Save tiger, save the Sundarbans | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 20, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

Save tiger, save the Sundarbans

Save tiger, save the Sundarbans

WHILE addressing the inaugural ceremony of the 2nd Global Tiger Stocktaking Conference 2014 in Dhaka, Prime Minister Sk. Hasina has appealed to the global communities to come forward for saving the tigers worldwide by saving the nature.  

In Bangladesh Sundarbans is the only abode of Royal Bengal Tigers.Unhappily, Sunderban's Royal Bengal Tiger is fast becoming extinct, disappearing faster than our people would have expected. Inside the forest these tigers are succumbing to poaching and relentless pressure of human population growth. No more than 4000 of the majestic carnivores remain on the planet, as a study suggests. But the actual number on the Bangladesh side would not be more than 440, as some unofficial estimate reveals.  Unless something spectacular is done to reverse the trend, tigers will be seen only in captivity, prowling in zoos or performing in circuses. The tigers of nature will be gone forever, their glory surviving merely in storybooks, films and in dreams.      

Worse, as these forest officials told me only about 500-600 employees, mostly guards are keeping watch over 4 ranges comprising 2300 sq mile forested area divided in 4 ranges namely, Khulna, Satkhira, Sharonkhola and Chadpai. With inadequate manpower, firearms, and lack of fast moving river vehicles like launches and trawlers, they can ill-afford to protect the potential resources of the Sunderbans.  A large chunk of people of Bagerhat , Khulna and specially,  about 18 lakh people of Satkhira residing in the border belts of the Sunderbans, many of them working as Bawali (golpata and wood cutter), Mawali ( honey collector)and Jawali (fishermen) depend on the Sunderbans for their livelihood  and not infrequently,  these people backed by armed poachers and greedy smugglers kill the majestic animal –Royal Bengal Tigers, because their pelts and body parts fetch  princely prices on the black market.  

The UN–sponsored study conducted by the School of Oceanographic Studies at  Jadavpur  University (SOS), Kolkata points out that large adjoining areas surrounding the Sundarbans including West Bengal and Bangladesh   may be severely affected as early as 2020 because the Sundarbans –the world's largest delta and gene pool that straddles the region –is on the verge of destruction. The fallout, it is predicted, is not just wide-ranging but frightening. While the rising sea level and soil erosion would submerge large swathes of land rendering thousands living nearer the forest homeless, vast areas of West Bengal and Bangladesh on the coastline would be under the constant threat of cyclones, gales and storms. The diverse marine life - river sharks, red crabs, shrimps, snakes –uniquely adapted to the saline water would be threatened, drastically affecting the food chain.. Entire fisheries would be washed out and consumption of prawns would be cut by at least 40 per cent. Most worryingly, the disappearance of the largest carbon sink in the region would increase global warming and ultimately change the climate of South-east Asia. All these portents point to the fact that human ecosystem may not eventually be sustainable in the Sunderbans.

“There is a conflict between conservation and  development”,  so says Sugato Hazra who spearheaded a three year study sponsored by the Union Ministry of forests and Environment, India  and Winrock Internationl, a US-based NGO. Although the Sundarbans was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1984, no spectacular effort other than stray focus on Royal Bengal Tiger, either by world community or by the governments in both the parts of the sub-continent was taken up.

Speaking about protecting the Sunderbans or conserving the tigers, deer population and marine resources by imposing embargo on human movement inside the forest without creating alternative means of living for the people residing in the border areas of the Sunderbans would be a gigantic challenge. On the other hand, it is true that over fishing and over exploitation of plant, wildlife and marine resources are placing increasing and irreplaceable amount of stress on the viability of the delicate ecosystem of the Sundarbans. During my visit to the Sunderbans, I saw hundreds and thousands of small fishing boats in the Shela river, heedless of the warnings of cyclones or storms engaged mainly in catching shrimp fries and in the process other fries or small fish that come up are discarded dead or alive because shrimp fries fetch higher price than other catches.  

The main thrust of the country's effort is to build a national management strategy for tigers. The painstaking effort must focus on collecting data on diet, pack behaviour, gene pool and habitat. Ironically, what makes the tiger so vulnerable to humans is its unshakeable grip on human imagination. Given the voracious human appetite for land,  forest resources like wood, golpata, honey and unrestricted exploitation of  different species of fish through shrimp culture near the coastal belt,  keeping the tigers or other wild life and plants species  in the tranquil zone of the forest would be nothing short of a miracle. Unless something dramatic is done to reverse the trend, tigers will be seen only in captivity, prowling in zoos, or performing in circuses. The wild tigers will be gone forever, their glory merely surviving in storybooks, on film and in dreams.

Most shockingly, mainly because of human assault in the Sundarbans, 64 species of vertebrate animal, 40 species of mammal, 21 species of reptiles and 23 species of fish have disappeared. And a bigger threat is now waiting in the wings. With the construction of a power plant at Rampal, only 14 km off the edges of the forest and 4 km from the declared ecologically critical area along with industrialization in the adjoining places, the outskirts of the Sunderbans will lose its ecological balance affecting the lives of humans, plants and animals dependent on the bounty of the Sundarbans. Much to our concern, the government's initiative to set up a power plant has drawn many investors  in the adjacent areas of the proposed power plant  to buy land and set up industries there in the coming days. The overriding fear is that the exclusive flora and fauna and the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger may disappear in the process of industrialization.

The writer is a columnist for The Daily Star.

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