Asia

The former hunter saving Bangladesh's wildlife

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Media captionA look around Sitesh Ranjan Deb's animal rescue centre

Twenty years ago, on a foggy winter morning, Sitesh Ranjan Deb was on a routine hunt for wild boars in north-eastern Bangladesh. He never thought it would change his life forever.

Walking through chest-high grass with his double-barrelled shot gun Mr Deb, a third-generation hunter, was tracking crop-destroying wild boars after complaints from local farmers.

But as he advanced towards his prey, Mr Deb stepped on a sleeping adult Himalayan bear which was lying hidden in the thick undergrowth.

The bear swiped at him, and its claws tore through his face.

Instinctively, he shot the bear and it fell down dead.

"But with that single swipe, I lost my right eye, most of my nose, several teeth and a lot of cheekbone. My tongue was also torn apart," he said.

Within minutes the 65-year-old had fainted from loss of blood and his colleagues took him to a nearby hospital.

Near-death experience

He spent months in recovery and went through several rounds of surgery to reconstruct his face. The right side of it is scarred and he lacks an eye and part of his cheek. He still speaks with a lisp.

Image caption Mr Deb's sanctuary contains a variety of strange and exotic animals

But the near-death experience also changed the famed hunter forever.

"For me it was a new lease of life. I was extremely lucky. So, I decided to use the opportunity to protect wild animals rather than hunt them," Mr Deb told the BBC.

"I wanted to do something meaningful in life, so that I could relate with nature."

Villagers today take advantage of his knowledge of forestry and wildlife to alert him when any animal or rare bird strays into their area from the nearby forest.

Sometimes they bring injured animals for him to nurse at his rescue centre and then - if possible - release back into the wild.

In the past 20 years, he has released thousands of wild animals and birds, some of them critically endangered, back into the forest.

In doing so he has become one of the leading conservationists in the country.

Those animals and birds which cannot be released - either because of serious injury or old age - end up staying in the centre which Mr Deb runs close to his home in the town of Srimongol, about 200km (124 miles) north-east of the capital Dhaka.

Situated among paddy fields, the centre is home to a Himalayan bear, a rare albino fishing cat, rock pythons, gibbons, monkeys, spotted deer, vultures and various types of wild birds.

'Easily hunted'

The animals are inside netted cages but are kept in scrupulously clean conditions and are regularly fed.

Some animals such as monkeys are allowed to roam outside their cages during the day. There is a pond where many migratory birds take refuge.

Mr Deb says he runs the centre with his own money and occasional financial help from well-wishers. The menagerie also attracts hundreds of local tourists who pay a small entry fee.

But how long can they stay in his rescue centre?

"I cannot set all the animals free. The forests around this area are no longer large enough to support them," he laments.

"The black bear came to me as a cub and it was reared here. It doesn't know how to hunt. So it will not get enough food in the forest and it can be easily hunted by poachers."

While the mini-zoo has been a refuge for animals, it has its limitations.

Mr Deb rescued two male bear cubs after they were abandoned by their mother some years ago. They became one of the major attractions at the mini-zoo. But both were kept in the same cage.

One was injured and died earlier this year after the pair fought.

It is clear that even though the animals are kept in a clean environment and fed properly, the enclosures are not an ideal place for animals which once roamed freely in the forests.

Mr Deb is also not a trained wildlife conservationist.

Deforestation

While individuals are not permitted to rear wild animals in Bangladesh, the government seems to have allowed him to continue with his work all these years.

Image caption The animals it is argued would be dead but for Mr Deb's pioneering conservation work

Forest department officials also recognise his contribution towards saving injured animals in the area.

"He has done some good work and his efforts cannot be ignored. But we are planning to set up an animal rescue centre in that region soon," Tapan Kumar Dey, a senior wildlife conservation official, said.

Some conservationists argue that because there is too much focus on the Sundarbans mangrove forests in the south - home of the famous Royal Bengal tiger - problems in other forest regions of Bangladesh rarely get noticed.

They say individuals like Mr Deb have been working on their own to preserve whatever is left in those forests.

In the meantime, Mr Deb is eager to carry on with his work and keen to show me the effects of deforestation in nearby Lawachara National Park.

"We used to have more than 16 square kilometres of forest, but now it has been reduced to around six square kilometres," he said.

"Illegal logging and human encroachment have drastically reduced the forest's cover. It is happening because of corruption."

He also laments the lack of awareness about wildlife preservation in Bangladesh, despite his various appearances on television shows.

"If Lawachara forest disappears, many animals in this region will become extinct, including species I grew up with.

"Wild boars and leopards are hardly ever seen now. Future generations will not know that these animals lived in this area.

"It is a tragedy waiting to happen."

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