, it is just matter of time before they go extinct.

Officially, the region is declared a protected area, but due to the remote nature and complex political situation, the Forest Department of Bangladesh exercises little to no practical jurisdiction here. Therefore, traditional conservation approach or top-down regulation of hunting is ineffective. So how do we save all these magnificent species from extinction?

The answer lies in the hand of the native people.

The project emphasizes mitigating hunting pressures by empowering the local Mro tribal huntsmen to take on the role of EcoGuardians. Alongside the establishment of the EcoGuardians, we are empowering these indigenous communities by building primary schools (Schools for Conservation). Our craft programs (Crafts for Conservation) then generate revenues to make the schools self-sustaining. The EcoGuardians are trained as parabiologists to collect basic ecological data and are responsible for monitoring populations of designated pressured wildlife species. These individuals are assigned by their village chief as the local ambassador for wildlife conservation for years to come. The program integrates traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) with the social and ecological sciences and is based on the foundation of trust and community participation.

The EcoGuardians Project is a sustainable, community-owned conservation endeavor that empowers native people as protectors of their own unique endangered wildlife, forest, heritage and culture. The project brings scientific teaching to the Mro tribal people to better understand their local ecology and external social pressures. Through self-run, conservation-focused local schools, each village is given the perspective to preserve what is unique and special to their people. We initiated the pilot phase of the program in 2014 with small grants from the Turtle Conservation Fund and Tortoise Sanctuary. As of July 2015, four villages are included in the pilot phase. Contracts were drafted and signed by the village chiefs. The contracts detail key stipulations of the EcoGuardians to help preserve specific native species and conserve the forests.

Education and empowerment is the key for preservation of biodiversity and indigenous culture. Primarily due to the remote nature of the area, a major part of the CHT is largely neglected by governmental authority. Schools for Conservation is the cornerstone of the EcoGuardians Program. As a pilot study, we established four primary schools for the tribal people in four villages. Each school is named after an endangered animal, such as the Pangolin School and the Tortoise School. Each village under our program becomes a Conservation Center, the heartbeat of the EcoGuardians Program. In exchange for these schools, the villagers agreed to: 1) cease hunting of 15 highly-imperiled wildlife species, including tortoises, turtles, primates, hornbills, elephants, gaur and pangolins; and 2) reserve an area called the Community Conserved Area (CCA), for the sole purpose of forest preservation and water conservation, in which they will not practice swidden agriculture. The village is responsible for the monitoring of the CCA under the jurisdiction of the village chief.

We will also be working closely with the Forest Department of Bangladesh for the official declaration of the CCAs. Former hunters from the villages are recruited and trained to become EcoGuardians. They are given the responsibility of monitoring hunting mitigation and collection of ecological data. These EcoGuardians undergo an intensive training program that focuses on turtle monitoring methodologies such as standard mark-recapture techniques, radio telemetry, collection of biometric data and training in the use of project equipment. Once training is completed, each appointed EcoGuardian is responsible for releasing any turtles captured by villagers to the site of capture after marking each turtle and collecting morphological data. During the first year, turtles and tortoises are our flagship species because turtles are the most highly-threatened animals that are under direct threat from subsistence hunting and because they are a good model species to evaluate and monitor.

To empower the Mro tribal people and provide a sustainable source of income, we initiated Crafts for Conservation and are collaborating with the local brand Jatra to sell their traditional crafts. With our pilot project we have already supplied over 1,200 lots of 15 items (bead necklaces and bamboo baskets) to Jatra. Currently our products are being sold in showrooms and have been selling very well. The initial EcoGuardians pilot endeavor has proven a huge success, with the local Mro tribespeople showing overwhelming enthusiasm for their project. They understand clearly that the fate of their unique way of life rests in their own ambitions and cooperation towards conservation and are very driven to see the project succeed.

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