The population of the bird in the Indian subcontinent is presumed to be around a lac and not declining sharply. However, that is of little comfort to us since its population in Bangladesh may be well below five thousand and tumbling too fast

The absence of Indian Spot-billed Duck - the most common resident of haor basin once - became sorely clear as our boat slowly paddled past thousands of migratory ducks dabbling and diving in the shallow water of Rowa, Lessamara, Berberia and other sprawling beels of Tanguar haor.

Indian Spot-billed Ducks in large numbers used to feed on the interminable expanse of aquatic vegetation and breed in the emergent reeds on Kanda or the high ground of the beels once. The number of those companionable ducks has been falling sharply over the years. It seemed to have hit an incredible abyss this year!

We found only a handful of Indian Spot-billed Ducks when we visited the haor in early January, but hoped to see more of them converging to breed on the Kanda with the falling water level in February and March. It was a cruel blow to that expectation as we could find nearly no resident ducks in most of the beels in March.

Because of its large size and distinctive yellow-tipped bill, the Indian Spot-billed Duck was easy to spot and identify from far afield. It used to be the first species of duck we would see as soon as we came to the Baulai River and its tributaries well before hitting Golabari ghat - the gateway to Tanguar haor.

It was not uncommon to see the breeding pairs of Indian Spot-billed Ducks in rivers, canals and isolated patches of water outside the haor. Those ducks loved to take off and fly between beels often unlike the migratory ducks that silently fed on the underwater bounties the whole day uninterrupted.

It was a pleasure to see the Indian Spot-billed Ducks craning their long necks and quacking insistently overhead. The sight sometimes impelled us to recall the nearly forgotten lines of a powerful poem titled The Wild Duck by John Masefield, the English poet laureate of the mid-20th century.

Eager. Eager. Flying.

Over the globe of the moon,

Over the wood that glows.

Wings linked. Necks a-strain,

A rush and a wild crying.

Indian Spot-billed Ducks preferred to swim at the reedy edge of the beels and form their own foraging community a little away from the diversified cluster of visiting ducks and coots. For the migratory birds, winter was a time to feed and fatten up; not the time for courtship like the Indian Spot-billed Ducks.

Unlike the migratory ducks, the Indian Spot-billed Ducks were born at the haor basin. That is why it was particularly heartening to watch those idiosyncratic ducks swim along the fringe of the beels and charitably leave the rest of the haor to the migratory birds to forage all through the winter.

For ages, the Indian Spot-billed Ducks have been nesting in the undisturbed reed-land of the haor basin and raising the ducklings in the shallow water of the beels. There were times when we saw the mamma duck cautiously lead the ducklings through the grass at Bagmara and Hatirgatha beels.

In recent decades the haor has not remained undisturbed and tranquil enough for the Indian Spot-billed Ducks to incubate their eggs on the Kanda and raise the ducklings in the shallow beels. Over time many villages have cropped up and spread over the Kanda, and the reeds have moved to the village kitchens to turn into fuel.

Now countless livestock is brought from distant villages to graze the drying haor in winter. Every year we see an ever-increasing number of marauding cattle covering every part of Kanda and parching beels of Tanguar haor. Only a stupid or desperate Indian Spot-billed Duck would lay and try to incubate eggs there today.

The breeding chores make the Indian Spot-billed Duck vulnerable to human predation in more ways than one. At the end of the breeding season, the duck drops all its feathers and stays flightless till new feathers grow to give it the ability to fly again. In that flightless month, it can escape capture only by hiding in reeds or diving in the water.

With little water and nearly no reed in the haor at the end of winter, nowadays the Indian Spot-billed Duck is too easy a target to anyone keen to grab a free piece of meat weighing one and a half kilogram. There are also people to harass a flightless duck merely for a photo or the sheer pleasure of a chase.

In the Indian subcontinent, the Indian Spot-billed Duck had been carrying the bullseye on its body for a very long time. The British termed it a game-bird and reportedly professed its meat of 'excellent taste'. And the rich and powerful natives considered everything the Sahibs did of excellent taste.

Now the population of Indian Spot-billed Duck in the Indian subcontinent is presumed to be around a lac and not declining sharply. However, that is of little comfort to us since the population in Bangladesh may be well below five thousand and tumbling too fast.

It is no longer easy to spot the Indian Spot-billed Duck in the haor basin or elsewhere in Bangladesh. It is not going to be easy to conserve it in this country either. If we wish our children to see it in Tanguar haor we must designate a few Kanda and beels as its breeding ground and keep the people and their cattle at bay.

Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam.

First Published in The Business Standard

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