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Uncovering the Secret Lives of Lesser-known Carnivores in Bangladesh

By Muntasir Akash

This article is adapted from a version originally published on The Revelator website, which can be found here.

The crab-eating mongoose is one of many elusive carnivores found in the protected national parks of north-eastern Bangladesh © Muntasir Akash

Years ago I decided to focus my research and conservation efforts on the smaller carnivores of Bangladesh. It was not an easy decision, as there appears to be a bias against studying these smaller species. Researchers in my country seem to be focused on saving larger, iconic species like tigers, leopards, bears and striped hyenas.

Although the smaller carnivores that roam the forests of Bangladesh do seem to appear frequently in stories told among my colleagues, they remain more elusive in the wild and are seldom the subject of published research — difficult to understand and rarely surveyed.

But there’s a lot to study. One of the smallest countries in Asia, Bangladesh provides habitat to 127 different existing mammal species. Of these, 21 were newly recognized during the latest Red List assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Bangladesh boasts nearly half of the entire carnivore diversity of the Indian subcontinent. The 28 extant carnivore mammals represent six different terrestrial families: Viverridae (six species), Felidae (eight species), Herpestidae (three species), Canidae (three species), Ursidae (two species) and Mustelidae (six species). That’s impressive for a country that has less than 7% natural forest coverage and a population density of more than 1,000 people per square kilometer.

Muntasir Akash and his team have recorded a variety of mammals in the national parks of north-eastern Bangladesh using camera-traps. Pictured (clockwise, from top left): golden jackal, northern pig-tailed macaque, yellow-throated marten and leopard cat © Muntasir Akash

How the smaller carnivores are faring in a land so challenging and crammed has been an enigma. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to find more answers.

In 2018 I led a small camera-trap survey in a 2.5 square-kilometer national park in north-east Bangladesh. What we found amazed me. Nearly 600 days of camera trapping yielded 17 different mammals, including ten carnivores. The study showed that the Asiatic wild dog — a globally Endangered apex predator with a wild population of only 2,215 known mature individuals — visits the park frequently, making it an important habitat for this rarely studied and little-understood carnivore.

In 2018, Muntasir Akash’s camera-trapping survey in a national park in north-eastern Bangladesh provided the first evidence that the Asiatic wild dog, or dhole, is a frequent visitor © Muntasir Akash

Not long afterward, in 2019, my team and I rediscovered the Indian gray wolf in Bangladesh after it had been considered extinct in the country for 70 years.

I was thrilled that these often-overlooked carnivores seemed to be clinging to life in their ecologically uncharted habitats — and eager to find out more.

After gaining my first international grant from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) last year, I’ve been able to continue my research on small carnivores in three of the six north-eastern forest reserves. These semi-evergreen, undulating hilly swaths comprise 191 square kilometers of natural forests at the border between India and Bangladesh.

The wildlife here faces numerous threats, including conflict with people and loss of suitable habitat. Uncovering the secret lives of our country’s lesser-known and less-valued carnivores can therefore help protect them from these threats and engage others in vital conservation efforts.

However, pursuing unorthodox queries often comes with difficult hurdles. In addition to my ongoing studies in the parks, I recently co-wrote a manuscript reviewing the previous research on the mammalian carnivores of Bangladesh. This past August I received feedback from one peer reviewer who landed an unexpected blow, observing, “Small carnivores are rarely a subject of research, usually studied within the large-scale landscape-level projects.”

The idea that my research seemed to this reviewer as of little consequence hit me hard, and I sensed impostor syndrome creeping in.

I finally summoned enough confidence to defend the manuscript, mainly through support from peers I met while participating in CLP’s Conservation Management & Leadership workshop— many of whom are also working on species poorly known to the outside world that are rare and often very secretive. The manuscript is now published, and I’m continuing to try to shine a spotlight on the lesser-known carnivores in Bangladesh. I hope to push back against the apparent bias against them and encourage others to care about them through unique approaches. These include ongoing, systematic camera-trap surveys in my northeastern study areas, using scientific illustrations as a conservation tool, and sharing knowledge about camera-trapping with other aspiring researchers.

I feel even more compelled to act given the seemingly widespread belief that conservation of the smaller carnivores is somehow not viable or worthwhile.

The small-clawed otter, a globally vulnerable small carnivore, can still be found in certain protected areas of north-eastern Bangladesh. This is the first camera-trap image of the species from the region © Muntasir Akash/Northeast Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

In fact I’ve realized that working to save less-understood species has a nobility of its own and has helped me to become a better scientist. In the coming years I dream of a generation of nature enthusiasts emerging from Bangladesh, represented by ecologists and citizen scientists acting as advocates for our lesser-known and less-valued species.

If those species are not “charismatic” according to the standards of conservation, they are nonetheless extraordinary to those of us who study them and critical to healthy ecosystem function. Every form of wildlife has its place in nature and must be appreciated without fear and treated with equal importance. There may be no group better poised to start that process than the lesser-known smaller carnivores.

About the author

Muntasir Akash is a lecturer at the Department of Zoology, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is focusing his career on the conservation of lesser-known carnivorous mammals. He was awarded a 2020 CLP Future Conservationist Award to support his camera-trapping work in north-eastern Bangladesh. He was one of the participants in CLP’s first-ever online Conservation Management & Leadership course in 2020.

Getting ahead of the game in conservation marketing

By Ellie Warren

This article has been adapted from a version originally published on the WILDLABS conservation technology platform, which can be found here.

In an interview with biologist-turned-social marketer, Diogo Veríssimo, WILDLABS explores his somewhat unconventional career path and gets his take on how tech mediums like mobile app games can lead to real-world impacts.

Kakapo Run is a new mobile app game developed to drive change in the conservation of New Zealand’s Critically Endangered kakapo © On the Edge Conservation

CLP alumnus Diogo Veríssimo is Director of Conservation Marketing at On the Edge Conservation. He is part of the team behind Kakapo Run, their new mobile app game, which promotes positive changes to protect New Zealand’s Critically Endangered flightless parrot – the kakapo.

But Diogo hasn’t always worked in conservation marketing, having had what some might consider a more non-traditional career path. Starting out in the field biology side of conservation, he was previously part of two CLP-funded project teams: one in 2008, working to engage communities in the conservation of globally Endangered lesser florican in India and another in 2014, promoting sustainable logging in São Tomé. He also led two CLP-funded learning exchanges in which he mentored other conservationists in environmental education and flagship species selection in Brazil.

Experiences like these led Diogo to discover his ability to strategically communicate conservation messaging, and ignited his interest in the concept of social marketing for conservation as a vital part of public engagement and impact — something he explored in-depth during his PhD and postdoctoral research.

Commenting on Diogo’s subsequent career since joining the CLP alumni network, CLP’s Executive Manager Stuart Paterson said, “We’re delighted to see Diogo having so much success developing innovative digital marketing tools in support of conservation. He has become a recognised leader in conservation marketing and his work is generating more interest and support for threatened species.”

Diogo Verissimo (far right) participated in the 2010 CLP Conservation Management & Leadership workshop in Calgary, Canada.

In his WILDLABS interview, Diogo credited CLP’s professional development tools and mentoring as having a massive impact on his opportunities and goals. “Altogether the greatest impact [on my career path] was definitely that of the Conservation Leadership Programme,” he said. “It’s a unique network of people on the front lines of conservation, and I would recommend everyone to check them out if they’re interested in building a career in this field.”

One of Diogo’s first forays into the world of conservation marketing was his ‘Lost and Found’ digital project showcasing stories, comics and videos about the rediscovery of species previously thought to be extinct.

Turning his focus to games more recently, he and his team at On the Edge Conservation developed Kakapo Run – an “infinite runner” style game (i.e., players avoid obstacles and adversaries while running) in which the player helps the kakapo escape invasive predators such as rats and stoats. This was a logical game choice given that, in the real world, the main threat to the kakapo is that it cannot fly away from these predators.

One key thing Diogo learned from making Kakapo Run is that, in order to have a chance at success using this kind of outreach, “you need to be able to produce something that appeals even to those without a particular love of wildlife.”

According to Diogo, anyone in conservation considering the use of gaming and other non-traditional outreach methods must expect to make a substantial investment in terms of funds and bring together the right mix of people (tech, marketing, and conservationists) in the development.

And, as in more traditional field research, Diogo admits that it can be a struggle to translate data generated from online games into real-world results and impact. During the development of Kakapo Run, the bottom line for Diogo and the team was to drive change. For this reason, the game does not contain any adverts or in-game purchases, and focuses on a high-profile, flagship EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) species.

The kakapo (Strigops habroptila) is a Critically Endangered ground-dwelling flightless bird in New Zealand threatened by invasive predators, such as stoats and rats © Chris Birmingham (CC BY 2.0).

In perhaps the most robust impact evaluation ever conducted around a conservation game, the team also performed a randomised control trial. Over the course of a week, 100 New Zealanders were randomly assigned to play at least one hour of Kakapo Run, while 100 others played a leading game unrelated to conservation.

Afterwards, the participants were questioned on their knowledge, attitudes, social norms, and behavioural intentions related to conservation; for example, the likelihood that they would donate to conservation organisations and support policies to control invasive predators.

The preliminary results of the trial gave a pretty clear indication that beyond just increasing knowledge, players were also more willing to volunteer for conservation organisations and to adopt measures aimed at reducing predation of wildlife by pet cats.

“This is one of the first times that there is robust evidence of a game having impact at a behavioural level in a conservation context,” said Diogo.

However, the most valuable lesson Diogo has learned (in terms of conservation gaming) was that creating a great game is only the beginning, and probably the easiest part of the process. After the game is finalised begins the challenge of getting people to actually play it.

“We need to be strategic and resilient when it comes to the promotion of conservation games like Kakapo Run to ensure they get enough visibility for people to even realise they exist,” added Diogo.

While many in the CLP alumni network go on to work in the field as biologists and researchers, Diogo has shown that these are far from the only paths toward an impactful career in conservation. Particularly for those working with conservation technology, there are endless opportunities to use unique professional skills, develop innovate new ideas, and engage with conservation creatively.

Marketing may not immediately spring to mind when you envision a career in conservation – just as mobile games may not immediately remind you of conservation technology – but in all conservation career paths, the goal is the same: seeing results that benefit wildlife.

Read Diogo’s full interview with WILDLABS here.

About the author

Ellie Warren is a WILDLABS Coordinator, based at WWF Headquarters in Washington DC, USA. At WILDLABS, Ellie writes and curates original articles and case studies, organizes virtual events focused on conservation technology, and facilitates connections and collaborations within the WILDLABS community.