Tiger-Human conflict a concern in Sundarbans

Sundarbans, as its name reflects is indeed a place of mysterious beauty. A place where salty waters mingle with lush green leaves, thousands of birds fly with resonating birdcalls and deer run wild and free. More than anything else, the Sundarbans is known to us as the home of the Bengal tiger. Rare images of the tiger roaming majestically inside the depths of the Sundarbans amaze us; it’s an image that has become a symbol of Bangladesh in front of the world. However, sometimes the tiger also becomes a symbol of tragic loss.

There are 76 villages immediately adjacent to Sundarbans, sometimes separated by only narrow canals from the forest itself. Most of the inhabitants of these villages are directly or indirectly dependent on the Sundarbans for earning their livelihood. Over 1 million people, including fishermen, crab collectors, Golpata collectors and honey hunters enter the forest taking tremendous risks.

Alarmingly, Bangladesh has the highest Tiger-Human conflict incidence rate in the world. With humans and tiger living in such close proximity, this problem has existed for hundreds of years. This conflict is usually manifested in three forms – human killing, stray tiger killing and livestock killing.

On an average, every year THC results in the death of 50 people and three stray tigers. Although these incidences cannot be altogether stopped at the moment, the time has come to develop a proper protocol to manage these inevitable conflict situations in a manner permitting the least loss of life. For this purpose, The Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh, in partnership with Bangladesh Forest Department organised a technical workshop on “Assessing conflict tiger management options to develop a Tiger-Human Conflict decision making support tool” April 24-26, 2012 at Ban Bhaban, Dhaka.

On April 24, Md. Yunus Ali, Chief Conservator of Forests, inaugurated the workshop. An array of national and international experts including Dr. John Goodrich from Wildlife Conservation Society, Dr. John Lewis from Wildlife Vets International, and Dr Linda Kerley from Zoological Society of London joined in the discussions and presentations over the three days of the workshop. The workshop attendees, which included representatives from WTB, FD, academics and other environmental organisations worked together and addressed specific questions related to conflict situations, animal welfare and conflict tiger immobilization. Dr John Lewis and Dr John Goodrich presented on permanent, temporary and non removal conflict management tools to handle conflict situations. Various important decisions rose out of the discussions and group exercises, conducted under the guiding principle that human life will be prioritised over tigers in a conflict scenario. The group agreed that in case a tiger enters a village, the immediate response should be scaring it back inside the forest and then monitoring it. If it continues to pose a threat, then it should be collared and released in order to be monitored and prevented from causing further harm. The experts agreed that collaring would be the most effective and safest method for tiger monitoring and will cause no adverse effect on the normal behaviour of wild tigers even in Sundarbans.

The forest Department plans to construct a facility where an injured tiger, unable to hunt prey naturally will have a chance to recuperate in isolation before being collared and released in the wild. A working group has been established to further develop the decisions generated from this workshop and contribute in the formulation of the tiger-human conflict protocol.

Another important issue related to tigers is developing a proper monitoring method suitable for the Sundarbans of both Bangladesh and India. Objective of monitoring is to measure changes in the Sundarbans tiger population over time to inform the management about conservation activities, to identify threats and to assess the effectiveness of management interventions. A technical roundtable discussion on “Scientific monitoring of tigers in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh and India” was held on April 29-30. Dr. Hasan Mahmud, Honourable Minister, Ministry of Environment and Forests attended the inaugural session as Chief Guest.

Tiger monitoring experts from India, including Dr Yadvendradev Jhala and Dr Qamar Qureshi from Wildlife Institute of India joined the panel from Bangladesh and the rest of the world. With Dr Md. Anwarul Islam, Chief Executive, Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh moderating the roundtable, the group discussed on the various tiger monitoring options available and their appropriateness for the unique ecosystem of the Sundarbans. It was agreed upon by the experts that a method comprising of camera trapping, radio collaring and the khal survey method, which is already being used in Bangladesh will be most effective for the Sundarbans. Camera trapping does not need to be implemented over the whole forest area, but rather in a number of sites and will provide a number range, not an absolute number. Collars will give additional ecological data on tiger behaviour, such as the number of times tigers cross khals, providing more info on home range sizes to help refine sample unit size for khal survey. Khal surveys have been done to assess relative tiger abundance in the Bangladesh Sundarbans since 2007, which gives information on relative abundance of tigers.

A working group has been formed to carry on the next steps identified through this roundtable discussion, including representatives from both Bangladesh and Indian government and non government organisations. This group will submit the recommendations to the relevant authorities and meet periodically to review monitoring progress and results. The Bangladeshi working group will develop detailed methods and timetable for the multi-method monitoring and consult with the authorities in India.

The combined effort of all stakeholders is of utmost importance to ensure the safety of our tigers. Without continuous communication between the authorities, experts and conservationist, working to protect the Sundarbans, proper technical tools and management solutions for Sundarbans, cannot be developed. This workshop and roundtable discussion was a valuable initial step towards reaching the vision of the Sundarbans where both tigers and humans can thrive in harmony.

Ananya Rubayat writes to us from Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh