Reserved forest at Lathitila in Moulvibazar under threat

This photo taken on 27 July 2021 shows reserved forest in Lathitila of Moulvibazar’s Juri upazila.
Prothom Alo

The forest department has planned to build a safari park on 5,631 acres of land in the lone biodiversity-enriched reserved forest in Lathitila under Goalbari union parishad in Juri upazila of Moulvibazar at an estimated cost of 9.8 billon (980 crore) cost.

Various infrastructure for tourists and heavy infrastructure including power transmission lines and substations will be built at the new safari park with 800,000 to 1 million tourists expected annually, according to the report of the feasibility study on the safari park project.

Construction of any infrastructure and people’s entry are prohibited in a reserved forest while wildlife roams freely in a safari park where tourists visit with safety measures.

The Lathitila forest is a mixed evergreen forest. Teak trees dominate the Lathitila forest that is located 20 kilometres south of Madhabkunda Eco Park and 50 kilometres north of Lawachhara Eco Park. Thisis the habitat of elephants, gibbons, barking deer, northern pig-tailed macaque, Assam macaque and languors.

There are several tourist sites, including Barshijora Eco Park, Lawachhara National Park, Madhabkunda Eco Park, Madhabkunda Lake and Biker Beel, in Moulvibazar districts. Various infrastructure, including hotels, motels, restaurants and roads, have been built there for tourists. As a result, biodiversity of these forests and water bodies are under threat, according to studies conducted by various government and private organisations.

Since the Lathitila forest was declared a reserved forest, its condition is relatively better than the others in the district. If a safari park is established in Lathitila, its forest and biodiversity will be destroyed, wildlife and environment experts observed.

The Barlekha and Juri upazilas are the constituency of the environment, forest and climate change minister Md Shahab Uddin, who is also the vice president of the district unit of Awami League. According to a section of the local political leaders, the minister wants to establish the billion-taka safari park as part of the large scale development work in his constituency.

Minister Shahab Uddin couldn’t be reached for comment.

Chief conservator of forests Amir Hosain Chowdhury told Prothom Alo on Tuesday, “We have reviewed the report of the feasibility study and the area seems to be suitable.” The main infrastructure of the safari park will be built on land that has been grabbed by the locals and the main forest will remain untouched, he added.

Wednesday marked the World Nature Conservation Day and theme of this year is ‘Forest and Livelihood: Sustaining People and Planet.'

Objection from locals

The forest department proposed the name Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park, Moulvibazar for the Lathitila forest. Beats Consulting Services carried out the feasibility study. Former conservator of forest department’s wildlife and nature conservation Tapan Kumar Dey led the feasibility study.

He also played a pivotal role in establishing Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park in Cox's Bazar’s Chakaria in 1999 and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park in Gazipur in 2012.

The government’s audit department raised allegations of corruption and law quality work during the establishment of the Gazipur safari park. The forest department itself investigated the matter.

Project director Tapan Kumar Dey also faced severe allegations. A mobile court of Rapid Action Battalion rescued three tiger cubs from his residence in Dhaka’s Shyamoli on 12 June 2012. A certain Zakir Hossain, who faced allegations for involvement in the incident, later told the court Tapan Kumar Dey, from his Mahakhali office, gave a written statement and transferred wildlife including tigers cubs from one place to another.However, Tapan Kumar denied the allegations.

In 2008, the-then chief conservator of forests Osman Ghani was arrested after law enforcement agencies recovered Tk 5 million (Tk 50 lakh) from inside pillows at his house. Tapan Kumar was also said to be involved Osman Ghani’s corruption. Tapan Kumar was arrested during the past caretaker government and stayed in jail for several months. He then was reinstated in his job.

Regarding the allegations, Tapan Kumar Day told Prothom Alo the prior allegations and cases were filed as part of a conspiracy against him. However, establishment of safari park is a very effective way to protect the Lathitila forest from grabbers. Land grabbing has decreased and wildlife has increased after establishing the safari park in Gaziur, he added.

The lawmaker of Moulvibazar’s Sadar constituency and Awami League’s district unit president Nesar Ahmed, however, thinks Lathitila forest is not a suitable place to establish a safari park because of its enriched forestry and wildlife. Besides, many families of ethnic minority Tripura live there. If the safari park is set up, the remaining wildlife will vanish, he added.

Building such a large structure inside a protected forest violates the existing forest act of the country, Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan observed.

Eight villages inside the forest

According to the feasibility study, 11,704 people of 303 families live in six villages inside the protected forest. Infrastructures including concrete house, road and electricity line has been built in most of the area. Crops are being cultivated clearing the forest.

A proposal has been made to rehabilitate 42 families from Rupchhara and Lathichhara villages to the remaining six villages.

During a visit on 26 July, it was seen that people have built brick houses in various places of the forest and planted lemon, orange, banana, jackfruit and other orchards. Many people cultivate fish in the water bodies. There are teak plantations in several places of the forest planted by the forest department under social afforestation programme at various times.

Tigers, lions to be brought to park

According to the project proposal, of the 5,631-acre of the entire safari park, an eco-village will be built on a 800 acres of land, a jungle safari on700 acres and a core safari park on 300 acres while the remaining area will be for bamboo forest.

Establishment of separate safaris have been proposed for various animals including tiger, lion, leopard, hyena, reptiles and rhinoceros in the core safari area. A separate children's park will be built equipped with various rides and other facilities.

Wildlife expert Reza Khan told Prothom Alo if a safari park is established on such a biodiversity-enriched Lathitila forest, all wildlife will flee the forest and the entire forest will be destroyed gradually. A safari park should not be established here in any way. Besides, if such a biodiversity-enriched forest is protected properly, wildlife will increase naturally. If a safari park in set up, wildlife will be brought from abroad and they may create an imbalance to nature there, he added.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna