The majestic Royal Bengal Tiger in the Sundarbans

Bengal TIger

A Bengal tiger in the Sundarbans, which crosses India and Bangladesh.

In describing the Sundarbans (beautiful forests), Amitav Ghosh, an internationally acclaimed writer wrote in his novel, The Hungry Tide: “A mangrove forest is utterly unlike other woodlands or jungles. There are no towering, vine-looped trees, no ferns, no wildflowers, no chattering monkeys or cockatoos. Mangrove leaves are tough and leathery, the branches gnarled and the foliage often impassively dense. Visibility is short and the air still and fetid. At no moment can human beings have any doubt of the terrain’s hostility to their presence, of its cunning and resourcefulness, of its determination to destroy or expel them. Every year, dozens of people perish in the embrace of that dense foliage, killed by tigers, snakes and crocodiles.”

The brilliant paragraph above describes the enchanting Sundarbans, a truly unique ecosystem in the world which stretches along the Bay of Bengal. The huge mangrove forest is called the Sundarbans, which crosses India and Bangladesh. It is a world unto itself. Authors like Amitav Ghosh and Sy Montgomery had undertaken long and treacherous journeys on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers surrounding the Sundarbans to see and find answers to their own curiosities.The Sundarbans’ surrounding islands are known as “bhatirdesh”or the tide country. The dense and heavy green mangrove forests are inhabited by man-eating Royal Bengal Tigers. The Bengal tigers are considered solitary animals. Their home is the low-land parts of the Sundarbans, near the swamps and grasslands. They are carnivores and are on constant hunt for people, spotted deer, wild boar, gaur and water buffalo.

For centuries on,these ferocious and beautiful animals have been a source of great mystery and have increased human curiosity about the relationship between science, mythology and nature. According to the Bangladesh Department of Forestry, on average, 45 people are killed annually by the tigers in the Sundarbans, home to the Asian rainforests.In 2015, an opinion piece that a Bangladesh online portal had carried said, “The preliminary results of the recent tiger census gave us an alarming message – we have only 106 Bengal tigers left in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh. This number is remarkably lower than the previous estimate of 440 from 11 years ago. A recent survey in the Indian part of the Sundarbans also yielded an estimate of 74 tigers against its previous estimate of about 270 tigers in the area from 2004.”

On December 31, the Times of India reported that it lost 110 tigers in 2019 due to illegal poaching. The number went up from 2018. The number of deaths also increased from the previous year. In 2018, it was recorded that 104 tigers had died. Because of illegal poaching and habitat loss Sundarbans’ most treasured symbol of our heritage and pride — the Bengal Tiger now is highly endangered. The tigers are often gunned down by poachers for its invaluable skins and bones. Both are in high demands on the black market trade. They are smuggled in China where the bone is used for making traditional Chinese medicine. According to a CNN report, last August, the authorities in Bangladesh had killed six tiger poachers in Sundarbans National Park. When police raided their hideout they died during a shootout. Later 10-foot long three adult tigers’ skin was found. “Already threatened by poaching and humans spreading into its shrinking habitats, researchers say that in just 50 years it could completely disappear from one of its last remaining strongholds,” the Sundarbans.

Highly revered and hugely feared, these beautiful creatures are at a point of extinction. In the last hundred years, the Sundarbans have lost about 95% of the world’s tigers. Researchers have established that there are about 4,000 tigers left in the wild and some are in captivity. Bengal tigers are only found in some of the Asian countries and a few hundred at present are roaming the Sundarbans. According to the last tiger census report in 2019, “there are 2,967 Royal Bengal tigers in India.” India has “more than 75% of the total tiger population.

Dipankar Ghose, director of the species and landscapes program at the World Wildlife fund said, the number of Bengal tigers in Bangladesh is “dangerously low, as it fell from 440 to 106 because of an increasing poaching crisis.”Habitat degradation, fragmentation of the Sundarbans, rising sea level due global warming, and lack of fresh water is having a direct impact for the numbers to go down.

Habitat loss and over-hunting by poachers are the two most important threats to the survival of the Bengal tigers. The forests are now besieged by human needs as they need it for their very survival. According to a recent CNN report, a study disclosed how much of the Sundarbans will remain a suitable environment for the tigers since the global greenhouse carbon emissions continue to increase at an alarming rate. The study concluded that by 2070, the iconic Bengal tigers could extinct because of rising sea levels, harsh weather conditions, hurricanes, decimated forests because of illicit logging,coal based power plants, accumulative salt in the water, and the soil surrounding the Sundarbans. The upstream dams in the rivers of India have greatly reduced the freshwater flow into the rivers of the Sundarbans. The establishments of the coal-run Rampal Power Plant on the edge of the Sundarbans will immensely imbalance its delicate ecosystem. The difficulties are only increasing. Therefore, along with the tigers other species are slowly vanishing.

Climate change and sea level rise is bringing more salt water into the mangroves. “Rising sea levels and a decline in rainfall have already increased the amount of salt in the water, causing Sundari trees — from which the Sundarbans region gets its name — to die, and shrinking the tiger’s mangrove habitat,” according to Sharif Mukul, the study’s co-author and assistant professor at the Independent University of Bangladesh.As climate change shrinks the Sundarbans, more needs to be done to preserve the habitat for the tigers. The tigers will have no other sanctuary when that happens. “It’s also leaving tigers without access to fresh water, Mukul told CNN.” “Fresh water is crucial for Bengal tigers to survive… If sea levels [continue] to rise, Bengal tigers might not have any way to [survive]…The study does not take into account the impact of disease outbreak, poaching and prey reduction, Mukul said, meaning the actual scenario could be better or worse than projected.”

An ongoing conflict with the humans for their survival is greatly factoring in for the decline in the number of the tigers. With lack of fresh water and food supply decreasing, the tigers are leaving their natural habitat and going to the areas where there are human settlements in search of food, water, and shelter. The numbers of the tigers are also decreasing because of revenge killing – farmers kill them to prevent them from preying on their cattle. Another reason for the number of the tigers being diminished is their main source of food; the spotted deer are being hunted by illegal poachers as well. A six-year old study revealed that every year, at least three tigers die due to human-tiger conflict. According to the same study, on the average 20-30 people are eaten by the tigers in the Bangladesh side of the Sundarbans. Some of the studies are based on estimation, and in reality, the numbers can be much higher. Sometimes the killings are not reported as it is illegal to enter the tiger habitat without the right permit. So those deaths go unreported.

On the Indian side of the Sundarbans, the tourist bureau has taken new initiatives by making artificial lakes with fresh water to lure the tigers out of the wilderness. Such ingenuity has an added bonus where business is concerned. Visitors touring the Sundarbans can have a closer look at the tigers from the protected observation deck and watch them coming out of the jungles to drink fresh water. To the most visitors’ dismay, that is a rare occurrence as the tigers are intelligent enough to stay out of their way. From a mile away, they can sense that there are spectators who are waiting to marvel at their majestic beauty. When they come into sight, the visitors are always ready with high powered binoculars and fancy cameras, snapping photos and making videos to their hearts’ delight. The visitors sometimes leave the resort disappointed, and other times after seeing the tigers. They are often content, if they can hear the tigers roar that can be heard miles away.

The conservationists are happy that their sincere efforts to save the tigers are resulting in less killing of the tigers for poaching. The chief executive of Wild Team Anwarul Islam told CNN, “The number of tiger attacks and deaths has fallen in the past five years due to increased awareness of wildlife protection among local communities.”The villagers have an additional benefit to be working with the conservationists, according to Islam. “If a stray tiger comes out of the forest, people know that they will not be killed because of the tiger team. They feel safe.”They have also set up a tiger hotline to report of a tiger sighting if they spot a tiger roaming the streets. Sometimes a little effort goes a long way and ultimately contributes to the positive efforts by the conservation groups who are working very closely with the authorities to save the species in the Sundarbans.

RatulSaha of the WWF Sundarbans Landscape program told CNN,“To protect the Bengal tigers, India and Bangladesh should identify hotspots where mangrove plants and species are thriving, despite a lack of soil nutrients, and move these resilient mangroves to dying parts of the forest.””It is crucial that the necessary steps be taken to increase climate resilience in the region. For tigers, conservation efforts must remain focused on habitat restoration and protection,” he concluded.

In the early colonial times, the Sundarbans were referred as “wasteland.” Since the waterways carry very little freshwater and due to lack of large scale economic opportunities, human habitation in the adjoined islands was sparse. The islands around the largest contiguous mangrove forest are now only inhabited by poor woodcutters, honey gatherers and fishermen. The largest remaining coastal mangrove has an abundant source of honey, and its waterways are source of fish, including tiger prawn. Collecting wild honey in theSundarbans can be a life threatening task for the honey collectors. The islanders claim that the world is becoming a global village where people from faraway places come to relate to the tigers. They argue, as humans, their very presence is seen as illegal, or even unwelcome, in what has become a World Heritage Site. They lament,whiletheBengal tigers of the Sundarbans are a source of constant delight and curiosity to many,they are largely ignored, as people fail to respond to their complaints and suffering.

Zeenat Khan, a former special education teacher, short story writer, and columnist, writes from Maryland, USA




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