Sunday, March 2, 2008 (Kolkata)
The Sunderban forests are among the last bastions of the Royal Bengal Tiger but over the years, human pressure has been threatening this habitat.
As efforts are made to reduce man-tiger conflict, another threat is looming over the horizon, the threat of global warming.
A tigress strayed into Deulbari village in the Sunderbans on February 18. She had entered the village the night before tried to escape when daylight dawned. But with thousands of villagers chasing her, she climbed up a tree.
Forest officials then shot her with a tranquiliser but before the dart could take effect, unruly villagers dragged her down, villagers who would rather that the tigress was killed than rescued.
”The area was not as smooth an operation because this area is not used to tiger straying. I think in the last 10-15 years, there are no incidents of tiger straying here. So people were not used to it. And because there is not too much straying in this part of Sunderbans, we were also not having our teams in this side of Sunderban and it took us some time for our teams to reach there,” said Pradeep Vyas, Joint Director, Sunderbans Biosphere Reserve.
This story of man-animal conflict had a happy ending. The tigress was rescued and set free. But Deulbari brought back the nightmare of July 2001 when villagers of Pakhiralaya trapped a tiger and hacked it to death. Pakhiralay has never been repeated since and 22 straying tigers have been rescued but Deulbari almost broke that record.
One of the things that the Forest Department has done to reduce man-animal conflict is put up these nets along 45 km of the Sunderbans borders, particularly in areas where villages are adjoining or lying across the river.
The other step is the setting up of Forest Protection Committees (FPC) in villages along the tiger habitat fringe. All villagers are members and the principle is – you don’t disturb the tiger habitat in search of a livelihood and in return, the forest department will help you find alternatives. The alternatives on offer — loans for poultry, piggery and fishing.
”The Forest Department has stood by us, by the poor villager. Now none of us go to the forest for
wood. If a tiger or some other animal like deer strays near our village, we immediately inform the forest department. We don’t kill animals anymore,” said Anjali Mondal, Villager.
”We have brought people on our side. Now people protect the tiger and the habitat because it benefits them. Officers will come and go but these people will stay and they will be the mainstay,” said Robin Banerjee, Forest Ranger.
The biggest question before the Sunderbans, however, is how many tigers does it have. The 2004 census by the method of counting pugmarks put the population at 274. But the new census method of camera trapping and studying the prey base suggests, say experts, a much lower figure. The census, by the Wildlife Institute of India, is still under way and Sunderbans tiger experts are non-committal about its outcome.
”I would like to correct one thing, that is, when we say 274 tigers, there is a 15 to 20 per cent variation possible. As for figures, I would not like to go into that because if I guess it will be the same mistake of going for another figure without scientific back-up,” said Pradeep Vyas, Joint Director, Sunderbans Bioshpere Reserve.
The numbers should be out sooner rather than later. But whatever the population, there is no denying that the alarm bells are ringing for the Royal Bengal tiger and near-tragedies like Deulbari don’t help the cause of conserving the big cat.
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