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Drop in tiger population signals environmental degradation

The demise of the Royal Bengal Tigers is another wakeup call for Bangladesh's Sundarbans - a forest which prevented the death toll from Cyclone Sidr being significantly less.
(Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN)

A further drop in the number of Royal Bengal tigers in the Sundarbans is a stark reminder of the importance of the world's largest mangrove forest, which was badly damaged in last year's devastating cyclone.

[See also: Live-saving Sundarbans may take years to recover from cyclone]

More than 4,000 people were killed and 1.5 million homes damaged or destroyed when Cyclone Sidr slammed into Bangladesh's southwestern coastal belt on 15 November 2007.

The forest - a natural habitat for the endangered animal - acted as a first line of defence against the cyclone's powerful 220km per hour winds and tidal surge.

Had the Sundarbans not taken the brunt of storm, the loss of life and property would have been significantly higher, according to specialists.

Cyclone impact

According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 40 percent of the 140,000-hectare area was damaged by the cyclone, which struck at the heart of the East Sundarbans, the biologically richest part of the Bangladeshi world heritage property - stripping off foliage from more than 30 percent of the trees and felling even more.

Media reports at the time suggested that over three million trees were affected in the area, home to scores of animals, including the endangered Royal Bengal tiger.

Local specialists warned that the Sundarbans, already severely encroached upon by man, and affected by rising sea levels, could take up to 30 years to regenerate.

Tiger population dropping

The Sundarbans are the only mangrove forests where the tigers are found, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
The Sundarbans bore the brunt of the storm in November 2007

India and Bangladesh conducted a tiger census in January 2004, with support from the UN Development Programme, and concluded there were 440 tigers in the area.

Bangladesh's tiger population has plummeted because of a shrinking habitat and dwindling food supplies. Last year's cyclone put even more pressure on the animals and natural resources.

"I don't think there are more than 250 tigers in the Sundarbans now," said Muhammad Mahfuzullah, executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Development, a leading environmental NGO.

Environmentalists describe the tiger's plight as a wake-up call to save the Sundarbans, which they agree saved tens of thousands of lives last November.

"The fate of the Sundarbans is inextricably linked to the fate of its wildlife. The problem is that those whose lives it saves act as its worst enemy. If the tigers die, [the] Sundarbans will die. If the Sundarbans die, Bangladesh will die too," said Atiur Rahman, chairman of Unnayan Shamannay, a development organisation.

Poor conservation efforts

But conservation efforts in this unique eco-system – which serves as a natural barrier to future cyclones - are inadequate.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Fishing is a major source of livelihood in many parts of the Sundarbans

"Poachers, timber merchants and shrimp farmers have built up an unholy nexus of corruption with the rangers, forest officers and politically influential people," said Rishit Chandra Munda, a member of the indigenous Munda people, who live on the fringes of the forest.

"People should be made aware of the need for keeping the tigers and the forest alive. The international community and NGOs can play a leading role in this effort. But we don't see them coming forward to do this," Munda added.

But according to Rahman, a first step is changing people's attitudes towards the animals, with poverty a major barrier.

"The death of a goat or a chicken is a major loss for a poor farmer or fisherman. So, he wouldn't pardon the tiger for doing that. Moreover, tigers are considered predators. It will take many years before people begin to think they and the wildlife are on the same boat of existence."

According to the WWF, estimates suggest there are around 2,000 Royal Bengal tigers in the wild today, including 1,411 in India, 200 in Bangladesh, 150 in Nepal, and 100 in Bhutan, as well as a number in Myanmar and China.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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