Beatings spark fears for Bangladesh's tigers
By Shafiq Alam – 7.5.2009
DHAKA (AFP) — When forest officials in southeastern Bangladesh heard that two tigers had strayed out of the forest and into a remote village they knew they had to act quickly.
Though villagers in the area were worried about their own lives, the authorities were racing to save the big cats after a wave of similar incidents in recent years have ended with the endangered animals being beaten to death.
In this instance, the tigers were already dead by the time the officials arrived.
"Tigers go in and out of villages in the night but if they go in during the day, they never survive. The villagers beat them to death," said Aboni Bhusan Thakur, the government's chief conservation officer for the Sundarbans mangrove forest.
One of the tigers, a five-year-old male, had apparently got lost and hid in a shack, where he was attacked by villagers wielding sticks, spears and machetes, Thakur said.
An 18-year-old tigress was also attacked and killed.
Police have arrested one man accused of being the ringleader.
The story is not a new one in Bangladesh. There have been 14 registered cases of tigers being killed in similar circumstances since 2000. Newspaper reports suggest the real figure is closer to 30 while conservationists say it is even higher.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List, there are fewer than 2,500 Bengal tigers left in the world with as few as 200 of those in Bangladesh -- the single largest population in the wild.
A government census in 2004 put the number at around 440.
A leading tiger expert in Bangladesh said the beatings were alarming with the species already facing extinction.
"If this brutal tradition goes on, the Bengal tiger population in Bangladesh will vanish in decades," said Professor Monirul Khan, of Dhaka's Jahangirnagar University.
"Tigers were in every forest in the country even 50 years back, but now they are only confined to the Sundarbans."
He said a steep fall in the population of traditional tiger prey in the Sundarbans -- largely due to rapid mangrove deforestation -- such as deer and wild pigs, was forcing them to look elsewhere.
The Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage site, lies on the delta of the great Himalayan rivers -- the Ganges and the Brahmaputra.
Covering 10,000 square kilometres (3,860 square miles), it is the world's largest mangrove forest, straddling India and Bangladesh, and without the tigers Khan says the fragile ecosystem of the Sundarbans will collapse.
"The whole food chain will collapse. So many species of plant and animals are at risk," he said.
Wildlife expert Mohsinuzzaman Chowdhury said the tiger beatings were on the rise because incidences of the cats attacking humans were increasing as more people were living near the forest, once a no-go zone.
Eighteen people were killed by tigers in the first six months of the year and 21 were killed during the whole of 2008, but Chowdhury says are there many undocumented deaths.
"These villagers collect honey, timber and do fishing deep inside the forest. Many are killed by tigers, which make them hostile towards the endangered animal," Chowdhury, formerly with the IUCN, said.
Without the mangroves, Bangladesh would be more exposed to the cyclones that hit the southern coastline every year, he said.
Experts say Cyclone Sidr, which killed 3,500 people with wind speeds of 240 kilometres (150 miles) an hour in November 2007, would have been much more severe had it not been for the Sundarbans, which cushioned the blow.
Another cyclone struck the Sundarbans and neighbouring areas on May 26 this year, contaminating fresh water ponds that tigers drink from.
"The forest is still largely uninhabited because of fear of tigers," said IUCN Bangladesh chief Ainun Nishat.
"If the tigers are gone, the fear factor would go and it would take only years to clear out the world's largest mangrove forest. Not only that, there will be no natural saviour for this disaster-prone nation."