Photo of albino fishing cat courtesy Dan Morrison
Its distinctively small ears bent flat against its skull, a rare and endangered albino fishing cat paces manically inside its tiny cage at a private zoo in northeastern Bangladesh.
Fishing cats are made for the water, and this one is clearly unhappy with the bars standing between her and Bangladesh’s many waterways–but at least she’s alive. Washed downriver from India as a small cub during the rainy season four years ago, she was rescued by villagers and carried to an unlikely protector.
The Shooting Life
Sitesh Ranjan Deb spent most of his life stalking game with a double-barreled shotgun. Now he’s a conservationist in a country where wild animals and wild places are disappearing fast.
A third-generation hunter, gunsmith, and wilderness guide, Deb’s father and grandfather had reputations for slaying the man-eating leopards and crop-destroying wild boars that once roamed the villages and deep forests of Bangladesh’s Srimongal district.
Photo of Sitesh Ranjan Deb by Dan Morrison
Most of those forests are gone now, stripped clean for timber and firewood. As for Deb, he hung up his guns after receiving a violent epiphany. Early one morning in January, 1991, while tracking a wild boar through chest-high grass, he literally stumbled upon a sleeping Himalayan black bear.
With a single swipe of the bear’s paw, Deb lost his right eye, most of his nose, several teeth, and a lot of cheekbone.
He pulled the trigger of his 12-gauge before losing consciousness; the bear would be the last animal to die at Deb’s hands. Immobilized for three months at a hospital in Dhaka, the capital, he reflected on his life.
“My father was a brave man. His father was a brave man,” Deb says, eyeglasses perched on his reconstructed nose. “But something hit me inside. Why am I hunting? Why am I killing?”
A Lonely Conservationist
He returned to Srimongol on a lonely crusade to protect its wildlife. “The people knew I was an expert on the forest,” he says. “So when a wild animal strays into a village, they bring him to me.”
The animals are many–baby monkeys whose mothers have been eaten by forest-dwelling tribes, bears in search of wild mangos and other fruits whose trees have been felled by timber poachers, wild cats looking for small prey that the forest no longer supports.
Deb’s son brings out some recent strays, and they caper across Deb’s glass-topped desk–a 6-month-old capped langur, a pair of cub jungle cats, a young, 15-inch python. Deb, who is 61, says he’s nursed more than 1,000 of these wards back to health before releasing them into the forest. The roster includes gibbons, pythons, turtles, and a host of wild felines. And this isn’t counting the 2,000 birds.
Some castaways, however, won’t survive a return to the jungle. Either their mothers are dead or missing, and can’t teach them how to survive, or the food base in the forest is too low to support them. These creatures wind up at Deb’s private zoo, nestled on high ground amid green rice paddies a few minutes outside town.
Photo of fishing cats by Dan Morrison
It may look like a grim affair by Western standards, but the animals here are regularly fed and watered and the cages, while small, are kept meticulously clean.
Living in one of the biggest enclosures are Rambo and Jumbo, 2-year-old bears whose mother killed a man in 2008 and fled across the nearby Indian border with angry villagers in hot pursuit. Deb’s daughter used a baby bottle to feed the abandoned week-old cubs, and they’ve been with the family ever since.
Other residents of the two-acre menagerie include an eagle, two water monitors, a Himalayan palm civet, two additional fishing cats and a pair of leopard cats.
Photo of leopard cats by Dan Morrison
Deb’s Mystery Cat
And then there’s the albino fishing cat, whose cage bears a sign misidentifying it as a “White Tiger.” “It’s the only one in Bangladesh,” Deb says with a rare bit of pride.
Just how unusual is this mystery cat?
“I’ve never seen a white fishing cat and, while any species of cat can have an albino turn up, they are extremely rare,” says Mel Sunquist, co-author of Wild Cats of the World, and one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject.
Deb says operating the zoo costs him 2,000 Bangladeshi takka a day, about U.S. $29, a fortune in a country where garment worker salaries were recently raised from $25 to $46 a month. Donors are scarce. “Everybody says they’ll help, but no one does,” he says.
Catch and Release
We drive back to Deb’s house to pick up the young python, which is now tucked inside a small wooden box that once held a venomous cobra. (A snake charmer used the cobra to kill his girlfriend’s disapproving son, but that’s a story for another day.)
A minivan takes us deep inside the 1,250-hectare Lawachara National Park, where Deb opens the box and the snake slides away into a pile of underbrush.
He adjusts his frayed lungi, a South Asian sarong, and watches the python disappear.
The Forest Finished?
“In five years, there won’t be any wild animals left in this district,” he says. “The borders of the forest are the same, but the number of trees inside is always less.” Timber poaching, usually with the connivance of forest officials, is an epidemic in Bangladesh.
Nearby, a fifty-yard-long wall of illegally felled logs gives a sample of the scale of the timber poaching. Seized by forest guards, it’s a drop in the bucket, Deb and others say.
“We don’t have the resources to protect the park,” says a junior forest officer. “We don’t have enough men, we don’t have the guns, we don’t have the jeeps.”
Photo by Dan Morrison
A Man with a Mission
Someone asks Deb what he’ll do when the forest can no longer support wildlife.
“I can’t do much alone,” he says, “but as long as people bring me animals, I’ll take them to the jungle. There are still some forests on the Indian side. I’ll take them to the border and release them there.”
“My first life was a shooting life,” he says. “This is my second life. I have no choice.”
Dan Morrison is the author of The Black Nile, which will be published August 12. He writes at danmorrison.net, and tweets at @dmsouthasia and @theblacknile.
The video below is about his new book:
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