Rohingyas destroying Chunati wildlife sanctuary in Cox’s Bazar

Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary, Wildlife Sanctuary, Cox's Bazar, Chunati Reserve Forest, Rohingya

The Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Cox’s Bazar, was declared a sanctuary in 1986, encompassing 7,764 hectares of forest land in the vast area of Lohagara upazila, on the west side of the Chittagong-Cox’s Bazar highway. Known as a safe corridor for Asian elephants, it was previously known as the Chunati Reserve Forest. The sanctuary was established primarily to protect the rich biodiversity of the forest and preserve its wildlife. Once home to majestic trees, elephants, leopards, deer, wildebeests, and exotic birds, Chunati Sanctuary was a thriving natural habitat and a critical breeding ground for Asian elephants.

However, the sanctuary is now facing severe threats due to human encroachment. Despite regulations prohibiting homesteads, farming, or cultivation to ensure the unhindered movement of wildlife, a settlement of half a million people has been built, occupying about four and a half thousand acres of forest land. Many of these settlements are Rohingya villages, leading to a significant decline in wildlife populations and the destruction of biodiversity.

Locals report a rampant land-grabbing phenomenon within the sanctuary, facilitated by local leaders of the ruling party and officials from the forest department. These individuals have allegedly allowed hundreds of Rohingya families, who fled from Myanmar, to build homesteads in the forest in exchange for millions of rupees. As a result, Chunati has become more of a Rohingya sanctuary rather than a wildlife sanctuary. This encroachment has reduced the habitat range for Asian elephants and other wildlife, severely hampering their reproduction. Furthermore, elephants are increasingly entering localities, causing damage to crops and occasionally leading to human casualties.

Illegal settlements are most prevalent in the Aziznagar, Chunti, and Harbang areas, where approximately 2,000 families, primarily Rohingya, are living unlawfully. Recently, a new Rohingya village with over 500 families was established in the Gaynakata, Kalatali, and Goda areas of Dolumon, adjacent to the Aziznagar Bonbit area under the Chunati range. Locals claim that these developments were orchestrated by Tofail Ahmed, the general secretary of the Harbang Union Volunteer League, who is known as the “king of the sanctuary.” It is alleged that between 100,000 to 500,000 taka was taken from each family for these settlements.

Tofail Ahmed has over 20 cases against him under the Forest Act, according to Bonbit officials. Locals recall that 10-15 years ago, the dense forest in the Kalatali area was so intimidating that people were afraid to walk alone. Now, it is surrounded by Rohingya homes.

Similarly, under the leadership of Awami League councilors Abu Taher, Ismail, and Sharafat in the Chunati Bite Ward, Rohingya settlements have been established in Ghazalia, Khachhar Pukur, Paglir Goda, Kulpagli, Rashidar Ghona, Dhulinya, Muranghata, and Hasinyakata near the BITE office. This has been done by cutting down centuries-old trees such as shal, gorjan, and teak in the dead of night.

Hundreds of Rohingya families have occupied the sanctuary in Villagerpara, Ichachhari, Gyalmara, and Deba Nabunbazar of Bhandari under the Harbang Bonbit. Abdul Malek, the general secretary of Ward No. 8, Awami League, is said to have colluded with the Forest Department to facilitate this illegal occupation. Under his leadership, numerous trees in the sanctuary have been felled, and homesteads and fishing projects have been developed on forest department land.

The presence of Rohingya settlements in the Chunati forest has also led to an increase in thefts, robberies, and several murders across the upazila, with evidence pointing to the involvement of Rohingya individuals. It is alleged that for the past 15-20 years, some local government leaders and a syndicate of forest department brokers, with the connivance of forest department officials, have been encroaching on the sanctuary. Permanent residents of the forest accuse dishonest range officer Mahmud Hossain of direct involvement in the recent illegal settlements. Since joining, he is said to have earned millions by selling trees from the sanctuary and rehabilitating the Rohingya. Mahmud Hossain, the Chunati Range Officer, admitted that some Rohingya families had occupied forest land and built houses, but he blamed local politicians and influential people for this. He denied allegations that forest officials were colluding with wood smugglers and illegal encroachers.

Chittagong Divisional Officer of Chunati Wildlife and Sanctuary Rafiqul Islam stated that he had not received any such complaints. He mentioned that if Rohingyas had encroached, the administration would take responsibility. Admitting the illegal occupation for a long time, he said efforts are being made to evict the illegal settlers with the help of the administration. Action will be taken against those involved if evidence of illegal occupation and tree cutting in exchange for money is found.

Anwar Kamal, president of the co-management committee of the sanctuary, said that with the help of dishonest forest department officials, more than four and a half thousand acres of Chunati sanctuary have been encroached upon, and construction of houses is ongoing. In the last two years, about 1,000 acres of land have been cleared. Human rights activist Sultana Kamal, a former adviser to the caretaker government, expressed deep concern, stating that the Chunati Sanctuary is now in tatters. She emphasized that in the name of state development, the damage caused to the sanctuary by cutting through the heart of it is unjustifiable. The forest, now limited to a name, faces severe threats to its basic ecology due to the loss of old trees and human dominance.

The situation at Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary calls for urgent action to restore its ecological balance, protect its biodiversity, and ensure the safe habitat of its wildlife, especially the endangered Asian elephants.

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