No ecosystem in the world exists without a human impact. Humans currently use 50% of the Earth’s landmass, and they affect 100% of the Earth’s ecosystems in one way or another through water use, resource use, climate change, topsoil depletion, introduced animals, and air, water, noise, and light pollution. There is no longer a habitat that can be considered “untouched”, and the question going forward is not how we can protect the environment from human impact, but how we can learn to coexist.
In Lawachara these issues are in your face. Lawachara contains some beautifully dense jungle and tranquil streams…as well as over twenty villages scattered within and just outside of the park. Tea plantations surround the park and betel leaves are grown and harvested within the park. Villagers collect firewood and fruits from inside the park, and occasionally even hunt animals. Illegal logging gangs sometimes enter the park at night to steal high-value trees from the “preserved” forest.
One of Caesar’s goals for the Bangladesh Python Project is to help villagers to work together with scientists, conservationists, and government agencies who want to preserve the park in the long term, for their good and the good of all the plants and wildlife that live within it. We are currently working towards that aim by educating local people on the value of wildlife, employing locals in the project, maintaining positive relationships with local communities, and working towards solutions when human communities and wildlife are in conflict. Caesar has even begun to train local volunteers to take ecological data, giving them both a better understanding of the forest and a real role in conservation work that goes on there.
The Bangladesh Python Project trip included efforts to reinforce the education aspect. Before we released the first radio-tortoise back into the wild, we wanted to thank the community that had brought the tortoise to us, share information about tortoises with them, and encourage a positive relationship with Lawachara’s wildlife.
Other interactions occur on a more frequent basis. One of the most regular are the “snake calls”, when someone from the villages calls Caesar because they’ve spotted or caught a snake. We went on one of these calls only minutes after I’d arrived at the park. A local had caught a slightly emaciated Copperhead Trinket Snake (Coelognalthus radiatus), which he handed over to Caesar when we got there. The regular snake calls give significant data to the Bangladesh Python Project researchers, help prevent locals from killing snakes or (in the case of venomous species) getting bit by them, are an opportunity to educate villagers about the positive impacts of snakes, and ensure good interactions between villagers and researchers.
One of the most memorable experiences of the trip was when we took the initiative and made a village “snake call” all on our own. Kanai Das, a Bangladesh Python Project staff member who grew up in Lawachara and has been working for Caesar full-time for three years, led us on an expedition of Fulbari Village. Kanai is the main community liason for the project, and also helps out with radiotracking and dog and equipment care. Several of the team members hoped to find a krait during this trip, and while most snakes species prefer the less altered forests, kraits thrive around the villages and in the rice paddies that surround them.
Fulbari Village, like many of the villages within the park, is actually a worker settlement for one of the tea plantations. These tea workers work hard and long hours picking tea leaves while living in poverty on the outskirts of the fields.
Kanai did a great job of greasing the wheels wherever we went, chatting it up and even getting a couple of men to join us in our search. The Bangladeshis spoke to each other in Bangla, while the Westerners communicated to each other in English, with Kanai and I occasionally switching to Hindi in order to speak with each other and then translating that out to our respective cohorts. In this manner we poked and prodded the ditches and huts and fields.
After 1.5 hours of searching, we had made our way to a fallow rice field on the outskirts of the village, well out of earshot of the villagers who had gathered around televisions cheering Italy’s loss. As I crossed the field my eyes caught a striking black-and-yellow pattern intertwined with the grass. “Krait, there’s a krait!” I yelled. And even better yet, “It’s eating a wolf snake!” Not only had we found a beautiful Banded Krait (Bungarus fasciatus), but it had a still-moving Indian Wolf Snake (Lycodon aulicus) in its jaws.
Unfortunately, not all interactions are so pleasant. While we were enjoying the successful hunt, Caesar and Swapon Das (another staff member from the local village) were out with other team members, radiotracking the pythons and tortoises. Everything was going fine until they began to track Chaity, a nearly 9′ male who in recent weeks had begun moving towards Radhanagar Village. Tonight the radio signals led the team to the village. And every time they stepped nearer to the settlements, the beeps got louder…until they tracked Chaity to a spot right behind someone’s home.
Here was the dilemma. The primary purpose of Caesar’s radio-tracking study is to gain a better understanding of python biology, especially their home ranges and activity over time. The worse thing he could do to interfere with the study results would be to move the pythons. But here was the python practically on the doorsteps of someone’s home, where little good could happen. Do you capture and relocate the python, thereby interfering with the study, or do you let the python keep doing its thing? Do you risk the likely result that it will encounter the villagers? Caesar and the tracking team chose to leave the python there and returned to the dorm that night with worried looks on their faces.
Sure enough, Caesar received the snake call just after dawn. A python had gotten into a villager’s duck pen! Caesar, Swapon, and I jumped in a car and went to check it out. Before we even reached Radhanagar Village we were met on the road by an angry crowd with a large bag. They thrust the bag at us. Sure enough, it was Chaity.
The young male python, surprisingly, was unharmed. The same could not be said for the duck, which the villagers had also helpfully placed in the bag for us. The man who gave us the bag went off on Caesar and Swapon in Bangla. I asked Caesar what the man was saying. Caesar couldn’t maintain a straight face as he translated for me:
“He’s saying that it’s our fault the pythons are coming to the village. He says that we put the radio transmitters inside of them, and now they want to go to the village. He’s not making any sense at all. I tried to explain to him, but he was angry and wouldn’t listen.”
As we returned to the dorm with Chaity to do a health check and new measurements (he stretched out to 8’11”, showing nearly a foot of growth since October), Caesar went back and forth over his options. They weren’t particularly good.
Do you leave the python until the last possible second, or do you proactively relocate it whenever it gets too close to a village? Relocating the python interferes with the home range data and displaces the python from its territory, but if the python takes prey from the village, then someone is going to catch it and force the relocation anyway.
Do you reimburse the villagers every time a python takes a duck, or do you work out some other long-term solution with them? Reimbursing the villagers may help keep them from seeing the pythons’ meals as a negative impact on their bottom line, but it also reinforces the notion that their ducks belong there and the python doesn’t.
Do you tell the villagers that this is the natural behavior of the python and convince them to find a way to coexist with typical python behavior, or do you try to find a way for pythons to exist within the villagers’ current framework? It’s possible that asking the villagers to switch from ducks to chickens would be an effective compromise – ducks frequent the water where the pythons prefer to hunt, and chickens tend to stay out in the clearings that the pythons avoid. But would the villagers agree to such a life change, and would it even work if they did?
Behind these practical questions are deeper ones. Can major predators like pythons still survive in parks like Lawachara? The big cats, wolves, and wild dogs are already gone. The largest terrestrial predators left are a few pythons, the rare king cobra, jackals, and occasional small cats which may not be permanent residents. Is it possible that there’s just not enough space preserved here for predators and people to get along? That’s the greatest question that Caesar has to answer – whether or not there is enough land in Lawachara for these incredible creatures. How much land does a python need?