Sundarbans’ ‘swamp tigers’ could be gone in 50 years, warns study

Climate change, rising seas, industrial development and construction of new roads would hasten the tigers’ end, it says
A tiger near a creek in the Sundarbans. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A tiger near a creek in the Sundarbans. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A new study has warned that the Sundarbans’ famed ‘swamp tigers’, that are distinct from the rest of the Indian Subcontinent’s tigers, could be gone within 50 years, especially from the Bangladeshi part, because of a number of factors.

Titled ‘Combined effects of climate change and sea-level rise project dramatic habitat loss of the globally endangered Bengal tiger in the Bangladesh Sundarbans’, the study has been carried out by a team of Bangladeshi and Australian scientists. It has been published in the journal Science of The Total Environment.

Spanning more than 10,000 square kilometres, the Sundarbans region of Bangladesh and India is the biggest mangrove forest on Earth. It was recently declared a Ramsar site, making the Indian part the country’s largest wetland.

"What is most terrifying is that our analyses suggest tiger habitats in the Sundarbans will vanish entirely by 2070," lead-author Sharif Mukul, an assistant professor at Independent University Bangladesh, was quoted as saying in media reports.

The team used computer simulations to assess the future suitability of the region for tigers and their prey species, using mainstream estimates of climatic trends from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The scientists point out that in addition to climate change and rising seas, industrial development, new roads, and greater poaching could hasten the tigers’ end.

“I do think the forest department is doing a great job regarding protecting the flora and fauna of the Sundarbans,” Riddhi Mukherjee, a wildlife photographer who works in the Indian Sundarbans told Down To Earth (DTE).

“But one must understand that this is a swamp and if the sea level rises, it can get washed away. The tigers will have nowhere to go. So climate change and global warming will directly impact the ecosystem of the Sundarbans. And yes, by seeing how rapidly things are worsening, I am not really optimistic about the future of this magical swampland,” he added.

However, Pradeep Vyas, who was formerly director of the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve, and has worked for a decade in the Sundarbans, took a more optimistic view.

“I have not seen the report. However, I can tell you that it is written in a manner in which many factors have been ignored,” he told DTE.

“There is no doubt that climate change and sea level rise are very serious threats. However, one must remember that the Sundarbans is an active delta. Islands erode but also form in the area because there is a lot of silt coming down with the water of Himalayan rivers,” he reasoned.

“Another factor is the determination of the governments concerned. The Bangladeshi Sundarbans, which occupy 60 per cent of the total area of the delta, have, in recent decades, been given the highest priority by the authorities there. They have cracked down heavily on poachers. Bangladeshis are passionate about the tiger which is their national symbol,” said Vyas.

Another factor that Vyas felt the researchers had not heeded was the active participation of the local communities in the area. “In both, the Indian and Bangladeshi Sundarbans, local people have been educated about the importance of the tiger. In India for instance, tigers straying into villages were killed pre-2001. But between 2001 and 2019, there have not been any such deaths. The Bangladeshi side is also emulating us,” Vyas noted.

He said in order to tackle the rising seas in the Sundarbans, a joint effort has to be made by all stakeholders concerned. 

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