Left-Right: The dwindling prey.The endangered species.
Tiger, symbol of the beast and beauty, is a threatened species worldwide. Recent estimate shows that tigers only occupy 7% of their historic Asian range and about 4000 are left in the wild (Dinerstein et al. 2007). Aside from this alarming tiger status worldwide, Bangladesh possesses a relatively good number of them, mostly concentrated in the Sundarbans. Joint India and Bangladesh tiger census-2004 (using pugmark counting) estimated that there are 419 (121 male and 298 female) tigers in Bangladesh Sundarbans. The number may vary, as many scientists are sceptical about the accuracy of pugmark counting. However, it is beyond doubt that the size of the tiger population in the Bangladesh Sundarbans would be between 300-500. Being the biggest member of the cat family the Bengal tiger is popularly known as Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) for its unique hunting behaviour and spectacular physical appearance.
Tiger stands at the top of the food pyramid and thus requires large areas to support its viable populations which in turn help to protect wide array of biodiversity that share their habitat. Loss of tiger, therefore, may reduce ecosystem integrity through disrupting food web and consequently erode ecosystems' natural ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Besides its vigorous presence in the nature, tiger is also deeply embedded in our society and culture, which is pronouncedly manifested by its being the national animal of Bangladesh. In our society tiger is seen as a symbol of courage and power to confront all odds. Any work in favour of humanity and justice is acknowledged as 'Tigers' Work' and the person behind such works is designated as 'Son of Tiger' in our conventional way of expression.
For centuries tiger has been playing an important role in enriching our literature and remain a central character in many folk tales like Gazir gan, Bonbibir kotha etc. Tiger's presence in our political culture is also evident. Great politician A.K Fuzlul Huq is called the 'Tiger of Bengal' for his outstanding contribution in favour of humanity. Other than abstract presence in our life and culture, tiger symbol also appears inspirational by decorating many of our national agencies. The emblem of the East Bengal Regiment, which fought for country's liberation, the logo of the national cricket team, the hologram in national currency are some of the examples of using tiger symbol for its uniqueness. But in spite of such ecological and social services tigers are threatened in Bangladesh by direct loss, prey depletion and habitat degradation.
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. 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 living. 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. Obviously their activities are causing harm to the forest, but researches explore that commercial extraction by outside people through managing 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 colleting forest resources more or less sustainably using their traditional knowledge. Thus, the most evident threat to tiger habitat is unsustainable commercial extraction of the forest resources that degrades the habitat quality.
In addition, overexploitation of fishery resources, pollution form fishing and cargo boats, waste spillage from Mongla sea port and indiscriminate harvesting of crabs and snails are responsible for degradation of marine environment and thereby the whole ecosystem. Reduction of freshwater supply and distribution is another important issue that affects habitat quality. In the Sundarbans fresh water supply has been decreasing since the commissioning of Farakka barrage in 1975. Decreased fresh water supply in the western part is evident (about 60% in the Sibsa river) and therefore increased siltation and disconnection of several southern distributaries are contributing to increased salinity.
Climate change is another important attribute of salinity increase and sea level rise. Using most conservative rate of 4cm per decade Sea Level Rise (consistent with IPCC 4AR) it is observed that the Sundarbans will realise a 28cm sea level rise by the year 2070 and therefore 50% area of the Sundarbans will be lost. Climate change is also disrupting the rainfall pattern which in turn unfavourably regulating the salinity regime in the Sundarbans. The combined impact of increased inundation by the sea and increased salinity levels, particularly in the dry season, could affect structure and composition of the forest and thus the distribution of the prey and tigers.
Climate change induced cyclones might be the most destructive for the Sundarbans. Two consecutive cyclones (Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2009) caused huge damage to the forest. Still there is no estimate on how much area and resources were affected by Sidr and Aila but Forest Department claims that two thirds of the Sundarbans (mostly in the western part) was more or less affected by the Sidr. There is no statistics on how many tigers died in these cyclones but it would be quite a few in number. Yet, food shortage and habitat destruction are significant that forced tigers to stray in nearby villages.
Tiger straying has been increased after Aila due to shortage of fresh water and food, many experts argue. Moreover, Sidr and Aila damaged huge tree and a substantial portion of the forest became tree cover less. Hence, in the hot weather tiger suffers from lack of cool shade. Recent tiger straying trend implies that highest number of straying occurred during warm season (after April), and in the west part of the Sundarbans, which is indicative of having a close relation to loss of tree cover, shortage of fresh water and overall habitat degradation.
Even though tiger poaching and associated trade are still not at an alarming stage in Bangladesh, but the geographical position of Bangladesh between India and Myanmar, where tiger poaching is a common phenomenon, increases the threat to the tiger population. There is a huge demand of tiger parts in China for medicine along with skin and teeth that allure the poachers to kill tigers and sell in the black market. Little is known about the market size of tiger products, but the market volume would be of several million dollars, although trade on tiger parts is prohibited under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Bangladesh approved CITES in 1982.
Prey depletion has become a serious threat to the tiger population in recent times. The size of the tiger population largely depends on size and suitability of the prey population. The main prey for tiger in the Sundarbans is spotted deer (Axis axis) and to some extent wild boar (Sus scrofa). Snaring is a common practice in Sundarbans to catch spotted deer. Even though Bangladesh wildlife preservation act 1973 (amended in 1974) has declared snaring of spotted deer as illegal and fixed some penalties, but it is trifling compared to the market price of a deer.
Newspapers frequently publish report about illegal deer meat market in the Sundarbans' adjacent areas and according to report it is quite easy to collect deer meat due to weakness and non-implementation of law. A poacher can easily earn 20000 taka (1 kilo deer meat is sold at 200-300 taka plus the price of skin and horns) from a deer; on the contrary, he has to pay at best 2000 taka or has to suffer 6 months to 2 years imprisonment according to the law. It is therefore clear that the economic incentives from a poaching outweigh the deterrents that a poacher faces.
In spite of some inconsistencies it is learnt that Bangladesh Government has reviewed the wildlife act and prepared a new act in 2010 (it will be submitted to the parliament soon for approval as a law) keeping provision of higher penalties for intentional wildlife killing (if any one kill any tiger intentionally or for commercial purpose he has to pay highest half million taka with subject to imprisonment of 12 years) or trading.
On the other hand, government has enacted new 'Spotted Deer Farming Policy' in 2009. Experts claim that this policy will eventually increase spotted deer poaching. Since the policy has allowed farming and trading of farmed deer, the poacher will take advantage of the policy and catch spotted deer from the Sundarbans and market those in the name of farmed deer.
A tiger may also die from diseases, even though in Bangladesh there has been no research in this area. We did not hear about tiger diseases until the death of 'Jamtolar Rani' (tiger that lived at Jamtola in Kotka). However, many claim that the tiger died because of radio-collar experiment. Drawing examples from many countries it is found that wild tigers have died from Canine Distemper (Appel and Summers 1995). Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is also widespread amongst wild felids and has been found present in tigers (Olmsted et al. 1992). Prey diseases are also another cause of tiger diseases. Sometimes cattle diseases may disseminate to tiger through its straying the village. Another potential threat to tiger is inbreeding depression.
Some of the above-mentioned causes results into invading (straying) by tigers of Sundarban adjacent villages and kill humans and livestock and eventually face death at the hands of the villagers. Probably tiger-human conflict and associated retribution killing in Sundarbans is the highest in number among the entire tiger habitat in the world. Forest Department records show that up to three tigers are eliminated each year by retribution killing. Yet, tiger straying has increased recently and consequently tiger death has also increased. Noticeably, livestock depredation and human killing is the strongest argument for retribution killing.
However, most of the human-killings by tigers occur when people enter into the forest for collecting forest resources. On average 20-30 people are killed each year by tigers according to FD records. Such human killing affects many families by losing only earning member, but it is undeniable that the Sundarbans is still well stocked due to the presence of tiger. There is a common perception among the local people that tiger is playing more important role than forest department to protect the Sundarbans.
World heritage site, the Sundarbans provides a number of ecological services such as (1) trapping of sediment and land formation, (2) protection of human lives and habitation from regular cyclones, (3) acting as a nursery for fish and other aquatic life, (4) oxygen production, (5) waste recycling, (6) timber production, (7) supply of food and building materials, and (8) carbon cycling (Biswas et al. 2007; Islam and Peterson 2008). Evidently, tiger is the principal protector of the Sundarbans. We have to save the tigers just not only for the biodiversity protection but also to safeguard our national identity. Good news is that our government also acknowledges the importance of tiger and has prepared Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan 2009-2017 to conserve this national pride. However, the real challenge is to implement the action plan by reconciling the competing interests of the multiple stakeholders while making a safe and healthy habitat for tigers.
The writer is a researcher at Unnayan Onneshan (a progressive policy research organisation based in Dhaka). E-mail: email@example.com