A tiger census had been carried out in the Sundarbans a couple of years ago. Based on camera trap findings, Indian scientists estimated the number to be a little over a hundred then. Cameras are being set up for a census once again.
Earlier, the government said there were around 450 tigers in the Bada of the Sundarbans. So what happened to the other 350? Other than the 2007 cyclone Sidr and the 2010 Aila, there weren’t any major calamities in the last eight years that could have wiped out the big cats.
A minister rather insensitively remarked that the tigers went to tour the Indian part of the Sundarbans.
Public awareness about tigers has increased. The national cricket team players are called tigers. Many institutions use the tiger as their logo. Nowadays Sundarban trips are popular, resulting in a growing empathy for the striped cats. The public is concerned about the sudden drop in their numbers.
Why did this happen?
WWF (World Wildlife Fund) trustee Guy Mounfort, along with his team, recorded the Sundarbans diverse wildlife twice between 1966 and 1970. The forestry department told Mountfort that the number of tigers was 300. But, when he surveyed the east and west Bada areas in Sundarbans, he found the number, as is recorded in his book 'The Vanishing Jungle', to be around a hundred.
German biologist Hubert Hendrichs worked on man-eating tigers in 1971 and 1975. Hendrichs did not work on the number of the cats while the forestry department told him the number was 300.
The forestry department simply accepts any number recorded in government documents, no questions asked. No census is carried out.
The Dhaka University zoology department conducted a census in 1982-83 verifying paw marks. The census only covered the Hiron Point and nearby areas while they counted the total number to be 300 again, assuming the tiger-density same for all other parts of the forest.
K.Tamang, the Nepalese-American tiger expert of Sundarbans wildlife preservation project, stated in a 1998 report that the number was about 350. The forestry department and project authorities were happy with the census, but Tamang did not do any field work for this. Experts from Bangladesh are never appointed in such projects as the funders tend to overlook them.
The forestry department, with the help of some local students, conducted a census in 2005 and declared there were about 450 tigers in the forest.
Recently, the camera trap method has been adopted. Tracking the black stripes on the tigers' coat, the number has been determined as 300. Only this survey has followed an appropriate procedure. The numbers were determined by only assumption before.
The Sundarbans is a third grade habitat for tigers as this is a hard terrain for their survival. Only eight kinds of prey are available with preying not so easy and flesh being inadequate. The southern part of the forest, the grassy sand dune areas by the sea, provides a congenial environment for the deer and pigs. So except the southern part, tiger-density is low in other parts.
Moreover, tiger slaughtering and poaching have increased. Natural disasters also have contributed to their decrease.
The roaming terrain of man-eaters takes up about one-eighth part of the jungle, far more than the common perception.
The total number of tigers is likely to be more than 200. If there is a proper census, the figure may slightly rise. There is hope.
Khasru Chowdhury: Sundarbans expert and author.
*This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Nusrat Nowrin.