Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sundarbans Wildlife

The SWOT team has now completed our survey work of the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats for tourism in the Sundarbans Reserve of Bangladesh. Two days were spent on local boats, called Joly Boats in areas near the port of Mongla, where local people primarily visit. The small Forest Post of Krimangal is the home of a breeding center of the endangered saltwater crocodile. We observed the feeding of the captive breeders, Romeo and Juliet - so named by their croc manager. Romeo is pictured here. The post suffers from serious over visitation and problems with management of tourism, which we documented.

We moved on to observe the Katka area via a Sunderbans Guide Tours boat, hosted by its owner Hasan Mansur. We were very grateful to him for accompanying our team as we observed the management issues related to this popular point, where many overnight ships visit. Here we were able to observe the Spotted Dear in some abundance. According to an IUCN study there are over 6000 deer in this area, making tasty prey for the resident Bengal Tiger. According to the same study, this is the area of highest density for the tiger populations in the reserve, but they thankfully concentrate on eating the deer, and there are no incidents of man eating in this area.

Men were cutting thatch in this area for roofing for their houses with permits from the Forest Department.

Yesterday, we traveled to Burigoalini by car to visit Kolagachia Forest Post, which has a lovely trail on raised mud paths in the flooded forest, teaming with wildlife even in the hot, mid-day sun. This owl was observed in close quarters, much to our surprise.

The honey collectors were gathering in this area, for their annual,highly dangerous journey into the forests in this Western region of the reserve. On April 1, they race into the forest by boat on inauguration day of the harvest season. Honey collector teams were practicing their racing skills as we passed heading into the reserve. Last year nearly 1500 individuals entered for honey collection, on 191 boats. Over 30 were killed by tigers. This dangerous profession continues to attract the collectors, as the Sundarbans honey is considered to be some of the best in the world. Our team interviewed a Sundarbans honey vendor who was financing the honey collectors and profiting with approximately $8000 in sales from the collection after expenses.

Our data, now completed, will be written up in April and provided to the Forest Department, Department of Environment, and Fisheries and other opinion leaders who are seeking to improve livelihoods for the Sundarbans "stakeholders" who use the forest for a wide variety of livelihoods. As opposed to my notes earlier,there are no communities living within the boundaries of the reserve. All are outside, but it is estimated that nearly 1 million intrepid souls enter the reserve for wood, honey, thatch and other resources supporting as many as 3 million people all dependent on the Sundarbans for their livelihoods. Tourism will be a very small part of the solution and planning program - as the need for investment in tourism planning and management must precede further tourism development throughout this region.

But our data process enabled a team of 9 Bengalis to come to a much greater understanding of how tourism planning and research takes place. This is a genuine investment in the future of tourism planning in Bangladesh, and our team did an outstanding job!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Sunderbans Local Community

A team of 10 ecotourism researchers has arrived in the Sunderbans to do a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis of tourism in the Sunderbans. A group with varying skills and levels has been quickly trained into an outstanding team. Each day data is collected in field locations with different objectives via a survey instrument I devised using World Tourism Organization indicators.

We visited Chadpai yesterday, where we saw hundreds of men and women collecting shrimp larvae for middlemen who purchase the fry for shrimp farmers. The collection is an illegal activity in the Sunderbans Reserve.

All the community members in this region are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, either shrimp fry collection or illegal wood harvest. The team interviewed community members who derive some extra income from tourism: a banana retailer, van driver, pharmacist, and others. The team agrees based on our data that ecotourism is an activity that increases local income and provides a real option for these people who rely totally on illegal resource harvest for their livelihoods. Some had not eaten recently. There has been no training as yet and no effort to bring more formal tourism approaches to this area.

While tourism cannot be the only answer for these disenfranchised people, our team agreed the potential to assist with more tourism income generation was high.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


The bride and groom were in full bloom at the wedding reception of Bristy and Shohag, whom I met on the Teknaf Peninsula. They own the Mermaid Cafe and Ecolodge already a legend and a unique example for this country. I found them via Lonely Planet, and since have stayed at their lodge. We shared many animated conversations since about the importance of ecotourism for Bangladesh. They immediately joined our effort to develop the Teknaf sustainably and introduced me to a wide range of intriguing friends.

This warm family embraced my team into their celebration, and the evening was full of opporutnities to enjoy this meaningful moment with members of their family. We joined hundreds at the ceremony in Dhaka.

After the bride and groom arrived, they invited friends and family members to join them for photographs, so I was able to sit with Bristy, while friends Bob and Emily took some photos for this blog.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ecotourism Team Maps Trek in Bangladesh

An American Bengali team were the first to map a trek across the remote Teknaf Peninsula. Following local paths, the team was easily able to develop a new ecotourism adventure that will bring excitement to the plan to develop community-based nature tourism to the Teknaf Peninsula

Departing at 7AM, the team viewed wild Asian elephant on the hillside above the trek's starting point. They were distant, but their dusty backs and trunks were clearly evident. These elephant are a remnant population, and highly endangered. Elephants are the most important megafauna remaining on the Teknaf, living in the wild in the central foothills. The elephant is of high conservation importance, as they are considered to be endangered both within their total range in Asia, and in Bangladesh.

Tigers which once roamed wild on the Teknaf, are now without habitat. Experts say it is possible they could repopulate the area, via existing wildlife corridors, if the region were re-forested with native flora and wildlife species.

This beautiful forest was in the eastern Naf Watershed near the entrance to the reserve.

The trek included walks through canyon like areas as the team followed several river beds, making the trek only feasible in the dry season. Higher ground routes will be possible, for trekkers interested in more rigorous adventures.

On arrival at the beach we spent time with the local fishing communities to learn more about their livelihood. We were very surprised to learn that already 25% of the land had been purchased by local speculators interested in developing beach hotels, and we even met some business men looking at land. The area is relatively accessible from the village of Teknaf, and so we learned that a land grab is already underway on the beach side of the peninsula.

The opportunity to cross over a watershed, view elephants, and interact with the unique cultures on the Teknaf's enormous beach is world-class. The 140 plus classes of boats in Bangladesh have already been nominated for UNESCO world heritage status. The team is now working closely with Contic - the French Bengali company that has undertaken a full study of the traditions of boatmaking, with a boatyard in Dhaka where they continue to foster traditional boat crafting. We were able to look at the different style of Bengali boats on the beach this visit with repesentatives from Contic who are helping our team to evaluate tourism potential of the Teknaf.

The trek across the Teknaf was a resounding success. Community members who led the trek had only crossed the peninsula once or twice in their lives. Our team of natural resource, ecotourism, and community specialists will now incorporate the trek into the Teknaf Peninsula Community Based Ecotourism Strategy.

Given this area is highly endangered by rapid land speculation and an impending coastal road, the team is encouraging the development of an Ecotourism Management Plan with government involvement as soon as possible. Further meetings on this topic with high governmental officials are transpiring today.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fardeen Eco Cottage

I am sitting across from Teknaf Game Reserve at the dining table of the Fardeen Eco Cottage with Salahuddin and his brother Ziauddin as the sun sets with family and friends who are helping to expand their Eco-cottage. We plan to take a trek tomorrow across the peninsula led by Salahuddin, who has lived here all his life and presently runs the cottage and has trained as an eco-guide.

A team will be mapping the trek with GPS, as it is the first time it has been scouted for visitors to walk. There are wild elephant in the mountains and nearby. Elephants yesterday came very near Salahuddin's house and destroyed his banana tree. Some folks saw the elephants up in the mountains as well, near where we are hiking. We will be hiking with Forest Guards who do carry rifles just in case! But the idea is to try out the trail which crosses the peninsula and finishes up at the beach.

The distance is very easy, just 3 kilometers. But since the trail is not fully scouted we are giving all morning to the trek and leaving at 6AM. Other members of our team will be driving around to the very tip of the peninsula and coming to pick us up at Noon. We will all go up to see some coastal sites, including a waterfall, and visit some communities and then return to the eco-cottage tomorrow night.

It is an exciting day as Wasama has arrived as well from Contic, a wonderful boat building and tourism company. He is out now scouting boat launching sites, and we are all talking about combining the beautiful traditional boats his company builds for journeys on the Naf River with beach and forest trekking and wildlife watching. The Naf forms the border with Burma and flows south into the Bay of Bengal just east of where we are sitting.

Our team mapped all of the areas with tourism potential on our last visit, and we printed out very large GIS maps for this visit to review all the potential boating and hiking areas with local community members, private sector and government. We are already well underway with the vetting process having met with the private sector and government as well as local community and getting their endorsement to proceed.

The overall plan is to undertake an ecotourism management plan that would be bioregional and we are having meetings both at the local and national level about this. But for the next 2 days we are in the field scoping boating and trekking options. The whole community is very excited and so are we!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Workshop Trains Trainers in Ecotourism

We completed our Ecotourism Planning workshop today in Dhaka. Our group came from throughout the country and left with excitement and motivation to apply their skills. All have roles as enterprise development and site coordinators, each with responsibility for areas in buffer zones around key protected areas. Officials from the Forest and Fisheries Department also took part and there was excellent dialog regarding policy directions.

Our group is standing in front of the Forest Department offices in Dhaka where the workshop took place. I leave for the Teknaf Peninsula in the morning.

Monday, March 16, 2009


The world of Dhaka has slowed down again with the lights flickering on and off with power outages a common plague to this rapidly growing city. Sitting in my hotel's simple dining room, we often just continue eating with the lights out at dinner time. It must be a time of surging peak power use. No one rushes to get candles. We just eat our food in the dark until the lights return. The management runs out to turn on the generator, but this only powers the television not the lights!

I am watching AlJazeera English a great deal while traveling in Bangladesh. It is by far the most comprehensive source of news, and I rate it more highly than CNN or BBC. The channel gives me a window on the world where people live outside of the major capitals of Europe and Asia. The reporters cover questions of life and death in countries we never hear about,like Malaysia or Laos. Pakistan is a main focus right now, as they fight over questions of justices on their supreme court. Gaza and its life there is a major focus, but there is a great deal of coverage of Israel as well. I just saw an excellent story on the election in El Salvador, where they just voted in the center left opposition party for the first time ever! It is so heartening to see genuine participation in new and legitimate governments who seek to serve the disenfranchised.

My work proceeds in an exciting way, with one day of ecotourism training completed for over 30 participants, all learning about questions of ecotourism planning and management virtually for the first time. I will be visiting two of the teams in the field. We head to the Teknaf on Wednesday and will be reviewing our strategy there, but also doing a field analysis - looking at a new trail, places for developing traditional boat itineraries, and a world class beach trek. Bangladesh was named as one of the top 10 new countries to visit in 2009 by Lonely Planet, and this is putting some wind in our sails!

I look forward to reporting from the Teknaf.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Here in Dhaka, the city awakes at 5AM with the call to prayer. I am enraptured by these beautiful, haunting calls that reverberate throughout the city in a minor key that is so mournful. It sounds to me as if they are sung live with different verses and voices every morning on loud speakers throughout the city. It is a truly heart-rending call to the part of human nature that worships some greater power beyond our day to day existence. There is one mosque very close to my new hotel and the call to prayer is quite near.

The birds are very active. Dhaka is a city of rivers and the bird life is up early, singing, fishing, diving and generally calling out their presence before the city is awake.

It is a misty city with the transpiration of so much water rising in a slow foggy mist for hours. The sun is emerging above the foggy horizon, an orange ball striped with wisps of fog. Though it is now 6:30AM,this city of millions, in what some consider the most densely populated country in the world, is quiet! The birds rule the roost. Perhaps, the city's leafy northern reaches, where I am staying is quieter - after all I am at a nice hotel facing a small river with walking paths along it. But nonetheless in a megalopolis of this size, there should be a roar of traffic and horns. None.

One of the things Dhaka is famous for is its rickshaws. They crowd every street, and reduce the need for noisy, polluting cars. The country has also made some other extraordinary and surprising strides in environmental management. For example, they have banned plastic bags. Here in Dhaka all petrol and diesel vehicles are being replaced by cleaner, cheaper compressed natural gas vehicles. Fuel stations are apparently multiplying now throughout the country.

While this is a crowded city, with some very polluted water ways and poverty that some might find difficult, it retains a flavor of both the old and new. It is not one the shining new cities of Asia, but it is dignified, with some beautiful monuments, old castles, gardens, leafy streets, and a beautiful university campus. Does it have lots of traffic, certainly, but at this hour, just ten minutes before seven Dhaka is still quiet.

I have my windows open and there is actually a cool breeze, with a little help from my overhead fan. Sunday is a work day here, so the work begins for me today after a safe and uncomplicated journey to get here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Day of Departure

Preparations for the 24 hour flight to Bangladesh seemed so much easier this time. The idea of doing an assignment with 3 weeks in country, 5-6 weeks back in the office, and 3 weeks in country again is working out beautifully! I needed only a few new items for the trip, a better bag for carrying my notebook, camera, and binoculars, some new long-sleeve shirts, and toothpaste. I am all packed!

In Bangladesh, I am excited to see all the action on the ground! The draft Teknaf Community-Based Nature Tourism Strategy is now being circulated to our leadership, and we have also sent it to a leading economist whom we collaborate with and the head of the most prominent tour operator, Guide Tours. I have invited both to speak at the workshop which will take place next Monday and Tuesday. Over 36 students are now enrolled and we expect more. I set a cap at 50.

The invitation lists for our stakeholder meetings on the Teknaf Peninsula came yesterday for my review. We are having one public meeting, for high ranking leadership in the tourism community, Forest Department, Department of Environment, and local municipal leaders on March 18, and a community based meeting the following day- with the heads of the Community Management Committee for the Teknaf Game Reserve. Our team will work closely with the high ranking leadership and communities to be sure our strategy is fine tuned to the needs of both groups.

Here at home, my friend Sue and I measured ourselves for some Salwar Kameezes! I bought two of these beautiful outfits in ready to wear stores in Dhaka on the last trip. Both are cotton, very breathable, lovely and so comfortable! So this time, I am going to a seamstress to have one more made for myself and for Sue! We should be real fashion plates this summer for events in Burlington!

I took my dog, Tucker for a long farewell walk this morning, did my workout, downloaded some new music for my ipod and an audiobook for the journey, and was fortunate to do a very engaging interview for a new ecotourism magazine being launched in Canada! The interview was great fun, the writers are both tourism academics with lots of experience in the field. We agreed so much that our field needs to grow and expand. It is my hope that more students and professionals will be trained in every aspect of developing ecotourism destinations in future.

This blog is an important way to get the word out on how important this profession is to countries, like Bangladesh. Will update the blog again from Dhaka!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rallying for Second Trip

All systems are go for a return to Bangladesh on March 12. A country clearance came only over the weekend. This is unusually late to get clearance, but there had been a rebellion in Bangladesh that caused a higher security alert throughout the country. The border guards murdered hundreds of their military superiors and then sought to escape. This was headline news on BBC and even appeared in my hometown newspaper. Fortunately, the new prime minister got control of the situation quickly and many of the perpetrators have been arrested. My colleagues in Dhaka were restricted to the diplomatic part of the city for almost week.

We were fairly certain that my clearance would come through, and the situation is now calm. I am preparing materials for our upcoming field trips and for a workshop.

The agenda is packed. A 2 day workshop is first up for all of the project's enterprise coordinators and for representatives of the Forest Service, Department of Environment and Fisheries.

Next our team heads to the Teknaf Peninsula where the draft strategy for community-based nature tourism will be presented. I have spent the last 4 weeks processing this, writing, reviewing maps, and agonizing over the approach. A field trip to the lower peninsula will allow us to map a promising cross-peninsula trail that will start from the Teknaf Game Reserve's main entrance to the wild, lower beaches on the west coast. A wonderful boating company, Contic, will be evaluating traditional boat journey options as part of our program.

The next week we head to the famed Sundarbans National Park. With a team of students from Bengali universities, we will be performing a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats Assessment of sustainable tourism in the park. The Sunderbans shelters the largest population of Bengal Tigers in the world and it is the world's largest wetland. A World Heritage Reserve it has attracted tourism in both India and Bangaldesh for decades. A variety of boat journeys are available to travel through this enormous mangrove. The reserve is also home for many farmers and settlers who plant their crops in this dangerous area. More local people are killed and eaten by tigers here than anywhere else in the world. Amazing stories of their bravery and efforts to repel the tigers abound. I am sure I will hear more. But I will be traveling on a boat, and it is very doubtful my team will see a tiger.

After these field trips. a return to Dhaka will be on the agenda with some meetings before return home by April 6.