Wildlife & Biodiversity

Sundarbans has been slipping in rank despite an increased tiger count; here’s why

Lack of adequate manpower is its main challenge, a member of the evaluation team points out

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Monday 17 April 2023
On the other hand, poaching and tiger-human conflicts have been largely controlled here. Photo: iStock.
On the other hand, poaching and tiger-human conflicts have been largely controlled here. Photo: iStock. On the other hand, poaching and tiger-human conflicts have been largely controlled here. Photo: iStock.

The tiger population in Sundarbans might have reached 100 in the latest National Tiger Census; still, it has only been ranked 31st among the 51 tiger reserves in the country when it comes to forest management, a recently published report has found.

The report titled Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) of Tiger Reserves 2022, summary version prepared by Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), was released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 9, 2022 in Mysuru along with the ‘Status of Tigers 2022’ report.  

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

Though Sundarbans has been in the ‘very good’ category in all five assessment cycles, its overall ranking has been consistently declining over the last two decades, from second in 2006 to the current 31st, the MEE reports showed.

Incidentally, the tiger census report showed that the Sundarbans’ tiger number increased from 88 to 100 between 2018 and 2022.  

Lack of adequate manpower and the vulnerability of the location to climate change and submergence from sea level rise have been identified as the major challenges.

Senior forest officials of the state argued that the Sundarbans has been doing well in containing major problems like poaching and tiger-human conflict. However, several officials have accepted that there is scope for improvement and informed that the state government took a policy decision to expand the tiger reserve area of Sundarbans.

Periyar topper; Sundarbans slipping

Among the 51 tiger reserves assessed under the fifth cycle, Periyar was found to be the topper with 94.38 per cent score, followed by Satpura with 93.16 per cent.

Overall, 12 forests were identified as ‘excellent’, 20 ‘very good’, 14 ‘good’ and five ‘fair’ based on 33 parameters. In all, 29 forest reserves improved their respective categories in 2022 compared to the earlier assessment in 2018.

Also read: Ethos of a sinking space: Fishers in Sundarbans surmount tiger attacks, bureaucracy to earn livelihoods

Though in the ‘very good’ category since 2006, the Sundarbans gradually has been slipping in the overall ranking. It was ranked second in 2006 among 28 tiger reserves assessed, eighth among 39 tiger reserves in 2010, fifth among 42 tiger reserves in 2014, 22nd among 50 tiger reserves in 2018 and 31st among 51 tiger reserves assessed in 2022, according to data available with this reporter.

The Sundarbans has been categorised as very good, but there are few areas where it can improve, said  BK Patnaik, chairperson of the team that evaluated Sundarbans in 2022.

Patnaik told this reporter:

The most important thing is to improve the staff strength, which was about 50 per cent when it was evaluated. The lack of enough staff is affecting many areas. For example, the performance of eco-development committees can be improved with a micro-plan, which will ensure better livelihood opportunities for people and discourage them from entering the forest area.

“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,” said Patnaik.

The unique geographic location of the Sundarbans makes it vulnerable to climate change and submergence from sea level rise, the tiger census report flagged.

“Also, the deltaic region faces a substantial amount of accretion and erosion every year … the north-west side of the tiger reserve is bordered by numerous forest villages and largely belongs to agrarian community. These villagers are highly dependent on the natural resources of the landscape for their livelihood,” it added.

Ranking countered

The forest officials, however, did not agree to the ranking.“We do not agree to the ranking given to the Sundarbans. Staff shortage haunts most tiger reserves and Sundarbans is no exception. But on the other hand, poaching and tiger-human conflicts have been largely controlled here,” said Soumitra Dasgupta, Head of Forest Forces in Bengal.

Dasgupta told this reporter:

To improve the overall management, we have decided in principle to include three ranges from the South 24-Parganas forest division, namely Matla, Raidighi and Ramganga, into the Sundarbans tiger reserve, and expect NTCA to give clearance. Once approved, the Sundarban tiger reserve will be the biggest tiger reserve in the country.

Presently, the Sundarbans tiger reserve is around 2,585 square kilometres (sq km), which may become about 3,600 sq km once the tiger reserve gets expanded; and will push back Nagarjunasagar tiger reserve of Andhra Pradesh into second place, which is currently the biggest tiger reserve in the country with around 3,296 sq km area.

The measures will lead to better management as well, he added. “First, the capacity of the staff will be enhanced as they will have to go through stronger training and monitoring protocol; second, much intense management can be provided and less straying will occur apart from staffs gaining financially,” added Dasgupta.

These ranges are tiger habitats and hence can be better managed once they become part of the tiger reserve area, said Biswajit Roy Roychoudhury, a wildlife expert and member of the state wildlife advisory board.

Sundarbans, including the forest covering both the present tiger reserve and South 24 Parganas district, has been under increasing climate change impacts, and it is important to carry out the related assessment. Once integrated, it will be possible to have a holistic understanding of the climatic impact on the Sundarbans forest, added the expert.

Joydeep Kundu, a tiger expert and member of the state wildlife board, also countered the ranking allotted, arguing that joint forest management committees are doing well and steps like putting nylon nets around the forest areas of Sundarbans to stop straying of tigers in human habitats, has given a lot of dividends to the pristine forest area. 

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