Sundarbans - Tigers - Climate Change

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on


I have just returned from the Sundarbans and marvel at the sheer pluck of those who defend tigers here, as well as those who live cheek by jowl with them.

With sea levels rising, floods and droughts increasing, and glaciers in sharp retreat, India's tigers and her tiger reserves across the country face a new threat from destabilized climate regimes whose global scale is hard to even comprehend. The first tigers affected by this threat live in the 24 Parganas District in the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest so large that it sprawls from one country to another. In this oceanic forest, climate change is taking a severe toll. Extreme climatic events, rising salinity, increasing floods and tidal surges, plus a falling fish catch are forcing people into greater conflict with tigers. What used to be considered the world's most secure population of tigers now has uncertainty written into their future.

Nevertheless the swamps and forests of the Sundarbans (‘beautiful forest' in Bengali) are still largely impenetrable and they are home to a significant contiguous population of tigers. The number is possibly around 200 - 250 between both India and Bangladesh. It is notoriously difficult to estimate the tiger population in this habitat and some say the numbers are -- and possibly always were -- lower. But the National Tiger Conservation Authority, Wildlife Institute of India and the West Bengal Forest Department are combining strengths to implement the most ambitious tiger enumeration exercise ever.

Meanwhile, despite valiant attempts, the forest staff cannot possibly prevent snares from being set by unscrupulous gangs who profit from the sale of deer and wild boar meat to nearby markets. This impacts tigers causing them to stray towards human habitats in search of livestock. The good news is that the relationship between local communities and forest authorities (Tiger Reserve and Biosphere Reserve) has improved dramatically from a decade ago. Today when tigers stray, villagers send urgent messages to officials to rescue it (and them). In the bad old days, they would be beaten to death.

I was in the Sundarbans the same time as Jairam Ramesh, India's Environment and Forests Minister. This was the first time a Central Environment Minister had spent so much time here.  He impressed the forest officers with his understanding of the problems they faced and has promised them an additional sum of Rs. 2.6 crores for their next budget. However, soon after his visit, news came in of his having approved plans to construct a nuclear reactor at over 1,000 times that cost just north of the Sundarbans. How that will affect the world's mangrove forest is anyone's guess.  We also heard that almost 100 times the amount of money being given to protect tigers will be loaned to the Government of India to 'develop' the Sundarbans. This money will probably end up in the hands of developers whose interests conflict with tigers. And thereby hangs a tail... hopefully not the tigers'.