“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Henry David Thoreau
Over the Christmas break Heidi and I were fortunate enough to take a much needed holiday. This saw us travel through Bangladesh and Northeast India where we were privileged to meet many beautiful people and have new experiences. We had traveled to this part of the world as it is a little bit off the beaten tourist tracks and hence, it was more of a challenge and adventure.
I was expecting to see vast impenetrable jungles filled with wildlife that stretched as far as the eye could see, especially in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya. Meghalaya, which means’ abode of the clouds’ especially captured our imagination after seeing the documentary series, Wildest India. In particular, it was Episode 5 – India’s Lost World that inspired us to venture to this part of the world. This episode highlighted the natural wonders and wildlife of the Seven Sisters of India, as the northeast Indian states are known as. It spoke of a largely unexplored wilderness, of head hunting tribes, pristine rivers, unclimbed mountains, and tiger-infested jungles and mist covered wild areas.
Bangladeshing It Up
Our time in Bangladesh was a baptism of fire. Thrown into the chaos and traffic of the massive sprawling metropolis, the capital city, Dhaka, we took a few days to find our feet and escaped to the countryside. Dhaka has a population of around 13.29 million people and when you are in the middle of this chaos, it doesn’t take long for you to want to escape. We spent a few days in Srimangal, a town built on the back of tea, and stayed in a retreat that was surrounded by tea plantations. Srimangal is situated only 75 metres above sea level, amongst rolling hills and the change in temperature from the hot and stifling Bangladeshi plains came as a welcoming relief.
Bangladesh has a high population density of 1105 people per square kilometre. If you compare this to Australia, where we have as of June 2010, a population density of 2.9 people per square kilometre, one can only imagine the incredible strain this has on the environment. Almost every square metre of arable land is cultivated and this has left precious little left for wildlife. Bangladesh has a population of about 142.3 million people, compared to Australia’s 22.88 million people. It is the 7th largest country in the world by population, yet at a size of only 143,998 square kilometers, whereas Australia is 7 682 300 square kilometres in area, or over 53 times larger than Bangladesh. In other words, they have 6.3 times the population in an area less than 1/5oth that of our own. They use less 98.69% less electricity, 98.64% less oil, and being a very poor country, they make less than 98.55% money than Australians do. For such a burgeoning population, there are a few lessons we can learn about consumption from the Bangladeshi’s. 
It Is Gibbon
In Srimangal we visited Lawachara National Park, a tiny forest that covers approximately 1,250 ha (12.5 km2), located within the 2,740 ha (27.4 km2) of the West Bhanugach Reserved Forest. Hemmed in by tea plantations, it is a tiny island of biodiversity. To give you an indication of the tiny size of this forest, New York’s Central Park covers 3.41 square kilometres, that is, it is only 3.66 times larger.
We went for a walk with a guide and were fortunate to witness a family of critically endangered Western Hoolock Gibbons in the treetops. This sense of excitement of being able to witness animals in their natural habitat is something that many people find is very important. We have a natural instinct to want to connect deeply with nature. With the pressures of human population, the Western Hoolock Gibbon’s forest habitat has been destroyed to make way for tea and food production. In the Lawachara National Park, the population continues to decline with a 2007 census finding only 62 individuals in 17 groups in Lawachara and in the greater West Bhanugach Reserved Forest. Yet this is the biggest surviving gibbon population in Bangladesh. 
Lawachara National Park, a miniscule island of biodiversity, in a sea of humanity and monocultural tea plantations, left Heidi and I feeling very sad that this tiny representation of biodiversity of what once was is all that remains. This national park is famous amongst Bangladeshis, and they speak of it with national pride as one of their treasures. With so much poverty and the expansion of tea plantations to feed the West’s great consumption of tea, I felt even more strongly that the wealthier nations need to do more to protect and expand what is left of the dwindling national treasures in Bangladesh. A moratorium needs to be put in place on any further expansion of tea plantations, and that land that once grew tea but now are choked with weeds and scrub be purchased and reforested. In order that these lands be protected and treasured, indigenous people, who currently live in or on the periphery of Lawachara National Park, and have struck a balance of harvesting the forest sustainably, may become custodians of the expanding forest. Its a simplistic and wildly optimistic dream, but dreams can come true.
North By Northeast
As Heidi and I crossed the border between Bangladesh and northeast India, we began to walk up the dirt road lined with big trucks filled with coal from India bound for Bangladesh. Travelers rarely cross over into India from here, as it is used primarily for importing coal. We were relieved to be offered a lift after a few minutes, as the four wheel drive negotiated the bad state of the road, coal trucks at a standstill, and the heat, dirt, noise and pollution. In a few minutes we were dropped off in the tiny Indian border town of Dawki and boarded a maxi-taxi, a four wheel drive crammed with 11 people. The road from Dawki to the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya, was a break breaking 3 hour 80 kilometre journey along dirt roads. The coal trucks should have been an indication, but for a few minutes I was excited to see verdant forests clinging to the hillsides as we left Dawki. It didn’t take long however as I began to notice the sea of green replaced by reds and browns of denuded hillsides. The grueling trip to Shillong and the promise of vast forests was replaced with despair.
Men Are From Mars
After a few days in Shillong we went to Cherrupunjee, reputedly the wettest place on earth. I thought surely this would be the place of the fabled forest clad in mist and teeming with abundant wildlife. The long drive proved to be an illusion in respect to forests. Instead they were replaced by rolling hills devoid of vegetation, save for grasses and scrub. Along the drive, I saw quarries pockmarking the hills, and streams and rivers brown with run off from these operations. There were precious few trees, and villages were surrounded by moonscapes where very little could be grown on the depleted hillsides. Where the Indian Forestry Department had replaced the removed trees, they had replaced them with pine trees, which have economic value, but do little to support biodiversity. I felt a deep sadness take over me as I thought that precious little of nature besides vast open empty vistas and occasionally a stand of pine trees was left. Any connection to the earth had long disappeared.
Human & Nature Living and Working Together
At Sohra we caught a taxi down to Cherrupunjee, which is on the edge of the escarpment where endemic forests cascade down hillsides into deep valleys and streams, on the border with Bangladesh. The moisture bearing monsoon clouds on the Bangladeshi plains below gather and hit the hillsides and funnel up releasing their rain in Cherrupunjee. The abundant moisture means that plant growth is prolific. We stayed in Cherrupunjee for a few days and were pleased to see that along the edge of the huge escarpment which is the state of Meghalaya, the forests have been preserved. Many villages here utilise and grow crops on the hillsides and have managed to take care of the forest, knowing that it is crucial for their survival. During the wet season, in order to negotiate swollen creeks, they have ingeniously trained the secondary roots of Indian Rubber trees over these watercourses, over a period of about 40 years. These living tree root bridges are unique to this part of the world and highlight the ingenuity of humans and also how nature and humans can co-exist.
Consumed By Fire
Its this coexistence that I believe is crucial for humanity’s survival. The recent bushfires and unseasonly hot weather in south eastern Australia and Tasmania should be seen as a clear warning of what can happen when we are out of touch with nature and continue to destroy the environment. For the first time ever I began to hear on the news about how global warming will seriously affect humanity’s survival – our food production and water resources. Things we take for granted in the west, our basic needs, food and water are at risk.
We are consuming at a rate that is unsustainable. We need to give back and the first step is to learn to consume less. A 2007 World Wildlife report indicated that “humanity’s Ecological Footprint exceeded the Earth’s biocapacity – the area actually available to produce renewable resources and absorb CO2 – by 50 percent. In other words, it would take 1.5 Earths to keep up with humanity’s consumption of natural resources.”
Planting trees many may see as a last ditch effort to reverse the effects of global warming. Some say that the effect of planting trees now will be too little too late to have much impact. Is it better then to stick one’s head in the sand and do nothing? Should we just continue to plunder the earth with blatant disregard for future generations? What legacy do we want to leave our children?
Imagine a world where humans have destroyed most of the world’s forests and the last remaining species hang on for the species survival in zoos? There is something magical in seeing a wild animal in its natural habitat. We keep pets to have a connection with something beyond our human selves. Something that can connect us to nature. There is a bond, a certain magic that exists when we connect with nature. It is this magic, this delight that I saw in the eyes of Bangladeshis as they spoke about their precious gibbons in Lawachara National Park.
The Life of (P)I and Us
Last night Heidi and I went to the cinema and watched the film, Life of PI. A commercial success, to date the film has earned an estimated $391,876,000 worldwide. It is a story of a boy who is shipwrecked and floats in a lifeboat with a zebra, hyena, orangutan and a tiger. It was a touching film which has received critical acclaim from even Barak Obama. I wondered what made the film so special, and it was very clear. Not only do humans want to experience stories of survival, they also want to feel a connection with nature. The tiger in the film represented this ‘wildness’ of nature, and we begin to see how Pi (Piscine Molitor) prevents the hungry tiger from devouring him and how he bonds with him. This is the magic that exists between humans and nature, this is the magic that we cannot afford to lose in real life.
The Lost World
Will we allow our rampant consumption and destruction of the earth see our natural environments and the biodiversity of animal and plant species they contain, go the way of the dinosaurs? Will we, as rich nations of the West allow what precious little is left allow to be lost to the storybooks so that our children one day will ask why isn’t there anymore tigers? What will you say to our future generations? A movie can only ever be a poor cousin of experiencing animals in their natural habitat. There is something deeply spiritual to commune with the natural world. Our early ancestors and indigenous people around the globe have for thousands of years had a deep connection with this divinity, and is deeply embedded in their cultural traditions.
Maybe its time, not for the Australian government to impose a Green Tax, but instead, allow companies to voluntarily give money to environmental causes. To be intimately involved in processes to make the world a better place because they WANT to.
I read an article some time ago on Eden Reforestation Project’s website that the three Madagascar cildren’s animation films, earned in the international and US domestic box office a total of more than 1.4 billon dollars in a 3 year period. Steve Fitch, the founder of ERP, estimated that this would be more than enough funds to reforest the entire island of Madagascar and would employ millions of extremely poor Malagasy Eco-workers restoring habitats for wildlife to flourish. What if a movie like Madagascar or Life of Pi was subsidised by the Hollywood industry specifically to help reforest the planet? Millions of people would be entertained and at the same time be transforming the world.
In My Wildest Dreams
Our trip highlighted the need for us all to make a difference to the world now. To not let complacency, or leaving it to others to try and fix. The heatwaves we are experiencing right now should make us realise that the whole world is our problem. The earth doesn’t recognise international borders. If anything, that sense of disappointment we felt with seeing so much environmental degradation in areas that we visited was tempered by the magic of seeing wildlife in these dwindling pockets of nature, and the ingenuity of humans that we saw with the tree root bridges of Cherrupunjee, and knowing that people are hankering for the connection with nature as witnessed by the numbers who have seen Life of Pi, brings hope that we can come together to make the changes we need to do to heal the earth.
We are doing our little bit with our Visions of GREENdeur project, to transform, tree by tree the island of Madagascar, where 90% of the island has been deforested, and we hope this may extend to other areas of the globe in the future. It all starts with a dream, and anything is possible in our wildest dreams.
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