Working to save endangered tiger

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Working to save endangered tiger

01:00 AM EST on Thursday, December 3, 2009
By Peter B. Lord
Journal Environment Writer

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — The video shows a very large tiger that somehow climbed onto the bow of a boat, where it snarls angrily as it bites and swats at the cabin. Off-screen, what looks like a bucket of water flies through the air and hits the tiger. The tiger shakes its head and gracefully dives into the river. It swims ashore and slowly walks back into the jungle.

The video showed an encounter that is commonplace in an unusual area of coastal swamps and islands south of Calcutta, India. The Sundarbans Delta is one of the few places where there is optimism about the future of Bengal tigers.

Anurag Danda, who works for the World Wildlife Fund in the Sundarbans, told the story of tigers Tuesday night to several hundred people at the University of Rhode Island as part of the school’s honors colloquium on India.

He reported that many scientists at a recent workshop in Katmandu concluded that Bengal tigers could become extinct in the wild in 20 years because their numbers have become so depleted by human development. But the Sundarbans Delta offers hope.

More than three times larger than Rhode Island, the Sundarbans Delta supports a healthy tiger population, the world’s largest mangrove forest and a large number of rural residents who don’t retaliate when tigers stray through their villages or kill their livestock, Danda said.

“People there face so many other pressures, tiger killings [of people and livestock] don’t prompt retaliation,” Danda said. “In the last 10 years, not a single tiger has been killed.”

Scientists believe only about 3,500 tigers remain in the wild throughout Asia. In recent decades, tiger populations in Bali, China, Java and Central Asia have been wiped out. India has worked to protect tigers, its national animal. But many tiger refuges in India are threatened by rapid human development and poaching.

The biggest loss of tigers occurred earlier in the last century, Danda said. He described one maharaja who personally hunted down and killed 1,360 tigers. During the 100 years that Great Britain ruled India, it developed 35,000 miles of train tracks and close to 50 million acres of forest had to be cut down to provide the railroad ties, putting more pressure on tiger populations.

The lush forests of the Sundarbans are protected, Danda said. The low-lying coastal marshes have seen good and bad effects from climate change. Warmer water is supporting sardines for the first time in memory. But rising sea levels are swallowing islands and turning groundwater brackish.

Unlike central India, where tiger preserves are threatened by booming development, there is little economic development in the Sundarbans Delta. So Danda and others are trying to help people live without destroying the tigers and the rest of the habitat.

“It is not a pleasant experience working there because there is so much despair, human suffering and change in the ecosystem,” Danda said. “Yet, we continue to work. We can’t throw our hands up and say this is a lost cause. If we can get some things right in the Sundarbans maybe that will be an example for other places.”

Danda said it is important to save the tigers, because by doing so, an entire habitat is saved.

Currently, 7 percent of the former range of tigers is protected. His group hopes to double the numbers of tigers by increasing the range to 12 percent of what it once was.

A final presentation on “Celebrating India Through Dance” will be offered at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Edwards Auditorium. People will see various types of Indian dance, and then be invited to participate.

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