A team of indigenous parabiologists in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, documenting their forest’s wildlife, have uncovered a surprisingly wide range of species.The parabiologists belong to the Mro ethnic group and work with the Creative Conservation Alliance co-founded by Shahriar Caesar Rahman and colleagues. They set up camera traps, monitor hunting and consumption of turtles and other wild animals in villages; act as protectors of hornbill nests; and serve as community leaders.The Mro parabiologists have become so crucial to the researchers’ work that they are regularly listed as formal co-authors of scientific papers.The Mro-CCA partnership has earned Rahman several laurels, including, most recently, the 2018 Whitley Award, dubbed the “green Oscars.” In the beginning, Shahriar Caesar Rahman’s trips to the remote forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh would invariably end in frustration. Rahman was searching for reptiles, and based on what the local people were telling him, the largely unexplored forests of the Hill Tracts seemed to be home to a wide variety of them and other wild animals. But he could find no visual proof to confirm the claims. “They would tell me ‘Oh, we saw a gaur, we just ate a turtle, or we found this or that,’” Rahman, co-founder and CEO of the Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA), a nonprofit based in the capital Dhaka, told Mongabay. “I would ask them, ‘Do you have any evidence?,’ and they would say ‘No.’ So every time I would feel frustrated that they are telling me about all these species but I don’t have any proof.” In the years to come, the local people did hand him plenty of evidence. All it took were a few point-and-shoot cameras and some training to build a team of indigenous parabiologists — people lacking in formal education but trained to carry out specific scientific tasks. These parabiologists quickly went on to catapult both the Hill Tracts, and Rahman, into the limelight. Mro parabiologists in Bangladesh have been critical to documenting the Hills’ biodiversity. Image credit: Scott Trageser Photography/Creative Conservation Alliance. Parabiologists uncover ‘firsts’ for Bangladesh The expansive, rugged mountains of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), located in southeast Bangladesh and bordering Myanmar and India, cover 13,295 square kilometers (5,133 square miles), or 10 percent of the country’s total land area. The Hill Tracts are inhabited by nearly a dozen indigenous groups as well as Bengalis, the ethnic majority, and have the lowest population density in the country: just 120 people per square kilometer, compared to the overall 1,237 people per square kilometer for the whole of Bangladesh. The region is also thought to be one of the last strongholds of biodiversity in the country. But illegal logging and shifting cultivation, also referred to as slash-and-burn, have reduced the CHT’s forest cover by more than 30 percent between 2001 and 2014. Subsistence hunting and commercial poaching also threaten the forest’s wildlife. In December 2011, Rahman began exploring the tropical mixed-evergreen forest lying within Bandarban district, one of three administrative districts straddled by the CHT. There, residing in the Sangu-Matamuhuri Reserve Forest, live the Mro people, an ethnic group of Tibeto-Burmese origin who occupy sparsely populated villages, each with around 15 families. The Mro grow rice on hills under a shifting cultivation system called jhum: they clear and burn a patch of forest, cultivate it for a year, then leave it fallow for two to five years while moving on to a new patch of forest. The Mro people live in the Bandarban district of Bangladesh (outlined in red in the inset map). Map by Shreya Dasgupta/Global Forest Watch/Google Maps. For the first couple of years, Rahman pursued only reptiles. He conducted field surveys to document snakes, turtles and lizards, and interviewed the Mro people to both understand the reptiles inhabiting the forest and to establish a rapport with the local communities. In 2014, he decided to do things differently. The Mro have historically hunted wild animals for subsistence, so Rahman gave point-and-shoot digital cameras to three Mro men and asked them to take pictures of all the wild animal that they came across, dead or alive. The Mro men were excited by the prospect of using cameras to document their wildlife. It also made them feel empowered, Rahman said, and soon the cameras’ memory cards began filling up with images of recently killed creatures. “We started seeing bones of animals like clouded leopards, dholes, marbled cats, skins of giant reticulated pythons, tortoises — all dead animals,” Rahman said. “Of course, it’s very saddening to see dead parts of all those beautiful animals, but it was proof that all those species live there.” The cameras revealed some surprises, too. Among the photographs were images of freshly dispatched Arakan forest turtles, a species that had once been deemed extinct until a few specimens turned up in a Chinese market in 1994, ready to be cooked. Surveys in the 2000s found wild Arakan forest turtles (Heosemys depressa) in western Myanmar. The photographs that the Mro showed Rahman’s team, as well as the live individuals they led the researchers to, were among the first evidence of the species in Bangladesh. Arakan forest turtle. Image credit: Scott Trageser Photography/Creative Conservation Alliance. This sowed the seeds of what would become a fruitful relationship. Realizing that the Mro people held invaluable knowledge about the forest and its inhabitants, Rahman and his colleagues began formally recruiting Mro men as parabiologists in 2015. They started with Passing Mro, a soft-spoken, revered member of the Mro community who understood why saving forest and wildlife is important, Rahman said. Passing Mro in turn helped the researchers recruit other parabiologists. The CCA team did not approach women for the role because it required traveling to different parts of forests and villages that women in these villages typically did not do. The Mro men learned to set up camera traps, collect GPS data, take external measurements of animals, and conduct social surveys to collect information on hunting practices and trends. They also used their knowledge from decades of hunting to help identify survey areas and camera-trap locations, and to bridge the gap between the researchers and the local communities. Working together, the Mro parabiologists and Rahman’s team of CCA researchers have confirmed the presence of a surprisingly wide range of wildlife in the region. Besides the critically endangered Arakan forest turtle, they also recorded the presence of the endangered keeled box turtle (Cuora mouhotii) in the forests, again a first for the country, in addition to the endangered Asian giant tortoise (Manouria emys) and Sylhet roofed turtle (Pangshura sylhetensis). The team also recorded evidence of mammals like tiger (Panthera tigris), sambar (Rusa unicolor), barking deer (Muntiacus muntjak), gaur (Bos gaurus), leopard (Panthera pardus), marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata), leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), and rare primates like the western hoolock gibbon (Hoolock hoolock) and Phayre’s leaf monkey (Trachypithecus phayrei).