Experts urge everyone to keep an optimistic approach towards the rising number of tigers in Bangladesh
Although a few years ago the national animal of Bangladesh, the Royal Bengal Tiger, was incongruous in comparison to the actual presence, with active campaigning and initiatives, the situation has started to shift following the country’s pledge with thirteen other countries to double the number of wild tigers by 2022.
The country conducted its first tiger census in 2015, when the number stood at an estimated population of 83 to 130 tigers. The latest census of 2018 says that Bangladesh has 114 tigers right now. The country needs to have 52 more tigers to fulfil the target.
Although it is quite impossible to achieve the target given the current pace of tiger population growth, experts said Bangladesh should be commended for its efforts ahead of International Tiger Day on Thursday.
Anwarul Islam, former professor of Department of Zoology at the University of Dhaka, said: “With such a heavy population density and the way people of that region are completely dependent on Sundarbans for livelihood, it’s remarkable that we are able to increase the tiger population in the first place.”
Prof Anwar said: “We view tigers as a ferocious animal, but they do not have a natural tendency to invade localities and engage in conflict with humans. It’s when humans proceed into their territory for livelihood purposes they become the prey of the tigers.”
“People in the coastal region always have had to fight with tigers in order to live there,” he added.
Apart from human conflict, the tiger population is facing another grave challenge as their habitat, the Sundarbans, is facing the adverse impacts of global climate change.
The frequency of natural disasters has increased in the past few years, which has caused flooding and created a scarcity of drinking water sources for the pristine animals of the Ganges Delta.
Mihir Kumar Do, forest conservator of Khulna region, said: “Salinity is a big problem in the Sundarbans region. After Cyclone Yaas hit the country, the drinking ponds for the tigers were completely inundated with saline water up to 12-15ft.”
An approach towards ‘conservation’ from ‘endangered’
According to Forest Department sources, between 2001 and 2020, altogether 38 tigers died in the Sundarbans-- 22 in the East Division and 16 in the West Division.
Some of the tigers died at the hands of poachers, some died through lynching, some perished in storms and tidal surges while some died of old age, the sources added.
In the past few years, the number of people who were killed in conflict with tigers also decreased.
According to the Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan (BTAP) 2018-2027, in 2015 two people were injured but nobody died in conflict with tigers, whereas between 2010-2012, 35 people died on average every year.
Mihir Kumar said: "Right now, 49 teams are present in the villages who are trained to capture tigers and send them back to the locality and we have already seen some promising results."
The forest department has also sent a proposal to the government to initiate the third phase of tiger monitoring, to install fencing with nylon ropes around the localities to impede the entry of tigers.
Why is climate change a factor?
The Sundarbans' floor is spread throughout Bangladesh and India and varies from 3ft to 6.9 ft above sea level. The area gets submerged frequently in the flooding season and also during catastrophic natural disasters.
On January 19, a tiger was spotted on the banks of the Chuna river in the Munshiganj Kolabari area under Satkhira district in the western Sundarbans.
According to the local people, the tiger stayed in the canal for a while to drink water and then went deeper into the forest again.
Dr Sharif Mukul, honorary research assistant professor at Florida International University, said: “When fresh water ponds get sunk with saline water, the tigers face a scarcity of water. This is a direct impact of climate change on the living condition of our tigers. In such a situation, human-tiger conflict is anticipated.”
Dr Mukul, who is also the researcher who predicted in his research in 2019 that tigers would become extinct in Bangladesh due to lack of habitability, pointed out that elements of climate change such as increasing water salinity, sea-level rise, cumulative forest coverage -- have an impact on the wellbeing of tigers.
“The effect of climate change on the tiger population has not been addressed in the BTAP properly. Because climate change will have an overall impact on the ecosystem of climate change, not just the tigers but the population of deers, who are the main source of food for the tigers can also be affected - the same goes for the lower animals of the food chain,” he added.
On the other hand, Prof Anwar believes that humans and animals are prone to adapt to the growing ecological system. It will not have a monumental effect on the tiger population number.
Mass industrialization to trigger adverse impact
Even though the government's effort to conserve tigers has received praise from national and international watchdogs, the constant initiatives at heavy industrialization near the Sundarbans area have also raised questions about the credibility of their intention.
The Ministry of Environment and Forestry has stipulated a directive that no industrial activity can take place within 10 kilometres of the Sundarbans forest reserve, which is designated as an ecologically critical area (ECA).
But more than 150 industrial units were already approved in Satkhira, Khulna, and Bagerhat districts before these rules came into force.
The industrial belt includes red listed industries like cement, petrochemical refinery, gas bottling plants, leather processing plants and on top of that, the much controversial Rampal Power Plant is also situated within close proximity of the Sundarbans.
Forest expert Mihir Kumar refrained from commenting on this topic saying it was a matter of the Department of Environment.
Huge industrialization is bound to have an effect on the environment and natural ecosystem of the Sundarbans along with the living conditions of the people and animals, who are surrounded by this area, said Dr Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, professor of the Environmental Science Discipline at Khulna University.
According to the academic, the pollutants released from the industries have multi-fold impacts on the tiger habitat.
"The harmful chemicals which will be released from the wastes will decrease the natural minerals from soil, water and will contaminate them. We might see some visible impacts in future when the industries become fully operational."