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'Sari squad' protects Bangladesh wildlife sanctuary

By Pamela Boykoff, CNN
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Ladies on the prowl to save forest
  • Wildlife sanctuary in Bangladesh protected by local community
  • Many had previously hunted or logged trees from the area before government-backed initiative
  • Some members of the patrols are female volunteers, some get small stipend for joining the program

(CNN) -- In southern Bangladesh, a small group of local women is taking the initiative when it comes to environmental protection.

Wives, mothers and villagers, they have taken one more role in their community: guardians of the Chunati Wildlife Reserve.

Every day, they don green saris and patrol the forest in the company of government rangers. Walking silently through the trees, they seek out anyone who wants to disturb the wildlife and the century-old trees.

"When we come with in our green dress, the illicit tree fellers are scared of us. They hide from us," says Dilwara, a member of the patrol.

In the years since they began their walks, she tells CNN, they have seen the resurgence of the 77-square kilometer sanctuary.

Once heavily damaged by logging and farming, it is now beginning to thrive, with the patrol encountering wild birds, monkeys, foxes and even elephants.

If there are trees in the forest this will help our community.
--Hosneara, Chunati Wildlife Reserve patrol member

The community patrols are just one aspect of broader plan to nurse Chunati back to health. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and Germany's development agency GTZ, the program supports government-community partnerships, exploiting the mutual benefits both sides can receive from conserving the country's wildlife.

It has helped rejuvenate this 25-year-old sanctuary that serves as a corridor for Asian elephants migrating between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Community leader Amin Khan used to hunt in Chunati, making his living off the wildlife. Now, convinced his hunting damaged the area's biodiversity, he works with the government to help oversee its conservation. He says positive change only became possible here when the government provided work and other opportunities for villagers within the sanctuary.

"The government did not welcome people's participation on their land before," he says. "But now they are gradually thinking without the participation of the people, no project will be successful."

To that end, the Bangladeshi government now allows for limited logging within designated areas of Chunati. Community members can plant, cut and sell trees in parts of the forest, provided they replant and they don't cut the old growth. They keep 75% of the proceeds and the rest goes towards reforestation efforts.

The co-management model that has worked for Chunati is now being implemented throughout the country. In 2008, USAID launched a $13 million project designed to spread this conservation approach throughout the country over five years. There are now 26 such protected areas in Bangladesh.

As for the female patrol group, they are volunteers, but they received a small stipend of about $50 for joining the program. Many of them bought cows with the money. Now they consume the milk or sell it for some extra cash.

They also received something far less tangible; respect in their village.

"This for our honor," says Hosneara, another member of the patrol. "If there are trees in the forest this will help our community."