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Young Bengal Tigers at play. Photo: Martin Heigan via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Young Bengal Tigers at play. Photo: Martin Heigan via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
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In praise of tigers, conservation heroes of the Sundarbans

Joydip Kundu

29th April 2015

The presence of the tigers is the world's greatest mangrove forest vital to its survival, writes Joydip Kundu. It's the fear of the tiger that deters people from entering the forest to cut its trees and hunt its wildlife - and so these majestic predators protect its fisheries, and guard millions of people in south Bengal from the rising seas.

Saving the Sundarbans tigers is not only a moral obligation to one of the world's most magnificent animals. It's also a necessity if we are to avoid the loss of one of the world's greatest ecosystems, and the human calamity that would surely follow.

Conflict between tigers and humans in the Sundarbans is not new. If you go back in history the Sundarbans mangrove forest, which spans India and Bangladesh, was not only full of tigers, but the area belonged to them.

The conflicts began the moment land reclamation started for new settlements and agriculture.

It began with the British. They encouraged people to farm the forest where the tigers live so that they could earn money from land taxes.

Later, during partition, it was a cheap place where those fleeing could set up home - cheap because it was dangerous and difficult to cultivate.

Now, 54 out of the 102 islands that make up the Sundarbans, recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site, are inhabited. The other 48, rich in unique biodiversity, thankfully remain intact.

A vast natural buffer against the tempestuous sea

The 4,000 square miles of mangrove swamps act as a vast carbon sink and a natural buffer against increasingly ferocious cyclones and storms, protecting many in south Bengal from potentially devastating flooding.

They are also recognised as one of the world's finest fish and aquatic species breeding centres, crucial to the food security of millions of humans.

But what really makes this part of the world special is that it is home to the rare and endangered Royal Bengal Tiger. This is the only place on the planet where tigers are a part of a mangrove ecosystem.

The problem is not that tigers are attacking villagers. It is that poverty has driven people into their territory in search of a living. Increasing soil salinity, caused by a number of factors including tidal variations, make it hard to grow crops, a problem that is becoming increasingly aggravated by climate change.

Unable to cultivate enough food to feed their families, people are forced to trespass on the tigers' territory, relying on the forest to survive. Many are fishermen who illegally enter the narrow water channels between the mangroves to catch fish, leaving them vulnerable to tiger attacks from the shore. Others are honey collectors who wander the forest creating biotic interference.

Tigers: defenders of this great forest wetland

Sundarbans tigers are not habitual 'man eaters'. They kill humans not inside villages but when people enter into the tigers' territory. They are simply meat-eating animals living in a difficult and shrinking landscape; often surviving on a meagre diet of fish, crabs and honey.

While they have adapted to drink saline water, and will eat whatever comes their way, any human entering the forest is seen as prey.

Largely unreported is the fact that the presence of the tigers in the Sundarbans is vital to the survival of the mangrove forest. It is the fear of the tiger that deters people, from entering the forest for illegal acts like felling of mangroves or poaching.

Without that fear this globally important ecosystem would simply vanish and the fate of southern Bengal, including the city of Kolkata, would be at stake.

At Society for Heritage and Ecological Researches (SHER) we work with local communities in the Sundarbans and Kolkata to make people aware of the benefits the forest brings to south Bengal and encourage them to protect it.

A lot of our work is done through schools, because we believe that when a child asks a parent not to cut the mangroves down, or not to kill wild animals for bush meat, they are much more likely to listen.

Increased salinity caused by rising seas, reduced fresh water flows

Climate change is not the only factor leading to the increased salinity of the waters of the Sundarbans. Satellite imagery shows a decrease in the amount of fresh water arriving from the three major rivers which reach the sea here, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers.

This is partly due to the gradual tilting of the Bengal Basin towards the east, cutting off water from the Ganges and diverting it instead into Bangladesh. Human activity further upstream such as bunding, deforestation and the ripping out of mangroves to create shrimp farms have also caused a reduction in freshwater.

Today, the sea levels are rising at an alarming rate meaning villages once level with the land are now sinking below the water line with only concrete embankments to hold the sea back. Salt water is creeping further inland, altering the type of fish available and crops that can be produced, with fresh water sources diminishing fast.

In addition, the lack of fresh river water in the middle of the delta threatens the dominant species of mangrove found here, Heriteria fomes, the ‘Sundari tree', from disease caused mainly by increasing salinity in surrounding waters.

Another 6-7cm rise in sea levels would trigger either the end of the Royal Bengal tiger, or their forced displacement elsewhere by government agencies.

Should they disappear, a huge human exodus from the area would in all probability soon follow, with millions placing a huge strain on existing infrastructures and law and order as in all likelihood they converge on the already bursting city of Kolkata.

Saving the Sundarbans tigers is not only a moral obligation to one of the world's most magnificent animals. It's also a necessity if we are to avoid the loss of one of the world's greatest ecosystems, and the human calamity that would surely follow. 

 


 

Joydip Kundu has been studying Royal Bengal Tigers in the Sundarbans region of India for more than 17 years. A lifelong conservationist, he is a member of Kolkata's Society for Heritage and Ecological Researches.

Project: Joydip has been working with international development agency Christian Aid on a new online project The Tiger, the fisherman, his wife and our future which tells the story of the delicate balancing act between humankind, animal and the climate in this fragile part of the world.

Hear more from Joydip Kundu and the people of the Sundarbans in 'The tiger, the fisherman, his wife and our future'.

 

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