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     Volume 4 Issue 29 | January 14, 2005 |

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In Focus

Back to Nature

Through the passion for trekking and photography, Enam Talukdert, a hunter turned nature lover, creates a bond with nature and the people living in its midst

Mustafa Zaman

There are three things that spurred Enam Talukder and Ronald Halder to take on the journey along the river Shankha situated in the hilly district of Chittagong. Firstly, the rare 'yellow hill turtles', secondly, the bat-infested long tunnel through which a stream flows, and lastly, the journey itself.

Though this was their second visit along the same route, by covering a sprawling area and venturing out into the thicket on their way across the reserve forest, they have made it an unforgettable experience.

In the minimalist ambiance of his sitting room, parked on the thin cushions that replace the usual modern-day arrangement, Enam Talukder reconstructs their recent expedition. It is the least taken trail and is a challenging one for any explorer. Enam and Halder are seasoned trekkers and the natural treasures that got revealed while en-route was mind-blowing. They were enticed by the fact that they would be traversing virgin territories. Fortunately they both are adept photographers of nature. Enam alone has brought back a pictorial records of their 11-day-long journey for the benefit of the rest: those who are too fainthearted to get too close to the wilds or have little opportunities to travel.

Enam is a pilot who pick up his first camera while he was in the flying academy. Inspired by his Japanese co-trainee, Toshimu, who was a photographer for NHK, Enam first gave up hunting and then turned into a nature lover and a photographer. "Toshimu used to give photography lessons to one of my friends at the academy, and I used to listen to his lectures while sitting next to my friend, out of curiosity. During the question and answer session the following day, I used to chip in with one or two answers. This made Toshimo, who was several years our senior, to ask me to learn photography as he thought I had a heart for it," Enam recalls.

Enam got hooked from that point on. His first camera was a Zenith with a damaged lens that he recovered from their house. "It belonged to my older brother, and Toshimo had it fixed for me," says Enam.

Toshimo taught him to see the world through the lens as well as through the eyes that are sensitive to nature. "He was like a mentor. He used to take me along whenever he went outdoors to take pictures," recalls Enam. The former hunter had already had some realisation about the effect of his hunting spree on the dove population of his home village Amtoli in Borguna. "I realised it when after the rainy season not a single call was heard. I thought that it was I who had wiped them out in the last few months using my father's shotgun," he ruefully remembers.

However, it was not until he met the Japanese and befriended him that he fully realised the harm caused by hunting. With the arbitration of Toshimo, the hunter's transformation into a nature lover was swift. It was in early 1990s that he met Toshimo and by mid-1990s Enam was a bird watcher and photographer with a readiness to travel far and wide just to get closer to wilderness.

Enam's love affair with the hilly people began as early as the mid-1990s. "Back then our journey used to end in Rangamati. Because of the insurgency we always had to halt at that point," Enam remembers their early efforts to make headway into the hilly districts. "Back then it was Toshima who had this idea of handing a camera to a man who was a Murong. It was an auto-focus camera that did wonders," he continues. The man went deep into the land and came back with photos of the lives of the Murong population. "For me that was the first encounter with the Murongs. And after that it was Toshimu who planned to visit their villages," Enam recalls.

As for becoming a trekker, Enam recounts an incident that played a pivotal role in his life. "I became a cadet pilot back in the mid-1990s and it was the norm to provide the pilots with free tickets to travel. I was going to Cox's Bazaar on a vacation and forgot my ticket, so I had to buy one. This slashed my coffer into half. I knew that it was impossible for me to spend a vacation in Cox's Bazaar with the money I was left with, so I chalked out a plan to go deep into Bandarban," Enam recounts the situation that led to his first excursion. "A Murong friend called up the director of the Tribal Cultural Institute in Bandarban and let him know that a pilot of Biman was coming to visit. The director first tried to dissuade me as he thought I was unfit to withstand the journey, he even detailed out all the problems facing a visitor-- from malaria to kidnapping," remembers Enam, who was determined to make the journey.

That was the first headway into the hilly community of Bandarban district. By then he was a full-fledged photographer. "I carried my camera with me, but I took only three films which was not enough as I discovered an endless treasure," The five-day visit did not seem enough for him, nor did the three rolls of films do any justice to the place and people of the areas he visited. He knew he had to go back for more. That feeling of not getting enough is still there. It still galvanizes his passion to go back.

The photographer Enam now holds sway over the Pilot Enam who now flies the domestic fights. Whenever he manages to get some time off, he tags along with his friends to go trekking. If there are images that encapsulate Bangladesh in its pristine condition, Enam and his friends are the prime sources.

"I met my bird watcher friends when a Marma friend of mine asked me to attend a presentation by Enam Ul Haq and Ronald Halder, the two nature enthusiasts," says Enam. "It was them who inspired me to become a bird watcher," he adds.

Even in the recent trip, Halder, a dentist by profession and an amateur ornithologist, made a startling discovery. He spotted the blue bearded bee eater, which Enam refers to as "the heavenly find". Another bird whose presence in Bangladesh had never before been confirmed was discovered. "A twit of the bird was enough for Halder to recognise it, and then he asked all the boatmen and the others to hush up, and rushed to a boulder on the river upon which our tents were propped up. From there he brought the state-of-the-art equipment and delighted in recording the call of this rare bird that we later come to know from Halder as 'mountain scops owl'," Enam reflects on the zeal of the moment.

It was at Remakri, where they decided to spend the night on boulders defying the fear of the boatmen who slept on the warm sand on the bank instead. "They revere the stones. The locals worship a boulder with a depression in it. They are also very sensitive to the river water and the vegetation that surrounds them. Water commands the highest esteem, they will never even urinate near it," Enam reveals.

Enam and Halder with their group of boatmen and friends, one of whom was the 'headman' of village Thanchi who acted as their guide, started from Thanchi. They reached the Shankha reserve forest by crossing a sinuous route through Yanghé, Tindu, Remakri and Boromodok. It was more than a 70 km long path. "As we followed the river Shankha downstream, we had to travel by dugout canoes most of the time," explains Enam. "From Thanchi the group followed the flow of the river and passed the Chimbuk Mountain ranges, that took about 11 hours," he continues. Shankha is one of the two exceptional rivers in Bangladesh that flows from south to north.

Among the three key factors that drove the two trekkers, the turtle was nowhere to be found alive. The evidence of it surfaced in many a village. "We had witnessed the skeleton of the turtle, the shells were shown to us. Some even told us that they go hunting with dogs to look for these forest turtles that never ventures to the water," says Enam. They did not have the good fortune to find this creature, but they had the luck to have stumbled upon a dead 'mountain scops owl' during a search in the jungle at Remarki, as they were also set out to search for a fall deep inside. On top of that, they managed to reach half the portion of the bat-infested tunnel, which figured second on their priority list.

"That was an amazing experience. We had a raft made by the locals and started in the morning. It was a narrow passage of water so we had to make a smallish raft. But at places there were boulders that stood on our way, where one had to pass the raft over the boulder to start again," Enam reconstructs their journey.

Halfway through the expedition, it was called off, "as we had no idea what would lie ahead and what we would do if we couldn't pass it by the end of the day," Enam explains.

Down Shankha river on the dugout canoe.

The hospitality that they received was fit for kings. At every Khumi or Murong village there were feasts in their honour. In one village the chief even killed a 'barking deer'. "Tradition overshadowed the concern for preservation, we were helpless. But the food was mouth-watering, though the spread consisted of dishes as exotic as bat," says Enam. At a Murong village the chief had two wives -- one Tripera and the other Khumi. "The two wives follow the tradition of their own people. The husband -- the chief -- was equally magnanimous in his hospitality; on our way home he insisted that we carry home the special kind of rice that grow on his land," Enam testifies.

There were snags, as in Modok, where there is a far out BDR camp. "The BDR personnel cordoned off the village where we had spent the night. It was six in the morning. They first suspected us having dubious intentions, and the bunch of cameras I had with me fed their imagination. We were taken to the camp and the whole day was spoiled waiting for the CO to arrive, who let us go upon his arrival at noon," remembers Enam.

The hills are a treasure of natural beauty. The hill people live a life that helps keep the echo system going. Enam did not miss the opportunity to bring back the evidence, he spent three rolls a day, which has become his normal rate of filming whenever he finds himself among such exquisitely beautiful places and people.

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