Saving the Tigers of Bangladesh
As the tiger continues to face critical threats to its survival, yet another country is joining the global battle to save the big cat.
An estimated 300 to 500 Royal Bengal tigers roam the sprawling, 6,000-square-kilometer mangrove forest in the Sunderbans area of Bangladesh.
There are no studies, but conservationists fear that the Royal Bengal tigers’ numbers are diminishing as they are targeted by poachers and struggle to find food in their shrinking habitat.
Now, authorities hope that a 300-member force being raised to police the dense, tropical swamps of Sunderbans in the huge delta on the Bay of Bengal will be able to deter wildlife smugglers.
Equipped with modern weapons and high speed patrol boats procured with the help of a $36 million World Bank loan, Bangladesh’s new Wildlife Crime Control Unit will penetrate deep into the jungles to track threats from poachers.
Those threats are growing. In February, one man was arrested with three tiger skins and other parts – the largest haul in three decades.
Bangladesh’s chief conservationist, Tapan Kumar Dey, says lack of training and equipment had hampered efforts to prevent poaching, but he hopes this will now change. He says besides policing the forests, wildlife tracking units will be established throughout the country.
“We will involve all law enforcement agencies, police, customs, border security force and other agencies in illegal trade of wildlife. We are going to post some officers in seaport, in airport and also some in the point through which illegal wildlife is trafficking throughout the region,” he said.
Conservationists say depleting food reserves also pose a huge challenge to the Royal Bengal tiger.
The head of the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh, Anwarul Islam, says deer and other prey which tigers depend on are being increasingly hunted down by villagers on the periphery of the Sunderbans. This forces tigers to emerge out of the forest in search for food, and it is estimated that three are killed on average every year when they stray into villages.
Islam says an initiative has been launched to tranquilize tigers that enter villages and put them back into forests – a practice already followed in neighboring India. He says a 24-hour hotline has been established to alert wildlife officials and volunteers about tigers that come out of forests.
“In 29 villages around the Sunderbans we now have 200 village tiger response teams, and they are volunteers,” said Islam. “Once stray tigers come into the villages, their main job is to manage the crowd, that is the main problem. Once people know there is a tiger, thousands of people flock together, they come out with sticks and what not….We need to develop confidence among local people that forest department and their partners have capacity to manage stray tigers.”
But this is not always an easy task. In February, conservationists celebrated when, for the first time, a tiger that strayed out of the forest was tranquilized and put back into the wild. But the same animal emerged out of the forest again, and was killed by villagers.
Wildlife officials are calling for stiffer penalties and longer jail terms for killing tigers. They hope a tough, new law will be drafted this year and help curb poaching of an animal that is worth millions of dollars when it is killed.
The Sunderbans forest straddles India and Bangladesh, and is among the most densely populated tiger habitats in the world, with about one tiger every 20 square kilometers.
Conservationists say Bangladesh can make a critical contribution to the fate of the tiger, whose numbers worldwide have plummeted to about 3,200.