New Delhi: Tigers in the Indian Sundarbans may soon need their own ‘Look East’ policy owing to a space crunch on this side of the border.
This finding was part of a report prepared by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) titled ‘Status of Tigers: Co-Predators and Prey in India, 2022’. The summary report, released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April, had estimated that India’s tiger population stood at 3,167 – an increase of 6.7% from the previous census in 2018.
The full report was released recently, which estimates that the population density of tigers in India’s Sundarban forests has reached 4.27 per 100 square kilometres. That number is close to the mangrove forests’ estimated carrying capacity of 4.68 tigers per 100 square kilometres.
Since the Sundarbans are bound by human habitation to their north and west, the report notes, an expanding tiger population can only move further east into Bangladesh’s share of the forests (the Sundarbans border the Bay of Bengal in the south).
The forests are situated along the world’s largest delta, formed by the rivers Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna, and are divided among India and Bangladesh, with the latter accounting for 58% of their total area.
Its tigers are the world’s only ones known to live in a mangrove habitat.
Photos from camera traps across the forests revealed the presence of 100 individual tigers as of 2022 – 81 from the Sundarban Tiger Reserve and 20 from the adjoining South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal state (one tiger was common to both areas).
The report says that while tigers may move into Bangladesh through select areas within the forest, the two neighbouring countries protect the animals using different parameters. Major parts of the Indian Sundarbans are under the highest protection and management regime associated with a tiger reserve, with some parts set aside for forest produce extraction and tourism. In Bangladesh, there are three small sanctuaries which act as wildlife ‘hotspots’ and the majority of the forest is open to harvesting of forest produce.
“[A] possible conduit for the tigers towards [the] east would be the channels which are less than 400m wide and situated at the northern part of Basirhat range,” it says.
It continues to say that cooperation between India and Bangladesh will be necessary to protect the region’s ecology.
“Trans-boundary cooperation and knowledge sharing between India and Bangladesh are important to maintain ecological integrity of the landscape. There is a need to explore areas within India and Bangladesh for tiger relocation as well as prey augmentation, as the population is nearing [the] carrying capacity of current prey density.”
Even though the Sundarban Tiger Reserve is home to a high number of tigers, Down to Earth reported that its ranking among the country’s tiger reserves has fallen over the years.
While the Sundarban reserve has done well in containing poaching and tiger-human conflict, staff shortage still remains a problem.
The leader of a different report the NTCA and WII prepared last year also emphasised the need for more staff and trans-border cooperation.
“The most important thing is to improve the staff strength, which was about 50% when it was evaluated. The lack of enough staff is affecting many areas,” he told Down to Earth.
He continued: “Moreover, area development committees need to become functional under divisional commissioners to monitor illegal tourism. Over and above, more management coordination is required between India and Bangladesh Sundarbans forest areas.”
Down to Earth also spoke to officials working in the Sundarban reserve, who said that efforts were on to increase the size of the reserve, which would ultimately result in staff receiving stronger training.