Equally feared and revered is one of the world’s most iconic creatures: the majestic Bengal tiger. They are threatened by poaching, and humans are expanding into their shrinking habitats, so researchers say that in just 50 years it could completely disappear from one of its last remaining strongholds: a huge mangrove forest called Sundarbans, which runs from India to Bangladesh.
Bengal tiger’s last refuges
The world’s largest tiger stronghold, the Sundarbans, is at risk of being lost due to climate change and rising sea levels, according to a recent UN report. Spanning over 4,000 square miles of swampy land in West Bengal and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans are home to the largest mangrove forests and the endangered Royal Bengal tiger.
A study by Australian and Bangladeshi researchers, published in the Journal Science of The Total Environment, reveals that 70 per cent of the land in the Sundarbans is only a few feet above sea level. With global warming, significant changes are expected in the region, posing a serious threat to the remaining Bengal tiger population. The study predicts that by 2070, tiger habitats in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh will be completely gone.
The research paper uses climate scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for its simulation models. An earlier study by the World Wide Fund for Nature also predicted that an 11-inch rise in sea levels could lead to a 96 per cent decline in the tiger population within a few decades.
The new report, led by Sarif A. Mukul and his colleagues, investigates additional factors that contribute to habitat loss, such as changes in vegetation patterns and an increase in extreme weather events. These factors, along with the risk of floods, cyclones and food shortages, could further reduce the tiger population. The situation may force tigers to leave their habitat in search of new lands, which could lead to conflicts with humans.
The findings underscore the urgent need for conservation efforts and global action to mitigate the effects of climate change. Preserving the Sundarbans and its rich biodiversity is crucial to the survival of the Royal Bengal tiger and the overall health of the ecosystem.
Climate change Bengal tiger
Over the past century, we have lost 95% of all the world’s tigers, leaving fewer than 4,000 in the wild. Bengal tigers are found in a handful of Asian countries, India and Bangladesh, but only a few hundred still roam free in the Sundarbans. They cover more than 10,000 square kilometers but this flat area is shrinking rapidly, with some of its islands being submerged as local sea levels rise much faster than the world average.
Between 2004 and 2015, the number of Bengal tigers fell from 440 to 106 in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh. That number is “dangerously low,” said Dipankar Ghose, director of the species and landscapes program at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), due to “a growing poaching crisis, habitat degradation and fragmentation.”
The global tiger population is currently estimated at just under 4,000, with illegal tiger parts trade, hunting and habitat loss eliminating the population by 96% from 100,000 in 1990, according to the study. Three of the eight tiger subspecies are now extinct, and the remaining five species are currently “endangered” or “critically endangered.”
As global temperatures rise and the melting of polar ice raises sea levels, the influx of salty seawater can make it difficult for certain plants to grow, subsequently reducing the availability of certain types of food.
The Sundarbans’ spotted deer population, a key food source for the Bengal tiger, is likely to be affected as the leaves on the trees it feeds on begin to fade. As resources become scarcer, tigers are more likely to enter human settlements in search of food, increasing the possibility of a tiger-human conflict.
Sea levels rise and there is less fresh water
Earlier this year, a study modeled the area of the Sundarbans that could continue to be suitable habitat for tigers as global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. It found that by 2070, the Bengal tiger could disappear from the Sundarbans as their habitats are completely destroyed by rising sea levels, more extreme weather, and increased salt in water and soil.
Rising sea levels and decreasing rainfall have already increased the amount of salt in the water, killing the Sundri trees, from which the Sundarbans region gets its name, and reducing the habitat of the tiger mangrove swamp according to Sharif Mukul, study co-author and assistant professor at the Independent University of Bangladesh.
Conflict with humans
As their supply of fresh water and food dwindles, Bengal tigers venture out of their habitat and closer to human settlements, sometimes resulting in deaths.
According to a 2013 study, at least three tigers die each year as a result of human-tiger conflict. An average of 20 to 30 people are reported to be killed by tigers each year in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh, but the number is likely to be higher as many attacks go unreported because they involve people who have entered the tiger habitat.
According to the RTI information, 88 human deaths, Maharashtra witnessed the worst human-animal conflict in 2020, indicating significant consequences for the economy, human health, safety and well-being, and the ecosystem.
In 2017, 54 people were killed and the state paid Rs 4.32 million as compensation. By 2020, the figure had risen to 88 humans for whom the state government paid compensation of 12.75 million rupees.
These deaths include 32 in leopard attacks and 38 in tiger attacks. Most of the cases of tiger attacks occurred in the Chandrapur district. In the same period, there is also a drastic increase in livestock deaths from 5,961 in 2017 to 9,258 in 2020.
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