The fate of this birdwatching hotspot has been sealed; the habitats are declining fast, getting assimilated with the ever-expanding metropolis
- South Keraniganj is a rapidly declining peri-urban wetland
- The ecosystem is home to 200 plus bird species
- Many of them are threatened, less-known and extremely elusive
- The Indian spotted eagle, red-necked falcon, peregrine falcon, the Amur falcon, shaheen falcon, munias, wild quails, snipes, bitterns, rails and crakes are rarities throughout the country
- The area is also an ideal breeding ground for native fishes such as giant wallago and great snakehead
- Homesteads, grasslands and scrublands mosaics are home to two different small carnivores: Asiatic golden jackal and jungle cat
- South Keraniganj will never be the same again
Centuries ago, to the north of the city centre stood four formidable forestlands named Mirpur, Kurmitola, Paltan and Tejgaon. To the south, there was a vast swamp forest named Kamrangir Char.
I find it difficult to picture this description in "Environment of Capital Dhaka." The areas are now the heartlands of Dhaka metropolis, standing tall as concrete jungles.
Imagining the bygone appearance of the city requires extreme overclocking. And my brain eventually gives in. But I also feel fortunate. At least, I did not have to see the transformation.
Perhaps, the understanding is superficial. When I recall my birdwatching experiences in and around the city, they indicate a stark fact.
The metropolis is relentless – expanding and transforming everything. The urban greeneries are shrinking. Apartment complexes are rising faster than ever. The wetlands are being converted, the rivers poisoned. Neighbouring villages and small-towns are being marked as extensions of the city, waiting to be converted.
Extinction, under the cloak of development, is everywhere.
The book "Environment of Capital Dhaka" by the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh paid tribute to the city on its four-hundredth anniversary. And when I think about a future Dhaka, I worry about the new areas that would be completely stripped of wildlife and wilderness. I had a quick look on the map of the Dhaka metropolis, only to find every birdwatching hotspot surrounding it in the waiting list.
Extinct forests of Mirpur, Kurmitola, Paltan and Tejgaon now sound mythical, crazy to a large extent.
Wetlands, grasslands and rivers around Dhaka city are on their last legs, too. Someone needs to write about their fading wildlife resources.
The record will be of great use when the time comes to celebrate the 500th birthday of the metropolis. The Business Standard Earth starts with South Keraniganj.
Where South Keraniganj is
Administratively, Keraniganj is a sub-district of Dhaka district. The area touches the entire western border of the city.
The history of Keraniganj is deep-rooted, going back to the reign of the Nawabs of Bengal. Legend has it the area, lying on the far bank of the Buriganga River, was home to clerical staffs – Kerani in Bengali. So, the name, Keraniganj – the home of Keranis – developed.
Keraniganj is connected to Dhaka city through two modern bridges.
The southern part of Keraniganj faces two river confluences: the Buriganga and the Dhaleshwari; composing an ideal floodplain with a mosaic of seasonal grasslands, wetlands, croplands, homesteads, open scrublands and river tributaries.
Realtors and investors of the metropolis have had a longing eye on the lush lands of Keraniganj.
A birdwatching heaven
How many bird species are required to call a place birding heaven?
Just separated by the shrinking Buriganga from the capital, South Keraniganj is home to 200 plus bird species. And, not all of them are regular species.
The area is home to some of the rarest predatory birds of Bangladesh: the Indian spotted eagle, red-necked falcon, peregrine falcon and the Amur falcon.
The electric poles are regular perching spots for the migrating Amur falcon and shaheen falcon, a unique subspecies of peregrine falcon. The vast croplands and the river banks of South Keraniganj serve as a rest stop for diverse shorebirds.
The short-eared owls, the only migratory owl of Bangladesh, choose open scrublands of the area every year. The grass patches there offer sanctuary to all seven species of munias and at least three species of wild quails.
The homesteads of South Keraniganj are one of the easiest destinations near Dhaka to watch all the common rural birds of the country. The waterbodies, seasonal or perennial, and their aquatic vegetation are a favourite place for some of the most elusive snipes, bitterns, rails and crakes.
A national record
Blue-capped rock thrush and red-breasted flycatcher, two small migratory passerine birds, were first sighted in the open scrublands of South Keraniganj in Bangladesh.
The rock thrush was sighted in 2014 and the flycatcher in 2015. Both records created a national stir.
I saw the flycatcher. And the rock thrush is still in my lifers' list – a tally kept by birdwatchers containing yet-to-see species. It was the day after Eid-ul-Adha, I was reluctant to join a bird-walk. And, it turned out to be a miss of a lifetime.
Cost of development
I have been birding at South Keraniganj since 2012. Every time I go there, the first thing I notice is the change in topography.
As the area is a low-lying floodplain, there are attempts to raise the ground level with sand in every winter.
This is part of preparing the lands for residential and industrial plots. And this trend has overtaken almost all of South Keraniganj. So, every winter, the area appears as one big sand-dune.
With each passing year, the dune gets bigger, reaching the horizon. As the horizon is beaded with ever-increasing towers of brick kilns, the dune gets dotted with settlements and farms. And fewer natural features – agricultural lands, seasonal pools, open scrublands, and rivulets – remain.
The ominous honking of excavators
Last week I went to South Keraniganj, my first outing in the new normal. The change I observed was a hook to my good senses.
I saw a road being paved right through the middle of a prominent river tributary. Two excavators were levelling the road. As a safety measure, they kept on beeping. And they beeped throughout the evening.
The rustling of leaves, the chirping of birds, the whistling wind over the wetlands, the silence and the peace of South Keraniganj – everything got masked in their workaholic sighs.
I asked my fellow birders about the disturbing commotion. Everyone gave me a hard face and said, "There will be a train track here in due course."
My brain again failed to grasp the bigger picture. I could not concentrate on birdwatching anymore. Experiencing extinction is not easy.
However, South Keraniganj is also famous for its diverse native fishes at this time of the year.
So, to allow my pent-up thoughts a doorway outward, I talked to some locals.
"What do you think about the road and the train track?'' I asked an elderly who was observing his fish-traps with the determination I saw in a kingfisher a few moments ago.
"Nothing will happen. The river confluence will stay the same,'' he said with confidence.
I stayed silent and wished for his prediction to come true.
However, in the evening we saw about 30 bird species. There were yellow bitterns, cinnamon bitterns and watercocks. Last month my birding mates regularly saw black bitterns. Not many places in Bangladesh are known to birdwatchers that can offer these many rarities at a single site.
We observed fewer whistling ducks as they attempted to spend the night in the hyacinths and phragmites. Ultimately, they decided otherwise because of the unpleasantly loud noise coming from the excavators. There were bronze-winged jacanas. And one of the males was calling constantly; as if it was contesting with the ominous beep.
I left the place at sundown. I know there is no stopping of the fated conversion of South Keraniganj. But what was that jacana whooping about? Was it cursing mankind?