One hundred and fourteen.
That is the number of Royal Bengal Tigers, also known as Panthera Tigris Tigris, surviving in their natural habitat on the Sundarbans’ Bangladesh side. The forest covers parts of India’s West Bengal as well, and according to the latest estimate, the number of tigers there is 97, as of now.
The figures, which look ominous, are an improvement on what they used to be a decade ago. The trifecta effects of forest encroachment, lack of food sources, and poaching resulted in the number of tigers going down to below 100.
The Sundarbans once had the largest number of tigers in the world in a single place. However, due to deforestation and poaching, these majestic wild cats have been identified as an 'endangered' species.
Since 2010, when the governments of the countries with tiger habitats first organised the Global Tiger Summit in Russia, the single goal was to bring tigers back from being on the brink of extinction. The pledge was reiterated when the second version of the summit took place in Dhaka in 2014, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the chair.
The push paid off, massively.
In the recent assessment released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species last week, the global tiger population has stabilised and potentially increased.
The assessment, led by Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, suggested a potential 40 percent increase in tiger numbers, from 3,200 in 2015 to 4,500 in 2022, despite extreme threats.
This improvement in numbers, according to Panthera, represents the first potential climb in the species’ numbers in decades, as the world is going to observe World Tiger Day on Friday, Jul 29, with the theme- “Tiger is our pride, it’s everyone's responsibility to protect them. "
IS BANGLADESH FARING BETTER IN PRESERVING TIGERS?
In short, it’s hard to say.
Mihir Kumar Dey, the forest conservator in the Khulna region, said the government is doing its best by introducing a three-year-long ‘Sundarbans Tiger Conservation’ project, that includes the regular estimation of tigers, ensuring food sources and safe habitats. The project will be implemented in the eastern and western regions of the Sundarbans tiger range that include three administrative districts - Bagerhat, Khulna and Satkhira.
Apparently, the Forest Department succeeded in implementing the first part of the project.
The latest count estimates there were 114 tigers in 2018 — an increase of eight since the 2015 tiger survey.
Mihir said the work for the latest tiger census and research about tiger lifestyle will also kick off in the next dry season.
The department, however, may not have got there quite yet in nailing down the second part- ensuring food sources and safe habitats.
Lately, reports of tigers coming down to localities close to the forest looking for food and recovery of tiger hides from poachers soared significantly.
A tiger roamed the vicinity around Khejurbaria village under Bagerhat’s Sharankhola Upazila, on the lap of Sundarbans since May 5 for about a week, forcing the people in the village and surrounding areas to live in fear.
Locals said as the Bhola river, which is in between the village and the forest, has been drying up, it actually became easier for wild animals from the forest to come and look for food in the human habitats.
Nirmal Kumar Pal, divisional forest officer of the Department of Wildlife Management and Nature Conservation, agreed with the theory.
“As the rivers and canals between the forest and the human habitats are being dried and filled up, wild animals are moving into the locality easily,” he said.
On Mar 31 and Apr 24, a buffalo and a cow were attacked by tigers at Dakshin Rajapur village and Dhansagar villages under the same Upazila respectively.
Md Asaduzzaman, Forest Department’s Sundarbans Sharankhola station officer, said recently they were observing not only tigers but also deer, pythons, crocodiles and wild boars coming down to the localities nearby in search of food.
“If we catch them, we release them in the forest later on,” he said.
But wild animal experts have been saying it is not only the food that is driving the tigers near human habitats.
Explaining the trend, Prof AK Fazlul Haque, a teacher and researcher at Khulna University's forest and technology discipline, posited: "In the forest, a tigress chases away her cubs after they grow up. The cubs look for their own territories to dominate and control. Some of such young tigers may have chosen locality-adjacent forests as their preferred territories and from time to time, people from the nearby villages see them.”
He, however, doesn’t deny the fact that the source of food in the forest is becoming scarce because of rampant poaching.
“Poachers have been killing deer, tigers’ main source of food, at a staggering level. No wonder the tigers will venture out into human habitats to look for food since they can’t find it in their own habitat.”
Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, a professor in the environmental science department of the same university, has another theory.
He said human habitats have been encroaching onto the forest and making the tigers more defensive and territorial about their habitats, resulting in them showing up at human habitats.
He concurred with his colleague that poachers, responsible for killing deer and other animals, are single-handedly destroying the forest’s food chain.
Hawladar Azad Kabir, officer-in-charge of Karamjal Wildlife Breeding Centre, said tigers usually lose their canines when they are 12-13 years old, which makes them look for easy prey like domesticated animals.
Forest Conservator Mihir denies all these.
“Not only me but also tourists who visit the Sundarbans have seen an abundance of food supplies in the forest. I wouldn’t say poaching has been stopped completely, but it isn't as rampant as it used to be,” he said.
He also has his own theory of why the tigers are roaming around human localities.
"Due to climate change, the water level is increasing, and when a flood hits, water goes deeper inside the forest than it used to be, which is forcing tigers to find a safe territory to roam and look for fodder. We [the forest department] will build 12 mounds for the tigers to live and take shelter, deep in the forest,” he said.
Professor Anwarul Qadir, executive director of the Sundarbans Academy, put the onus on the Forest Department to stop the trend of wild animals coming down to human territories.
“The department must act quickly to prevent this trend of wild animals roaming freely in human localities,” he said.
Conservator Mihir said a plan has been drawn up to cast a wide net, covering an area of 60 km in the areas where the river and canals of the Sundarbans have dried up, to prevent wild animals from coming down to localities.
According to him, the Indian Forest Department benefited from the netting in their Sundarbans as well.
The camera trapping system of the census estimated the number of Royal Bengal Tigers in the Sundarbans at 105 in 2015, which rose to 114 in the latest census in 2018.
[Writing In English by Adil Mahmood, editing by Biswadip Das]