Recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site, the eco-balancing system of the Sunderbans is in danger from the rapidly rising sea. About a fifth of the southern part of the delta, the heart of the tiger reserve, is already submerged!
IN RECENT times, at least three instances of tigers trespassing on human habitat in Sunderbans in West Bengal
have made the headlines. Though no casualty has been reported, increasing instances of human-tiger conflicts have come to the fore. A severe threat to human life has shaken the society. Incidents of death or injury from tiger attacks are increasing and killing of the tiger is not rare either. The question that haunts environmentalists is why such incidents are recurring. A hundred years ago, Sunderbans was a marshy delta of 10,000 square miles, full of mangrove forests and infested with more than 15,000 tigers. Now, the delta accounts for just 4,000 square miles mostly devoid of adequate foliage or forest cover and the number of tigers has come down to a paltry 280, approximately.
Recognised as a UNESCO world
heritage site, this region’s eco-balancing system is in danger from the rapidly rising sea. About a fifth of the southern part of the delta, the heart of the tiger reserve, is already submerged. The prime villain behind it is global warming, the biggest challenge posing the threat of extinction. The Sunderbans are made up of over a hundred tiny islands. Most of them are uninhabited by humans. In addition to the Royal Bengal tiger, other wildlife includes spotted deer, wild boar, Oliver Ridley turtles, crocodiles, and, according to the Sunderbans Tiger Project, over 125 fish and 300 bird species. But owing to global warming, the rising seawater surface everyday causes coastal erosion, resulting in erosion of vegetation. The once-green, dense mangrove cover has been shrinking practically reducing it to decaying branches and threatens the very survival of the endangered big cats. Two islands are already submerged and the others are in a vulnerable condition. This makes the tiger easy prey for poachers. The tigresses too find it difficult to hide their cubs from male tigers that naturally try to eliminate the offspring. The loss of flora and fauna is also depleting the tigers’ food sources. That could leave the big cats hungry.
The other side of the story is the declining area of jungles and the growing human population in areas where wildlife was free to move about and lead a life of its own. Latest records show that every three years 0.1 per cent of the forest area is transformed into human habitat. This is also putting pressure on the lives of the animals and the natural resources in the area; thus incidents of human-tiger conflict increase. The tigers of the Sunderbans regularly swim between the islands in search of food and sometimes stray into villages. They are known to have killed at least 50 people over the last five years. Environmentalists fear, if this goes on, the situation will become grave.
While the Royal Bengal tigers of the Sunderbans are facing a difficult situation owing to natural calamities, facts elsewhere in the country tell another story. A century ago, India
could have boasted of 40,000 tigers. Till 2002, India was believed to be home to 40 per cent of the world tiger population, with 23 tiger reserves in 17 states. But according to the latest survey of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the number has come down to a meagre 1,411. The alarming decline is blamed on two main developments - poaching and urbanisation. At the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, poachers have almost cleaned out the big cats. While in areas like Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh, a sharp drop in the number of tigers is because of encroachment on the forest. The Indian government, however, has now decided to create eight new tiger reserves. For the purpose, 200,000 people in 250 villages will be relocated. Each family will be given Rs 100,000. Still the alarm bells will continue to ring. Can we save the tigers?