Near the large swathe of the Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh, roamed by Bengal tigers, live several hundred widows.

These women, labelled “tiger widows” after their husbands were killed by big cats in the forest, have been condemned by superstition to live in villages scattered around the forest.

Seen as ill omens who brought bad luck to their husbands, they are cut off from their families and have hardly any access to many government services like widow allowances.

Instead, they rely on a few local non-governmental organisations for a living.

Many of their husbands were among the 184 men who were killed in tiger attacks between 2008 and 2017 when fishing in the mangrove forest or collecting wood or honey.

Local people killed at least eight tigers during that period, which worried wildlife experts who say the Bengal tiger is very important for the sustainability of the biodiversity in the Sundarbans forest.

However, Bangladesh’s Forestry department officials say the number of human-tiger conflicts has reduced remarkably in the recent years, after the government launched a 10-year Tiger Action Plan for the conservation of the big cats in the mangrove forest in 2018.

No deaths were reported in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Three people were killed in tiger attacks in the Sundarbans in 2022, but there no tigers were killed, forest department official Abu Naser Mohsin Hossain said.

A Royal Bengal Tiger, seen at Bangladesh National Zoo. Bangladesh is beginning a census of Bengal tigers in the Sundarbans mangrove forest to find out how many of the big cats are living in the wild. Photo: dpa/Sopa Images/ Zuma Wire/Md Manik

To maintain that relative calm, at least 49 tiger response teams work to mitigate tiger-human conflict around the forest under the plan.

Now, Bangladesh is beginning a census of Bengal tigers in the Sundarbans mangrove forest to find out how many of the big cats are living in the wild, officials say.

“We have started setting up cameras at 665 locations across 1,656sq km of Bangladesh’s part of the forest to know the number of the cats,” Hossain says.

Each location will have two cameras, set up nearly 50cm above the ground for 40 days. They take images and videos automatically if an animal crosses the area, he says.

The images and videos are then sent to the Resource Information Management System at the forest department in Dhaka for analysis, Hossain says.

The prime objective of the census under a short-term tiger conservation project taken up in 2022 is to better protect tigers and other biodiversity in the Sundarbans forest, which was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 1997.

The mangrove forest, part of which extends into the Indian state of West Bengal, is known for its wild fauna, including 260 bird species, the Bengal tigers, and other threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile and Indian Python, according to Unesco.

According to the World Wildlife Fund there are nearly 3,900 tigers left in the wild.

Tapan Kumar Do, a wildlife conservator at the forest department, said that alongside reducing human-tiger conflicts, the goal now is to ensure numbers stay high and to keep male and female tigers close to each other for breeding.

The conservationists also seek to protect the forest’s big cats from natural disasters like cyclones and flooding, as well as parasite infections and other diseases.

The results of the camera-based census are to be announced on July 29, 2024, when people mark World Tiger Day.

In the previous survey conducted in 2018, Bangladesh reported an 8% rise in tigers numbers to 114 in the Sundarbans forest, compared to the 106 in 2015.

After all the work done to limit human-tiger conflict and the resulting number of tiger widows, Hossain hopes to see an even greater increase in the tiger population by 2024. – dpa

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