GOOD TIDINGS FOR TIDE COUNTRY
With India and Bangladesh agreeing to cooperate, tiger conservation in the Sunderbans – home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, a unique species in this unique mangrove habitat – looks forward to brighter days
Akash Bisht Delhi
The recent visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh – the first official visit by an Indian prime minister in 12 years – turned out to be a hollow affair after the two countries failed to reach a consensus on the crucial Teesta water sharing pact. It was the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's decision not to attend the crucial meet that eventually led to the Teesta debacle, despite the best efforts of the central government. However, one positive outcome was the decision to cooperate bilaterally for strengthening tiger conservation in the Sunderbans region.
India and Bangladesh are among the 14 tiger range countries in the world, and with a considerable portion of the Sunderbans in Bangladeshi territory, this cooperation pledge by the two countries to save the tiger and this unique ecosystem has given a glimmer of hope to wildlife conservationists across the world. An excellent tiger habitat, Sunderbans is the largest single forest unit in the world for the Royal Bengal Tigers.
"Sunderbans is a unique ecosystem and what set it apart are the mangrove forests that dominate the landscape. The only tiger habitat with mangrove forests, it may soon be listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world," says SP Yadav, Deputy Inspector General, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). The 'yet to be signed bilateral agreement' mentions that the two countries have a common concern in the future conservation of the Sunderbans and accordingly wish to take certain bilateral initiatives for ensuring the survival and preservation of the tiger in this unique ecosystem.
"We must devise ways in which the two countries can share information about tigers to make the system more robust. This will help in ensuring the well-being of tigers across the habitat," Yadav adds. The two countries have agreed upon several points, including the following: bilateral scientific and research projects to develop information systems; exchange of personnel for training and promotion of education; patrolling the Sunderbans waterways on their respective sides to prevent poaching or smuggling of tiger, prey and trophy, and returning those that are rescued to the appropriate authority of their country of origin; mutually agreed surveillance and monitoring of tiger populations; not allowing any activity that can have adverse impact on biodiversity; strengthening the awareness programme; and formation of 'Tiger Response Team' for relocation of stray tigers to reduce man-
Additionally, India will reserve at least four seats with scholarships for personnel from Bangladesh in the nine-month diploma course at Wildlife Institute of India. A special committee too will be constituted in each of the countries to examine the human casualties. Forest officers or park directors from both the countries will also hold two meetings every year on either side of the Sunderbans in order to share management strategies and create innovative and common management approaches. Besides, there will be high-level ministerial meetings to follow up on the progress of various initiatives.
India already has such protocols with Nepal and China, and plans to arrive at such protocols with countries like Bhutan and Myanmar are still in pipeline. "These countries share extensive boundaries with India, and tigers and other wild animals keep crossing over from one country to another. Hence, there is need for such protocols to protect tigers from poachers," says Yadav.
Yadav believes that the protocol with Bangladesh would help in ensuring the well-being of the Royal Bengal Tiger, which is different from the other tigers in the country. Smaller in size than tigers elsewhere, the Sunderbans tigers are known for their aggressiveness and ferocity. Stories of tigers killing human beings in the Sunderbans are the commonplace as fable and legend, and it is believed that every household in the region has one or more stories of tiger attacks. "These are unique tigers that eat fish, crabs and snakes. In fact, we recently found remains of a cobra and a king cobra in a dead tiger's stomach. It is, therefore, of great importance that these tigers are protected well for generations to come," adds Yadav.
Wildlife experts believe that the agreement could help in restoring the dwindling tiger numbers in the Sunderbans. The recent census by NTCA reveals that the tiger population on the Indian side of the forest is close to 70, and if both the countries take the agreement seriously, the future could be bright for the Royal Bengal Tigers in the entire region. "The agreement would definitely benefit the Sunderbans tiger population on both sides of the border. The region has the highest number of tigers in any single patch of forest in the world, and is also the biggest hope for tigers. Our side of the forest is well-protected and exchange of scientific and technical information will definitely help in better management of this unique ecosystem," says Dr Subrat Mukherjee, Field Director, Sunderbans Tiger Reserve.
However, there are several other threats that haunt the Sunderbans. Rising sea level, global warming and increasing anthropogenic activities are taking a toll on this unique ecosystem. The agreement thus comes as a ray of hope for the Sunderbans that could otherwise lose its fauna and flora to the modern day challenges that threaten its very existence.