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     Volume 9 Issue 46| December 03, 2010 |

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Special Feature


The two-day international conference on tigers, held in Russia on November 23, was attended by the heads of governments, ministers and experts from 13 countries having tigers' habitat. It has called for global attention on the rapidly dwindling number of tigers all over the world, foreshadowing its extinction in the near future. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in her address at the conference, highlighted the vulnerability of the Bengal tigers of the Sundarbans and her government's initiatives to deal with the threats. Despite all the political rhetoric, can we really stop the extinction of these majestic animals?

Rifat Munim

The Bangladesh side of the Sundarbans is the largest as well as the only mangrove
forest that is home to the Bengal tigers.

The Bengal tiger would have suited William Blake's imagination the most. The tiger, for its eyes that literally burn 'bright' and metaphorically hint at its kingly stature, lighted the imagination of Blake, the first of the English romantic poets. Its fearless movement into the dreadful 'forest of the night' led the poet to construct it into a potential symbol for power and menace at the same time. Sadly enough, instead of strengthening its stature as the jungle king, the Bengal subspecies of tiger, which is native to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar, is falling victim to a more menacing species called the homo sapiens.

According to a World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) study published recently, tigers, one of the world's largest big cat populations, are among the most endangered species, with only an estimated 3,200 remaining in the world whereas the number was as high as one lakh about one hundred years ago. Among the nine subspecies of tigers, three have already gone extinct. The existing six subspecies are also under serious threat of extinction for a number of man-made interventions. As for the Bengal tigers, the WWF study says that the tigers inhabiting the Bangladesh side of the Sundarbans are the most vulnerable because of the rising sea levels that may likely destroy their habitat along the Sundarbans coast.

Terming the WWF study about the vulnerability of the Sundarbans tigers a prediction, Professor Anwarul Islam of Zoology department at Dhaka University says that besides the extrinsic threat of climate change which may or may not come true in 100 years, the tigers as well as the whole ecological balance of the Sundarbans are more likely to be disturbed for reasons which are very intrinsic to the forest. By intrinsic reasons, Professor Islam means a number of man-made interventions such as tiger and deer poaching, deforestation and loss of meadows. In addition to the man-made calamities, he also mentions the havocs wreaked by floods and cyclones on the forest.

Poaching of tigers is rampant in the Sundarbans and the criminals go unpunished in most of the cases.

The Sundarbans, a UNESCO world heritage site, is not only the largest but also the only mangrove forest that is inhabited by tigers. More importantly, as a single unit area, it has the largest concentration of tigers, which experts believe may vary between 300 and 500. These facts account for the utmost significance of the Sundarbans. But despite all the significance and the concentration of the largest number of tigers, the Sundarbans has the smallest home range (the spaces that the tigers move between) for an individual tiger, which is not more than 12 square kilometres. Even this small home range is likely to dwindle in the years to come since poachers and robbers are establishing their foothold more firmly into the heart of the forest, informs Professor Islam.

There are other reasons why conserving the Sundarbans tigers should be given utmost priority. According to a BBC report based on a study by US Fish and Wildlife Service, tigers prowling the mangrove forests of Bangladesh are about half the weight of other wild Bengal tigers in South Asia. The study also says that the average weight of female tigers in the Sundarbans is 76.7kg whereas other wild Bengal tigers in the region tip the scales at 138.2 kg on average. Referring to the BBC report, Professor Islam says, “Given the smaller size of our tigers as a result of small home range and other factors, it is not possible to bring Bengal tigers from other regions to fill in the vacuum when there will be a real dearth of tigers, because those from other regions will not be able to adapt to a comparatively smaller home range of a mangrove forest.” So stern measures should be taken immediately before things go out of control, he adds.

However, Khasru Chowdhury, a noted tiger expert, negates the possibility of large-scale encroachment because of the forest's natural capacity of regeneration. He rather stresses the necessity of containing the rampant act of poaching both the tigers and deer, because the scarcity of deer in the forest will cut down the number of the tigers' prey thus turning the ecological balance upside down. But he is very critical of growing shrimp cultivation in the adjacent areas of the forest.

“Any kind of substantial change in the usable land of the forest is called deforestation. Seen from this perspective, not only felling trees, but also the change in the soil of the forest caused by the increasing shrimp cultivation over the past few years in the region should be considered deforestation,” he says.

The Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh (WTB) has also identified a number of reasons that have been badly affecting the tigers' life cycle. Apart from the threats posed by the poachers and deforestation in its literal and broader sense, the WTB points out several inadequacies that hamper a sincere effort to prevent extinction. This includes an absence of commendable research and a well-equipped forest department with necessary technical know-how and manpower. There is also a lack of employment opportunities in the adjacent eight Upazilas of the forests where at least three and a half lakh families live. More than half the families, in some way or other, depend on the Sundarbans for their livelihoods. Most of these people are Bawalis (wood cutters/golpatta collectors), fishermen, crab and shell collectors, Mawalis (honey collectors) and shrimp fry collectors. According to a WTB study, about 12,000 deer are killed every year. The study well explains why tigers often leave the forest and invade the villages in search of food only to get killed by the villagers eventually, even though a fragile forest department, in an attempt to hide its shameful futility, would always have us believe that a sudden increase in tigers' number forces them to enter localities. Obviously massive awareness campaigns have to be carried out to make villagers understand the importance of keeping these endangered animals alive.

About 12 thousand deer are killed every year triggering a change in the ecosystem
that is most likely to affect the tigers.

Professor Islam, who is also the chief executive of the WTB, says, “At least fifty tigers entered the villages of India in the past ten years, but not a single of those were killed, rather tranquillised jointly by the villagers and their forest department. In sharp contrast, all of our tigers in the similar events, even though they didn't kill any humans, were killed.”

About the poorly equipped Bangladesh Forest Department, he says, “If the forest department was well-trained and equipped, then the wildlife traffickers and people responsible for deforestation would have easily been caught and punished. Then think of the dearth of good researches. Our forest officials do not have any database regarding the animals, let alone the update of how many deer and tigers are killed every year.”

Meanwhile, in line with the Global Tiger Workshop (organised by World Bank and Global Tiger Initiative) held in Kathmundu last year; and the 1st Asian Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation held in Thailand, the Bangladesh government has already taken some initiatives. The initiatives include a nine-year-long Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan; formation of a tiger response team involving the villagers and officials of the forest department to deal with tiger-human conflict; protecting wildlife from traffickers and poachers; containing deforestation and substantial monetary compensation if people are attacked by tigers.

The government is also about to launch a 271 crore project funded by WB and a 104 crore project funded by the European Union. Apart from these, various international organisations have agreed to allocate a total of 3,33 million US dollars for the 13 countries that attended the two-day conference in Russia last month.

While a lot of financial support is on the cards to protect the endangered species from extinction, experts are of the opinion that without the government's strong will nothing can be achieved. Professor Islam says,

“First of all, the Bangladesh Forest Department must be restructured completely. It has to build up the capacity of its wild life wing with a very well trained as well as equipped manpower. Then the government should initiate a separate as well as independent authority under the ministry of Environment and Forest which will deal exclusively with the Sundarbans.”

“Full-fledged researches must be launched on the part of the government to have a complete database providing all the latest information regarding the wildlife.”

“A mass campaign must be launched to involve the people with the whole process to mitigate the tiger-human conflict. And employment opportunities must be created in the region.”

Amending the existing Wildlife Conservation Act, 1974, which has provisions of maximum two years of imprisonment for a poacher or smuggler alongside a penalty amounting to Tk 2,000, is a welcome approach on the part of the government. The new law, suggesting the highest life imprisonment for those who repeatedly poach animals, has already been approved by the cabinet and now awaits the parliament's nod.

“I have never heard of a poacher's punishment as per the existing law. Then what is the point of a new law altogether? All we need is the enforcement of the laws,” concludes Professor Islam.


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