Climate change puts Bangladesh tigers at further peril
By Maruf Mallick
bdnews24.com environment correspondent
Dhaka, July 8 (bdnews24.com)—Climate change is driving the Royal Bengal Tiger, celebrated monarch of the Sundarbans, from its natural habitat in search of food, say experts—leading to tragic consequences for the already critically endangered species in its encounters with humans.
Two tigers have been beaten to death by villagers this year in Bangladesh's Bagerhat and Satkhira districts.
According to different reports, up to a dozen of the big cats are killed every year by villagers living in the areas contiguous to the Sundarbans.
Seven tigers were killed by locals in the Satkhira district's Shyamnagar area alone in the last decade.
Some blame the deaths on failure by forest officials to properly inform local people of the correct way to deal with straying tigers.
A major reason for more frequent straying by tigers may be a growing prey crisis due greater frequency of cyclones and tidal surges triggered by climate change, say experts.
A survey in 2004 estimated just 419 Bengal Tigers remaining in the wild in Bangladesh, but some dispute the number saying the real count may as few as 200.
The critically endangered tigers have been seen to leave their jungle habitat most frequently at two forest ranges in Bangladesh—Burhigoalini range in Satkhira and Sharankhola range in Bagerhat.
As the forest floors of the ranges have been inundated by natural disasters, wildlife populations are destroyed, including wild boar and deer, two traditional prey of the Sundarban tigers.
The scarcity of prey animals is compelling the endangered tigers to leave their forest cover and look for food in open areas of human habitation.
Dr Monirul Hasan Khan, assistant professor of the zoology department, Jahangirnagar University, has long been engaged in conservation efforts for the remaining tiger population in the Bangladesh Sundarbans, the world's largest stretch of unbroken mangrove forest.
"It is a matter of grave concern that the Sundarbans tigers have of late been tending to leave the forest cover with greater frequency looking for food and getting killed," he told bdnews24.com Tuesday.
"It is natural that tigers might stray out into the jungle peripheries. We know that each tiger has its own territory or command area in the forest."
"To my mind, tigers could come out into adjacent localities for a number of reasons. They might stray out just for a stroll around."
"But leaving the forest for food could be a major reason. At times, if it does not find a prey inside the forest, it moves out looking for food in the nearby villages."
Khan said in the wake of a cyclone or a storm surge, a tiger might stray out of its devastated habitat for food or to search for new habitat.
"After natural disasters pass, the affected regions are naturally hit by a prey crisis. Deer often die in large numbers, which is likely to affect the tigers though they themselves are not particularly vulnerable to such natural disasters."
He said tigers were seen leaving forests more frequently than usual after cyclone Sidr in 2007 and Aila in May this year.
"There are nearly 200 tigers in the Sundarbans, to my estimation," said Khan.
A tiger survey conducted in 2004 said the number was 419. "But the survey was done based on pugmarks. Experts have varying opinions about pugmark based surveys," he said.
"It is said that pugmarks are unique identifiers of the animals. But pugmarks of the same animal could appear to be different, depending on soil texture," said Khan.
Dr Ainun Nishat, country director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told bdnews24.com, "Large populations of the Sundarbans deer might have perished in recent recurrent cyclones."
"Aila was reported to have killed huge deer populations this year."
He said, "The population cycle of the Sundarbans deer will be adversely affected as their habitats become prone to cyclones and more saline because of climate change."
"The tigers are coming out of the jungle for food and cyclones may very well have caused the food crisis there," said Nishat.
"But the inaction of the forest department officials is also responsible for tigers being killed so frequently. The foresters are supposed to make people aware of the issues and facts of the endangered tiger population."
"People should be told that a straying tiger can and should be sent back to its habitat using simple methods," he said.
A tiger can be chased back to its habitat by creating noise from all sides, such as beating tin canisters, keeping clear a single path back to the forest, said Nishat.
Forest officials say up to 100 people are killed by tigers in Bangladesh every year; most of the victims fall prey to the tigers as they stray deep into the forest to collect honey, wood or go fishing in mangrove waters.