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The Tigers of Bangladesh
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur and Rubaiyat Mansur Mowgli
by Christina J. Greenwood and Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmad
With more than 150 million people crowded into a country the size of Iowa, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated nations on Earth. It is also home to one of the largest and most dense remaining wild populations of tigers (Panthera tigris).
Bangladesh lies in a vast fertile delta plain fed by three of the largest rivers in the world, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna. Where these great rivers and their tributaries approach the Bay of Bengal, human habitation comes to an abrupt stop. Here the Sundarbans forms the largest mangrove forest on Earth and one of the last great wildernesses in Asia. This 10,000 km2 (3,900 mile2) jungle is spread across a great swath of Bangladesh and India, with the 6,000 km2 (2,300 miles2) in Bangladesh representing nearly half of the country’s remaining forest. The maze of muddy islands that make up the Sundarbans are vegetated by trees specially adapted to survive in the saline environment. This mosaic of terrestrial and aquatic habitats is presided over by the most famous inhabitant of the Sundarbans, and the country’s national animal, the Bengal tiger (P. t. tigris).
Photo Credit: © Adam C. D. Barlow
The tiger is endangered throughout the species’ entire range. Fewer than 4,000 tigers of all subspecies remain in the wild, distributed within 14 countries. The mangrove forests and waterways of the Bangladesh Sundarbans support an estimated 300 to 500 wild tigers (Barlow 2009). Tigers in the Russian Far East have home ranges of 400 to 1,000 km2 (155 to 385 miles2), but a Sundarbans tiger requires a tiny 20 km2 (8 miles2). This small territory size indicates that the Sundarbans is good quality tiger habitat with a large prey base. Besides being a haven for tigers, the Sundarbans provides essential ecological services for the whole region and supports millions of local people who collect fish, honey, wood, and other forest products.
In light of the predicted impacts of climate change, the forest’s role in storing carbon and serving as a buffer against cyclones and tidal surges makes it crucial to the country’s climate change adaptation strategy. Three Sundarbans wildlife sanctuaries in which no resource extraction is permitted constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Efforts to save the Sundarbans and its tigers not only benefit a species on the brink, they also focus on conserving a natural asset crucial to the country’s future.
But here, as elsewhere in its range, the tiger faces a number of threats. Tigers are directly imperiled by poaching to supply the demand for souvenirs and the traditional Asian medicine market. Bangladesh also suffers the most intense human-carnivore conflict in the world; 50 or more people can be killed by tigers in a year, and tigers are killed in retaliation when they stray into local communities. The tiger’s main prey, the spotted deer, is also poached, and the tiger’s mangrove habitat is threatened by unsustainable timber extraction and sea-level rise due to climate change. The lack of information and certainty about the impacts of these threats makes it difficult to know how to begin conservation efforts.
Photo Credit: © Adam C. D. Barlow
To guide tiger conservation efforts over the next eight years, the Forest Department under the Ministry of Environment and Forests recently drafted the first Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Wildlife Without Borders Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund (WWB-RTCF), Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh, Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and University of Minnesota (UMN). The plan describes the threats to tigers in Bangladesh and the challenges to developing a conservation program. It then defines a vision, goals, objectives, and strategy to address these threats and challenges.
Ecological research is key to understanding and addressing the threats to the tiger population. The Bangladesh Forest Department and its partners have prioritized research needs spanning both ecological and socio-economic questions. However, gaining insight into the behavior and resource needs of the elusive tiger is a unique challenge in these mangrove swamps. Prof. Dave Smith (UMN) and Dr. Adam Barlow (ZSL), together with the Conservator of Forests for Wildlife, Mr. Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmad, have been making great progress in the past few years. In coordination with the Forest Department and with WWB-RTCF funds, the research team has begun to solve some mysteries of the swamp tigers.
The first radio-collared Sundarbans tigers revealed their small home range sizes and the forest’s role as a stronghold for the species. Sundarbans tigers were also found to be small in size, with initial data showing females weighing in at just 80 kilograms (about 175 pounds), which is around half the size of a tigress on mainland India or in Nepal. The research team believes the Sundarbans tiger’s comparatively small stature may result from the small size of its prey. Physical examinations show additional signs of evolutionary distinction. Most important for management, the team has developed a robust tiger population monitoring system based on track frequency. The system enables the Forest Department to evaluate the effectiveness of tiger conservation activities.
Guided by the tiger action plan, the Forest Department has engaged the skills of partners to proceed from research to conservation action. The Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh (WTB) recently joined the team. WTB co-founder and CEO Prof. Md. Anwarul Islam, a renowned teacher and conservationist in Bangladesh, is supported by a team of dedicated researchers, students, and volunteers. The team is working with ZSL to develop a national education and community outreach initiative in line with the tiger action plan. The Forest Department is © Christina J. Greenwood also collaborating with the European Union, U.S. Agency for International Development, and dependent local communities on initiatives to improve forest protection. A critical aspect is the development of alternative livelihoods for local residents to reduce the pressure on forest resources.
With a holistic action plan in place, and a conservation capacity expanding with each new partner that joins the team, the scene is set for successful tiger conservation in Bangladesh. The Sundarbans tiger now faces its best chance for survival.
Barlow, A.C.D., M.I.U. Ahmed, M. M. Rahman, A. Howlader, A.C. Smith, and J.L. D. Smith. 2008. Linking monitoring and intervention for improved management of tigers in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh. Biological Conservation 141:2031-2040.
Barlow, A.C.D. 2009. Sundarbans tigers: adaptation, population status and conflict management. Ph.D. thesis, University of Minnesota.
Christina J. Greenwood (email@example.com), a project management specialist from the Zoological Society of London, is working with the Bangladesh Forest Department and Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh to design the Bangladesh tiger conservation program and coordinate funding and implementation partners. Ishtiaq U. Ahmad, the Conservator of Forests for Wildlife in the Bangladesh Forest Department, is responsible for wildlife conservation across the country and is spear heading the Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan initiative.
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