Program head of World Wildlife Fund says Bengal tigers on the brink of extinction

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Program head of World Wildlife Fund says Bengal tigers on the brink of extinction

Betsy Cohen
Issue date: 12/2/09

12/2/09 – Bengal tigers, native to the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, are on the brink of extinction, according to Anurag Danda, the program head of the World Wildlife Fund’s branch in India.

As part of the 2009 University of Rhode Island Fall Honors Colloquium, Danda gave a lecture last night entitled, “Environmental Impact of India’s Development: The Story of the Royal Bengal Tiger.”

Danda, who is head of the WWF in the Sundarbans, gave background information to help students understand the history and importance of the mangrove forest and the Bengal tigers it is home to.

In 1984, India declared the Sundarbans a national park and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named it as a world heritage site.

“This area is an extremely well-endowed environment,” Danda said. “This is the only wetland tiger habitat in the world.”

In his presentation, he cited a report that said if current conservation methods in Bengal tiger habitats do not improve, these tigers will become extinct within the next 20 years. Danda said approximately 3,500 Bengal Tigers exist in the world today. Only seven percent of natural tiger habitats exist today. As head of the WWF division in this national park, Danda hopes to expand this percentage to at least 12 percent and secure these areas in terms of safety for the tigers.

Dating back to 1947, the time of India’s independence, Bengal tigers have been hunted.

He said, thankfully, today places once known for their tiger goods, such as the Sundarbans, are now being patrolled. Tigers are valued for their skins and are used in traditional Chinese medicinal remedies.

Unfortunately, hunting is only one problem the fading species and its environment faces.

Although the Sundarbans is considered an area of great environmental prosperity, it is also an area in which the negative impacts of climate change are apparent.

Climate change is accountable for increasing levels of salinity and rising sea levels in the Sundarbans National Park. The sea levels are responsible for the disappearance of 19,000 acres of the Sundarban mangrove forest, an area home to 226 bird species, more than 20 snake species and wild boars.

Danda said climate changes are also affecting people, forcing villagers to move to locations because of environmental stress in their community. He referred to these people as ‘ecological refugees.’

“There’s so much despair, simply because there’s so much loss,” Danda said. “There’s human loss and changes in the ecosystem, much of which we don’t understand. This area has a lot of lessons to be learned [and] people around the world [can benefit from these lessons.]”

The loss of the tiger habitat dates back to the mid-1800s, when British rule occupied India.

British colonial administration reduced the Sundarbans to 247,000 acres of mangroves because they used the area for timber and building during this time. In 1853, 20 million hectares, almost 50 million acres, of forests were cleared for the purpose of railroad development, offhandedly reducing habitat available for the tigers.

By 1973, however, nine tiger reserves were established throughout India. It wasn’t until 1984 though when environmental consciousness slowly became instilled in the mindset of India. The country now has 30 established tiger reserves, making up one percent of the country’s landmass.

“With the rise of this environmental consciousness, the demand for conservation kept rising,” Danda said.

Most of the tiger habitats are located in the central region of India, however, its an area where roads and new industries are being developed.

“This [development] is increasingly fragmenting the tiger habitat,” Danda said.

According to Danda, the Sundarbans today, has a population density of 1,000 people per kilometer, which by India’s standards, is huge. On average, India has fewer than 350 people per square kilometer.

Because of the concentration of people within the Sundarbans, India’s WWF strives to promote sustainable development.

The organization accomplishes this goal by means of engaging with different levels of government and members of the community, Danda said. Unfortunately, tiger attacks are not uncommon because people often venture into the woods and tigers tend to follow water sources such as streams, leading into villages. By keeping people as far away from areas known to be habitats of the Bengal tiger, these animals and the human population are better protected from each other.

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