Unsafe projects in Bangladeshi mangroves pose growing threat to Bengal tigers

The Nation  |  Jul 28, 2021

One of South Asia's most majestic beasts faces the threat of being driven out of its natural habitat in the landmark Sundarbans coastal mangrove forests amid unsafe infrastructure projects, a lack of protection measures, and climate change.

Royal Bengal tigers are natives of Sundarbans, an expansive area covering more than 10,000 square kilometers (over 3,860 square miles) 60% of which is in Bangladesh. Despite this spacious habitat, experts see little sign that their numbers are increasing.

Preparing to mark this year's International Tiger Day on Thursday, the country has chosen the theme Tigers save Sundarbans, Sundarbans saves millions of lives to underline the importance of preserving the mangrove forests, located in a delta formed by the confluence of three rivers in the Bay of Bengal, and their inhabitants.

Environmental rights groups, experts, and activists have accused the government and UNESCO World Heritage Committee of failing to protect Sundarbans, a World Heritage site, including by not acting to stop ongoing industrial and infrastructure projects near the area.

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Meanwhile, human-tiger conflict has been rising in recent years as the animals venture out of the forest. According to Bangladesh's Forest Department, 38 tigers have died in the last two decades, many due to run-ins with humans.

Sharif Jamil, general secretary of the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (Environment Movement) group, said there had been no major change in the number of the wild cats in Sundarbans over the past 20 years.

"Tigers in Sundarbans remain among a growing number of threats as the salinity in the mangrove forest multiplied over the last 40 years and industrialization continues unabated surrounding Sundarbans, despite opposition from the UN and rights groups," Jamil stated. 

He added that a recent government Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report on southwestern Bangladesh, where Sundarbans is located, lacks "scientific integrity and transparency" as it says nearby coal-fired power plants were of "no harm" to the environment.

A member of the national committee for saving the Sundarbans, Jamil alleged that the government had been reclassifying environmentally harmful industries around Sundarbans as green.

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"The Pasur River, considerably the heart of the Sundarbans, has continuously been polluted by such industrial activities because of the transportation of low-quality coal via the river," he said, underlining that such projects would also cause "ash ponds" in the area.

Abdul Aziz, a leading researcher and a recognized tiger expert in Bangladesh, told Anadolu Agency that due to a lack of vital research, scientists still did not know Sundarbans's carrying capacity for tigers.

A team led by Aziz from Jahangirnagar University's zoology department with the support from International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh and the Forest Department has launched the first project in Bangladesh to determine the carrying capacity of the Sundarbans mangrove forests in the country.

"We'll work to uncover the total prey population (mainly deer and wild pigs). If we don't know the capacity, we can't discern the exact situation and threats the wild cats are enduring in Sundarbans. It'll also help in suggesting necessary actions," he explained.

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Meanwhile, frequent climate disasters have only increased the risk posed to tigers, but amid the lack of impact assessment the effect may be much greater for tigers, he continued, also arguing for the government to abandon plans to set up unsafe power plants in the ecologically sensitive region.

Mihir Kumar, a forest officer in Sundarbans, told Anadolu Agency that the government has increased the forest area reserved for tiger protection to 50% of the forest.

The population of Bengal tigers in the Bangladeshi part of Sundarbans increased to 114 from 106 in 2018, according to the Forest Department.

The department has formed 41 tiger response teams to ensure the felines' protection and conservation of their habitats, as well as to address human-tiger conflicts, added Kumar, noting that there is a joint tiger response group with India on Sundarbans. "We run tiger census as conducted in India," he added.

Rising salinity levels in Sundarbans, frequent cyclones due to climate change, and the rising sea level in coastal areas pose additional threats to the pride of Bangladesh, the Royal Bengal tigers, said Kumar.

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However, he claimed that power plant projects would not affect the biodiversity of Sundarbans or the endangered tigers' habitat according to the government's assessment on the projects.

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