Endangered masked finfoot of the Sundarbans

Endangered finfoot on a tree in the SundarbansSayam U Chowdhury

The masked finfoot of the Sundarbans is a big attraction for birdwatchers. I have to go to the Sundarbans on research every year. Last monsoon, I traveled a long way from Chandpai range in Sundarbans to Sharankhola in a hope to see the bird. I could see it only once in six days and could not take any picture of the rare bird.

There is a common perception that other than the Royal Bengal Tiger there is no other endangered species in the Sundarbans. But there are several other rare species in the mangrove forest. One of them is the masked finfoot. Researchers estimate that there are only about 500 masked finfoot in the world. The largest number of them is found in the Sundarbans. Though the forest used to be a safe haven for the birds, the population is declining at an alarming rate each year.

In such a critical condition, a team lead by researcher Sayam U Chowdhury initiated research on this bird in the Sundarbans in 2011. They conducted census over a large part of the Sunbardans and studied the bird’s breeding and what problems they were facing.

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Some 25 nests were traced during the census, some of these abandoned. The breeding process of two pairs of birds in two nests was closely observed. It was inside a narrow canal at Chita-Kotka. But it was so difficult to carry out the observation from the canal. So the observation was done through camera trapping in collaboration with the forest department.

The nest and the movement of the birds were monitored over 23 days. Ten day after laying eggs, the male left the female never to return. Then the female bird brooded and hatched her eggs alone. The observation of such behaviour of the male bird added a new dimension to the research.

The bird now survives in small numbers in Myanmar and Cambodia. A sanctuary should be built from Supoti to Chia-Kotka in the Sundarbans in order to save this endangered bird.

More important information was revealed in research next year. Just before the eggs in a nest were hatched, an eagle ate up all the eggs and the mother bird spent several days near its nest before finally leaving.

Around the world, habitat loss is seen as the prime reason of the finfoot’s critical condition. The main problem in Sundabrans is the unplanned fishing as they fish with charpata jaal (a special kind of net) to catch the fish which damages the nests of the finfoots. The researcher team questioned 100 fishermen about the bird. Each of them said they had eaten masked finfoot at least once. Most of them said they found the nest while fishing and then hunted the brooding birds from their nest in the dark of night.

The tide in the deep of the forest has a big impact on the life of the birds. The bird seeks food on the banks of the canal during low tide. Small fish, shrimps, insects and crabs are their main food. Researchers presume that salinity in the water of the Sundarbans may have an impact on the finfoot's survival. The finfoot is no less important than the tiger, deer, dolphin or crocodile in the Sundarbans.

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Finfoot is an exceptional bird as it can survive in the swamps. Although the finfoot looks like a duck, it does not belong to the duck family. Many claim it as an anatidae for its long bill and greenish legs.

Apart from Bangladesh, the bird now survives in small numbers in Myanmar and Cambodia. A sanctuary should be built from Supoti to Chia-Kotka in the Sundarbans in order to save this endangered bird. The Sundarbans could be a big sanctuary for the birds if it could be freed of the bird catching nets.

*Simanto Dipu is an wildlife researcher. This piece originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo has been rewritten here in English by Nusrat Nowrin.