The Forest Department is wasting donor money by enlisting a non-government organization (NGO) to conduct a tiger survey despite it already possessing the necessary expertise and equipment.
The most recent Bengal Tiger Census published in 2015 had required the Forest Department to purchase various instruments and train its officials.
It was conducted under a regional wildlife protection project funded by the World Bank, and recorded 106 tigers in the Bangladesh part of the Sundarbans using the camera trap method.
The two-month second phase of the census began on February 13 in the Kotka-Kochikhali and Neelkomol parts of the forest, and is being led by the NGO “Wild Team”.
When asked about the necessity of engaging an NGO despite having the necessary equipment and expertise in-house, project director Md Amir Hossain Chowdhury said: “No matter who gives the money, we want the work.”
Forest Department insiders, however, claimed money was the main motivation behind the tie-up and said the so-called census had failed to ascertain the true number of tigers as the work had been going on irregularly.
The government decided to conduct a tiger census biennially as instructed by the Tiger Conservation Coordination Committee of the forest department in 2015.
Wild Team has been conducting the study under USAID-funded “Bagh Activities” with the assistance of the forest department using the camera trap method.
“We are currently conducting the survey in two areas of the forest,” said Amir, who is also the conservator of the forest’s Khulna zone. “We have done the same in another part of Sundarbans a year ago. We will publish our findings in 2019.”
A senior Forest Department official who wished to remain anonymous claimed the report will be published next year using the old data.
“It is impossible to ascertain the number and condition of the tiger population with such a study,” the official told Dhaka Tribune.
The first phase of the survey project was conducted from November 2016 to March 2017 in the west zone of the forest. Around 300 camera units were used to conduct the survey in Koikhali tiger hotspots in the mangrove forest.
In the current phase, the survey team is using 478 cameras at 239 different points in east zone.
When asked how they would publish a rational figure by using old data, Amir said: “It will not be a problem.”
However, during the first phase, Md Sayeed Ali, the then divisional forest officer of Sundarbans west zone, had said that it was not a complete survey that can determine the number of tigers.
“It will help us understand the density of the tiger population in our country,” he said.
Professionals involved with the country’s wildlife management sector have expressed concerns over this type of initiative, claiming it will only create confusion.
Jahangirnagar University’s zoology teacher Prof Monirul H Khan told the Dhaka Tribune that a census of a key forest species should not be done on a project basis where everything is dependent on fund availability and spending.
“Important projects such as this one should be implemented under the government’s core conservation program,” he said.
The former country representative of International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh, Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmad, described the current approach as “sporadic”.
“What we need is continuous monitoring of the flora and fauna through census and other mechanisms,” he said.
Ishtiaq, who is also a former chief conservator of Sundarbans, said the government was unaware of the ratio of male to female tigers, their cubs, or the level of threat they face. “Such information is very urgent for taking appropriate tiger conservation initiatives,” he said.
Wild Team chief Prof Anwarul Islam could not be reached for comments despite repeated attempts.
Latest official tiger figure
The latest study titled “Tiger Abundance in Bangladesh Sundarbans” was conducted between 2013 and 2014 by the Forest Department, and put the number of tigers in Bangladesh at 106. The census result was published in 2015.
The study used camera trapping under a regional wildlife protection project funded by the World Bank for both Bangladesh and Indian portions of the Sundarbans.
The study was conducted in three areas: Kotka-Kochikhali (360 square kilometres), Koikhali (365 sq km) and Neelkomol (624 sq km).
The report which accompanied the survey blamed the drastic decline of the tiger population in Bangladesh from a 2008 survey figure of 440 on human interventions.
These included excessive navigation inside the Sundarbans, poaching, and the development of industrial infrastructures in and around the forest.
There was an allegation that the 2013-14 survey used “live bait” to lure the tigers before the cameras, which went against the direction of the Bangladesh Wildlife Protection and Safety Act 2012.
According to government statistics, the Sundarbans covers an area of 6,017 sq km, equal to 4.07% of the total landmass of the country and 40% of Bangladesh’s forest land.
It is home to 334 species of trees, shrubs and epiphytes, and 269 species of wild animals.
A total of 1,397 sq km of the Sundarbans, divided into three sanctuaries, has been declared a World Heritage Site.