4th June 2000
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Dr. Charles Santiapillai assists in conservation moves

Majestic cats of the Sundarbans

By Tharuka Dissanaike
The Royal Bengal Tiger that roams the Bangladeshi Sundarbans has an unenviable reputation. The Sundarbans are known for its man-eating tigers, avid hunters whose taste for human flesh has caused them to be a much feared predator in the swampy forests in the delta of the Ganges.

In the six years between 1860 and 1866 tigers in the Sundarbans killed some 4,218 people. More recently, between 1956 and 1983, in the Bangladeshi side of the Sundarbans alone, an average of 20 people have been killed every year by these majestic cats. Presently, according to official figures, around 24 people (but the figure could be as high as 100) succumb to the tigers every year. Researchers have proved that human casualities increase with the salinity levels of the water, which affect the tigers' normal prey of deer and wild boar.

Against this backdrop, conserving the Sundarban tiger would seem an uphill task. Especially since the people most likely to fall prey to the beasts are poor fishermen, gatherer/hunters who obtain permits to work in the Sundarbans. Although no one lives in this area, one of the largest tracts of productive mangrove forests in the world, around 45,000 people obtain government permits to collect honey, gather firewood and palm leaves and fish. These poor people are the tigers' most common victims. The beasts are not unknown to stalk into bordering villages at night, hunting livestock and people.

Dr. Charles Santiapillai, Professor of Zoology at the University of Peradeniya and eminent conservationist was consultant for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to draw up a viable project to conserve the Sundarban tiger. Having worked in tiger conservation in Indonesia and Sumatra, Dr. Santiapillai was entrusted with coming up with a proposal for funds that would enable Bangladeshi conservationists and managers to carry out programmes for the tigers' survival. "The WWF is seeking approval for a budget of 10,000 Swiss Francs for the conservation of the tigers in the Sundarbans," he said. Even now Dr. Santiapillai is in Bangladesh conducting a workshop for biologists and conservationists working in the Sundarbans. 

Both India and Bangladesh share the vast mangrove of the Sundarbans. On the Indian side, the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve has the largest tiger population in a protected area in India. The swamp was created by the deposition of sediment from the Ganges, Meghna and Brahmaputra rivers. It covers over 5700 square kilometres of which a large part is land (forest), while around 1700 square kilometres consist of rivers, canals and creeks.

"It is important that both countries combine their efforts to protect the Sundarbans and the tiger," Dr. Santiapillai said. He added that an Indian dam, which cut off a vital fresh water supply to the mangroves, had caused increased salinity in the water, causing the tiger to hunt for livestock and humans. 

"These tigers are extremely bold and have been known to wade across the rivers, jump into boats and haul the hapless fishermen dozing inside, for their dinner. " The tigers taste for human flesh is whetted by the occasional half-burnt body floating down the Ganges or dead fishermen caught in cyclones."
In the Sundarbans, the tiger occupies a position seen nowhere else. He is at the top of both food webs- the terrestrial and aquatic. It is the only instance of tigers living in a mangrove habitat. Earlier the extensive Sundarbans supported a much larger and more diverse range of animals including the Indian rhino, barking and hog deer, buffalo and the guar or Indian bison, but today all these are extinct and the tigers have to depend on the pig, spotted deer and the macaque monkey for its sustenance.

Estimates of the tigers vary. They are mainly guesstimates, because there has never been a proper census to determine the number of tigers that lives here. The dense and tangled vegetation makes it near impossible to track the tiger on foot. But it is generally believed that between 300-450 animals live in this tough habitat.

In the Sundarbans the survival of the Royal Bengal Tiger depends largely on the availability of prey -of the correct size- and the eradication of poaching for skin and body parts.

"For the conservation of the tiger both aspects are very important. If prey animals are not adequately found in its domain the tiger will perish, even if poaching is controlled." Therefore it is important to keep populations of deer, sambhur, wild pig and monkey at levels that can support the considerably large tiger population.

While the world may enjoy the majestic sight of the Bengal Tiger, for the poverty-stricken villagers who have to grapple with the beast when eking out a living, it is no Sunday picnic. "The west has to help out an impoverished country like Bangladesh in its conservation efforts, if they want the tiger to survive," Dr. Santiapillai said. 

Conservation of the tiger has to take into account the people's illiteracy, sanitation and livelihood. It must also involve local biologists and professionals, for in the end, as Dr. Santiapillai puts it, "It will be them, not an outsider like me who will decide the fate of the tiger in Bangladesh."

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