It is time to accept that the days of serving wildlife as food is over and if we want to continue seeing our birds, we must save them

We were both saddened and elated by the news report of a mobile court slapping a small fine on an eatery named Taru Mia Restaurant for cooking wild-birds for its customers at Haripur in Jaintapur upazila. The Divisional Forest Officer responsible for the conservation of wildlife in Sylhet will reportedly take more legal actions against the restaurant in addition to the fine.

It was not so painful to read the report but rather to see the accompanying photo of a dozen birds boiling in a large pot at Taru Mia Restaurant. It reminded us of the horrifying sights of dying ducks desperately trying to flee from humans at the haor basin. On our annual tours of Hakaluki haor for the bird census, we rescued many poisoned ducks from water in our futile attempts to save their feeble lives.

We could not keep a single poisoned duck rescued from the Hakaluki haor alive. The bird-killers came at night to put out the poisoned food for ducks and collected the floating dead bodies, probably, before dawn. We got to see the ducks that did not eat poison sooner, only to die promptly and get collected by dawn. By the time we came to collect the gasping ducks from the water, they were ready to die on our lap.

We saw several thousand poisoned ducks at Hakaluki haor for the first time in 2003. We collected a dozen gasping ducks and tried to save them by alkalization. A few of them did live for a few days before yielding to toxicity. But in the recent past the ducks we rescued lived no longer than a few hours. Perhaps the bird-killers have been improving their poisoning techniques.

Although we had those close-up views of the wild birds slaughtered at Hakaluki haor we had no clear picture of what the bird-killers did with the dead birds. From word of mouth, we knew that they cut the throat of dead birds to make them Halal and sell them to restaurants and party centres. The photo of boiling birds in a pot of Taru Mia Restaurant came as the graphic narrative we needed to fill in the gaps.

No wonder the news report moved us and many other people all over the country. Quite a few wild birds were ending their lives as table meat at places like Haripur in the north-eastern parts of Bangladesh. The haor basin at the north-east was where the birdlife of the country flourished for millennia. It continues to be a hot spot today despite continuous depredation.

In winter, we counted half a million birds at Tanguar haor only two decades back and nearly as many at Pashua haor three decades ago. There must have been millions of birds at the haor basin a mere half century ago. Shooting and trapping wild birds was effortless at the time of abundance. That explained how the practice of eating wild-birds started and perpetuated.

As the population of wildlife plummeted, it became harder to shoot or trap birds. That's when someone invented a novel method called poisoning. Poisons are cheap and easy to use. You spread some poisoned grains at the water's edge when nobody is watching, and bag the dead birds a few hours later. Your only regret is that you wouldn't be able to bag many more birds dying after you fled.

Eating poisoned birds is neither Halal nor safe. But by slitting the birds' throat and keeping the poisoning a secret the bird-killers could easily sell the dead birds to dodgy buyers such as Taru Mia Restaurant and party centres. Nobody knew how much harm the poisoned meat was doing to cleaners, cooks and diners. Since the damage was not immediate or dramatic, the bird-killers' trade continued unabated.

In the Sylhet division once, many road-side restaurants openly advertised the availability of wild-bird curry; when and other eateries did that in whispers. During marriage ceremonies, many hosts discreetly boasted of menus that included roasted wild duck even as the birds were vanishing from the haor basin.

Wild-bird slaughter went unabated at the haor basin for ages; our law enforcing agencies took little action. Most people in the administration did not even know the law of the land that gave the wild-birds every protection against killing, culling and harassment. A prominent political leader once publicly supported the killing of wild-birds in the name of saving the crops at the haor basin.

Lately, in the Sylhet division, the voices against any revolting cuisine involving wildlife had been growing louder until finally, the public and the administration joined hands to punish a puny perpetrator with a small fine. It was about time something was done to set an example, however small. It was heart-warming for us and many other bird-lovers of the land.

We are happy to applaud every step taken against the slaughter of wildlife, big or small. We do not wish to see our last wild-birds of the haor basin being cooked and eaten. And we are truly down to the last birds! Only a month ago we counted the water-birds of Tanguar haor and Baikka beel of Haila haor and found a single Bali-Hash (Cotton Pygmy-goose) at the first and two at the second site.

People must accept that the days are over when one could see or serve wildlife as food. We are seeing the very last of them in this overcrowded land. We must save them so that we may continue to see them. Even at Haripur we want to look up and watch the birds fly between beels and not look down to the kitchen of Taru Mia Restaurant and see the birds being cooked.

Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam.

First Published in The Business Standard.

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