The declining Royals of the Sundarbans
Mahmood Sadi Weekend

This might be our last chance to save our tiger population

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How many people do you know who have actually spotted a royal Bengal tiger in the Sundarbans, with his/her own eyes? I personally have travelled to our famous mangrove forest twice and have never seen anything, not even a paw mark.

According to Dr Monirul H Khan, professor of Zoology at Jahangirnagar University who specialised on royal Bengal tigers while earning his Phd from Cambridge University - “It is a fact that the tiger population is declining in Sundarban. However, not seeing a tiger with your own eyes is not an indicator of the declining tiger population. The tiger is an exclusively reclusive animal and it loves to live deep inside the jungle, and seeing one involves trespassing on their natural habitat.”

Dr Khan had lived in the area for five years while doing his research, but had never had an encounter with a tiger either. However, he knew some local people in the Sundarbans, who have not only seen tigers but have been attacked.

The declining tiger population in Bangladesh

Last year, the Forest Department of Bangladesh had officially announced that the number of royal Bengal tigers is 106 in the Bangladesh territory of the Sundarbans, as per the Tiger Census of 2015.

Meanwhile, India found that there were 76 tigers in the Sundarbans of India, which made the total number of tigers 182 in the largest mangrove forest in the world, of which 60% is in Bangladesh and 40% in India.

Bangladesh Sundarbans has tiger occupancy on 4832 square kilometres of forest, and has an estimated population of 83 to 130 tigers, with a midpoint of 106.

This was the first time the tiger census was conducted through modern camera trapping technology using GPS. The last tiger census was conducting in 2004 using tiger pawmarks, which found 440 tigers in Bangladesh Sundarbans and 350 in India.

The problem of the big mammals

"Interestingly, at present, the only stable population of tigers is found in the Sundarbans, and they are isolated from the nearest human populations by about 300km of agricultural and urban land," said Dr Monirul H Khan.

The Tiger Status Report 2015, prepared by the Forest Department with support of the World Bank, also showed that though the tiger population estimate in the Sundarbans is much lower than previously believed, it still forms one of the top five largest tiger populations in the world.

The problem is that large carnivore species like tigers naturally exist at low densities, which make them particularly susceptible to extirpation and extinction. According to Dr Khan, a new threat to wild tiger populations has surfaced in the form of a deadly virus. A 2014 study from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) discussed how canine distemper virus (CDV) has the potential to be a significant driver in pushing the tigers towards extinction.

While CDV has recently been shown to lead to the deaths of individual tigers, its long-term impacts on tiger populations had never before been studied, research added.

The renowned tiger specialist also said that tigers decline in numbers because of habitat loss and prey depletion rather than being killed directly.

"Big cats need secure and disturbance-free habitats to maintain a viable population. But haphazard development activities in the landscape of the protected areas (PAs) like Sundarban pose a big threat to tigers."

 "A tiger needs to eat about 50 deer-sized animals or 6,600 pounds of living prey every year. Prey species itself depend on conditions of the habitat. As Sundarban has lost a huge amount of land over the years, the prey for the tiger, which in this case is deer, has also declined significantly."

He said that tigers typically survive in what scientists call meta-populations — a source population with breeding females living in dense patches of forests — surrounded by dispersing tigers making their way into not so well kept nearby forests. "Now when both core and buffer zones of Sundarban are under pressure, the tiger is hardly likely to be unaffected."

Tourism hurts too

Dr Khan said that tourism is a factor for decline in tiger numbers. As the flow of tourists increase in Sundarban, demand for more accommodation, roads, highways, electricity and water supply also increases.

"This results in cutting down of trees, fragmenting the forest tracts and forest corridors, and restricting the free movement of animals from one forest area to another. Corridors between tiger reserves are important for genetic exchange and long-term survival."

Besides, he said since the breeding peak of tigers is probably in winter, the season should remain uninterrupted. Unfortunately, winter is also the main harvest and tourist season when human disturbance is intense, he added. 

"I suggest that some zones should be demarcated, and tourists should be allowed in only those areas. Controlled ecotourism should be developed so that both the government and the local people benefit financially." 

Man-animal conflict is another major factor that affects the big cats, he said. As humans move deeper into the territory of tigers, chances of conflict between both sides increase many fold. Men and livestock often become the victim of tiger attacks. This infuriates villagers who resort to revenge killing.

"In order to reduce the conflict between tigers and humans, local people should be motivated and educated. Alternative livelihoods should be made available and existing anti-poaching regulations should be implemented properly."

The Zoology Professor said that politicians driven by vote bank politics and ignorance regarding importance of forests and wildlife often take wild decisions. "The government's tenacity to go ahead with the Rampal power plant near the Sundarbans, despite protest from environmentalists and experts, is an example of that."

"They do not want to understand the basic fact that the health of predators determine the health of the ecosystem which also sustains human beings. They look for immediate gains rather than the nation as a whole."

 

Climate change: another fear factor for the tiger
A World Wildlife Fund-led study published in the journal Climatic Change said that an expected sea level rise of 11 inches above 2000 levels may cause the remaining tiger habitat in the Sundarbans to decline by 96 percent, pushing the total population to fewer than 20 breeding tigers. Unless immediate action is taken, the Sundarbans, its wildlife and the natural resources that sustain millions of people may disappear within 50 to 90 years.

The NGO dilemma
Funds amounting to millions of dollars are being pumped in the field of tiger conservation. This has caused mushrooming of NGOs and conservationists locally and globally who claim to be the biggest fighters for conservation. These organisations often struggle among themselves to get a bigger piece of the tiger conservation pie, and they end up working at cross purposes. There are some NGOs who have been accused of harbouring their own business interests, like building forest lodges and hotels near tiger reserves. 

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