Friday, May 27, 2016

The Big Cat of the Mangrove

Faisal Mahmud

On account of International Tiger Day, July 29, 2015, Dhaka Tribune took a look at the current situation concerning habitat, population and overall well-being of our majestic national animal.

For Bangladeshis, the Royal Bengal tiger is not just a mere beast. It’s a little more than that.
Aside from being the national animal of the country, this big cat has been playing an important role in enriching our literature and remains a central character in many folk tales like Gazir GanBonbibir Kotha. The tiger is also a symbol for many of our national agencies.
The emblem of the East Bengal Regiment, which fought for the country's liberation, the logo of the national cricket team and the hologram in our national currency are some of the examples of using the tiger symbol taking pride of place.
Even it’s presence in our political culture is also evident. The great politician AK Fuzlul Huq is called the 'Tiger of Bengal' for his outstanding contribution in favour of humanity.
Things however are not looking bright for our tigers in the Sundarbans. While unsustainable forest use and climate change threaten to reduce the area in which tigers can live, poaching of prey reduces the capacity of the forest to support tigers.
All these make the life of the king of the jungle very difficult indeed.
The shrinking tiger population
The world has been trying to save tigers since the 1970s, when it was discovered that populations had shrunk precipitously, and in some places vanished, throughout Asia, home to all the wild tigers left on earth. But conservation has largely failed.
Drastic loss of habitat, half-hearted efforts by the governments of many of the 13 tiger-range countries, uncoordinated objectives of competing NGOs, and, above all, an unstaunchable and illegal market for tiger parts in China have reduced the number of the world's wild tigers to a meagre 3,200, at a high estimate.
The Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest of the world has long been a safe sanctuary for tigers but it’s not anymore. Data analysis of the recent tiger census in the Sundarbans suggested that the number of Bengal Tigers in the forest's Bangladesh part might have come down to half of what it was 10 years ago.
The 2004 Bangladesh-India joint tiger pugmark survey in the Sundarbans put the number at 419. The recently finished census said that the number is less than 200 in the Bangladeshi part of the Sundarbans.
A new report of the Global Tigers Initiatives (GTI) shows Bangladesh is lagging far behind other neighbouring tiger range countries, including India, Nepal and Bhutan in conversation activities.
The report released during the Global Tiger Stocktaking Conference in Dhaka in last year was prepared based on nine activities regarding tiger conservation. Among the 13 tiger range countries, Bangladesh has not been able to fulfil any of the targets.
Reasons behind tiger losses
Both anthropogenic and natural causes are responsible for tiger loss in Bangladesh. The most significant cause of tiger loss is direct poaching to supply the increasing demand for tiger products, experts said.
Moreover, Tiger-Human Conflict (THC) is very high in Bangladesh, which is evident from high rate of human killing, livestock depredation and ultimately the killing in retribution of tigers by affected local communities. In addition, prey poaching, unsustainable forest management and climate change induced natural calamities also affect tiger population.
Several million people directly depend on the Sundarbans for their subsistence. They collect wood, honey, gol-pata and other forest products from the Sundarbans. There is a common perception among policy makers that those forest dependent people are responsible for the Sundarbans' degradation.
Researches however explore that commercial extraction by outside people through corrupted forest officials is mainly responsible for the Sundarban's degradation.
The outsider commercial extractors collect forest resources beyond sustainable limit by violating resource collection rules. Hence, the balance of the forest ecosystem has been dwindling. In contrast, the forest dependent communities are living in the Sundarbans area for centuries by collecting forest resources more or less sustainably using their traditional knowledge.
Thus, the most evident threat to tiger habitat is unsustainable commercial extraction of forest resources that degrades the habitat quality.
Effects of climate change
Experts said that a major reason for frequent straying by tigers may be a growing prey crisis due to greater frequency of cyclones and tidal surges triggered by climate change.
The critically endangered tigers have been seen to leave their jungle habitat most frequently at two forest ranges in Bangladesh – Burhigoalini range in Satkhira and Sharankhola range in Bagerhat.
Renowned environmentalist Dr Ainun Nishat said that large populations of the Sundarbans deer might have perished in recurrent cyclones. “The population cycle of the Sundarbans deer will be adversely affected as their habitats become prone to cyclones and more saline because of climate change.”
“The tigers are coming out of the jungle for food and cyclones may very well have caused the food crisis there,” said Nishat.
“After natural disasters pass, the affected regions are naturally hit by a prey crisis. Deer often die in large numbers, which is likely to affect the tigers though they themselves are not particularly vulnerable to such natural disasters.”
He said tigers were seen leaving forests more frequently than usual after cyclone Sidr in 2007 and Aila in May this year.
Tiger poaching in the Sundarbans
Even though the government has taken various measures to protect Bengal Tigers in the Sundarbans, its poaching is on the rise with 49 being killed in last the 14 years (2001-2014), according to forest department data.
Among the 49 tigers, 17 were killed in the Sundarbans east zone of the forest department while 15 were killed in the Sundarbans west zone. According to the data, the forest department recovered 17 tiger skins from different parts of the country between 2001-2014 while being smuggled out of the country.
Although official data shows that some 49 tigers were killed in the last 14 years, the locals of the Sundarbans claim that the actual number of poached tigers is much higher.
They said wildlife poaching continues rampantly in the Sundarbans while poachers frequently hunt tigers, deer and other wildlife using traps and guns. There are a number of wildlife poachers' groups in the nearby villages of the Sundarbans and they are poaching wildlife in both the Sundarbans east and west zones. The groups are linked with international wildlife smugglers, according to local sources.
The local poachers bring their hunted wildlife to the nearby villages and process the hides, bones and other limbs of the animals. Later, they sell those to the international smugglers, they added.
The residents of Banglabazar, Uttar Rajapur, Sonatola, Bagi and Khuriakhali villages near the Sundarbans also said there are a number of active wildlife poachers' groups in their neighbourhoods and the villagers can hardly raise their voice in fear of reprisal.
Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of the Sundarbans East Zone Amir Hossain Chowdhury said many plans are being implemented to protect Bengal Tigers while the Forest Department's Wildlife Circle has been strengthened, officials of the department have been trained and coordination among the forest department, Coast Guard, Rab and police has been strengthened to check wildlife poaching.
He said officials of the forest department are conducting drives across the country to arrest poachers and they are often detaining members of wildlife smugglers and also recovering hides of tigers and deer.

Fact Box
New projects on hand
To save tiger population and its prey, a new project titled Bagh Activity, supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was launched recently. The five-year project is designed to reduce wildlife trafficking and minimise human-tiger conflicts in the Sundarbans.
WildTeam, a Bangladesh-based organisation of tiger conservation activists, will implement the project with technical assistance from the Smithsonian Institution of the US and Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. It will also collaborate with national and international law enforcement agencies in keeping wildlife out of harm's way.
Interview of Dr Monirul H Khan
Dr Monirul H Khan has a PhD from the University of Cambridge on tigers of the Sundarbans. Currently he is working as a professor of Zoology in Jahangirnagar University. He is known as the foremost authority about Royal Bengal Tigers in Sundarban.
Are tigers numbers decreasing in the Sundarbans?
Yes, they are decreasing at an alarming rate. The problem is that large carnivore species like tigers naturally occur at low densities, which make them particularly susceptible to extirpation and extinction. 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.
How many tigers are left in the Sundarbans?
First of all, we have to understand that tiger ranges vary in accordance with prey densities. There is no long-term work on the range size of the tigers in Bangladesh.
Some studies indicate that tigers are fairly evenly distributed throughout the Sundarbans at a density of about 1 per 10sqkm, but subsequent studies have suggested that there may be a density gradient, with numbers being highest in the south and lowest in the north. Based on camera-trap surveys, together with track counts, and in the light of prey densities, the tiger population is estimated to be lower, at around 220-230 tigers in the Bangladeshi part and another 65-70 in the Indian part.
What can we do to protect the Sundarbans?
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. I also 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.

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