The Sunderbans is essentially a delta, formed by the Ganges, the Bramhaputra and the Meghana rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal. It is the largest delta in the world, covering an area greater than 1,000,000 hectares. More than two-thirds of this vast, swampy delta lies in Bangladesh, while the rest lies in West Bengal. The Sunderbans derived its name from the Sundari trees, which once formed a frequent vegetation of this area. Now the entire Sunderbans are covered by a vast and almost impregnable Mangrove forest, and the ecosystem of this region makes it a habitat for a variety of wildlife. The deltaic region is comprised of the said mangrove forests, water bodies, open stretches of sand, and swamps interconnected by small rivers and streams.
The part of the Sunderbans in the state of West Bengal is essentially the Gangetic delta, at the center of which is the Sunderbans National Park, habitat of the majestic Royal Bengal Tigers, and one of the largest Bengal Tiger Conservations in India. The other diverse forms of wildlife found in this area include a variety of reptiles, invertebrates, salt -water crocodiles, birds and spotted deer. The Sunderbans National Park is home to an estimated 400 Royal Bengal Tigers. The geographical aspect and the ecosystem of this region make this area a suitable habitat for the tigers. In 2004, a concerted research operation was implemented in this area. To make the research efforts more conclusive, the Save the Tiger Fund and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service pitched in with abundant finances to secure a comprehensive detail of this tiger-ecosystem. The Sunderbans are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with an astonishing variety of flora and fauna.
The government’s efforts of expanding the tiger conservation
In September 2013, the West Bengal government designated the west Sunderbans as a wildlife sanctuary. The west Sunderbans comprise the forests of Chulkathi and Dhulibashani. As confirmed by Pradeep Vyas, the additional principal chief conservator of forests, “The notification (No. 1828-FOR/11M-86/2012(PT.I) dated 11/9/2013) was issued last month. The construction work for a protection camp at Chulkathi is underway and it will be completed soon”. A part of the South 24 – Parganas Forest Division, this newly-declared sanctuary, spread over an area of 556.45 sq km, appends as the fourth sanctuary to the list of three other sanctuaries already existing in this area, namely, Haliday (6 sq km), Lothian (38 sq km), and Sajnekhali (362 sq km). While the Lothian sanctuary is already a popular tourist spot, tourist activities will also be allowed in this new sanctuary once the protection measures are complete. As per the statement of Vyas, “A recent camera trap exercise has found a presence of at least 22 tigers in the forests under the new sanctuary. The status of sanctuary will ensure more protection measures in the forests around the West Sunderbans Wildlife Sanctuary”. The plans for the declaration of this new sanctuary were approved in a state wildlife board meet held in last February, as confirmed by the sources.
According to experts, the declaration of sanctuary status to the said section of the forest will also minimize human encroachments. A joint study conducted by the Sunderbans Biosphere Reserve and the WWF India, which incidentally, detected the presence of 22 tigers in the area, also indicated an alarming rate of human interference in the said forest area, stemming from the 22 villages located in the vicinity of the newly declared sanctuary. A density of 550 persons per square kilometre is indicated in the areas surrounding the new sanctuary, which may prove to be an adverse factor for the ecosystem of the new sanctuary. While the government issues 3,000 licenses of fishing for the population of this area, the locals still trespass into the forest, for the purpose of collecting honey from the beehives in the forest and for the illicit felling of trees like ‘Passur’, ‘Goran’ and ‘Dhundul’. Chief wildlife warden N. C. Bahuguna confirmed the fact that efforts are underway to include the new sanctuary under the jurisdictions of the tiger reserves to enhance protection of the said forest areas. This move for increased protection of the new sanctuary is conducive with the ideas of Joydip Kundu, member of the state wildlife advisory board, as evident from his statement, “If the new sanctuary is brought under the purview of the tiger reserve, the existing protection can be enhanced”.
Efforts for the treatment of tigers in the wild
Perhaps for the first time, efforts were taken to treat an apparently sick, young tigress in the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary. The tigress, first spotted by a forest official in March 2013, was found hobbling, contrary to its natural and graceful feline canter. The concerned authorities lost no time in putting together a joint team of veterinarians from Alipore Zoo, West Bengal Forest Department, National Tiger Conservation Authority and WWF India personnel, to take care of the said tigress. A close examination of the tigress, after capturing it, revealed no external injury. Upon noting the discomfort of the tigress even in the sitting position, the team resorted to further pathological tests and X- rays of its back portion, using a portable X- ray machine secured from a pathology lab in Kolkata. However, no internal injury was noted, either.
As per the statements of the officials, “To enable effective and secure monitoring of the tigress, the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve Directorate with WWF India’s active support, devised a 24×7 monitoring system using CCTV. The surveillance camera system would generate a wealth of information that will help decide whether the animal is capable of going back into the wild”. Underlining the treatment of the tigress as an enlightening experience, Anurag Danda, Head, Climate Change and Adaptation and Sundarbans Program, WWF India, commented, “The exercise enabled us to understand the challenges of diagnosing and treating a wild tiger. This experience will help us in future if similar methods have to be used for other sick wild animals”. The tigress is recuperating at a satisfactory rate, in a secluded enclosure of the sanctuary, and upon full recovery, will be released in the forest.
Implementing the ‘Camera Trap’ technique to take a viable census of the tigers in the Sunderban Tiger Reserve Conservation
In a joint venture, the WWF India and the West Bengal Forest Department have implemented a new ‘camera trap’ study of the tigers in the Sunderban Tiger Reserve Conservation. Much more dependable than the obsolete modes of ascertaining the number of tigers, the camera trap study has detected 77 tigers in the Conservation. The other major areas with tiger concentration have been demarcated as Sajnekhali (17 tigers), National Park East (27 tigers) and Basirhat (13 tigers). The camera trapping technique was implemented in November 2012, and it has undoubtedly proved that the figure of 274, as furnished by the Sunderban Tiger Reserve Conservation Department, is indeed exaggerated. As accurately pointed out by the famous conservation zoologist Ullas Karanth, only the dynamic camera trap study of the tiger population over a long period can ascertain the number of tigers actually present in the conservation and the consistencies in the number.
It is a fact that tigers are rapidly dwindling in our country. The death toll of 453 tigers in the various tiger reserves of MP alone, in a decade, is almost half the global death toll (1069) in the same decade. Poaching remains the major reason behind this rapidly diminishing figure. Other adverse factors like climatic change and disappearing forest cover have added to the challenges faced by the tigers. However, in the Sunderbans, the government is taking serious measures against poaching and restoring of the mangrove forests. Considering the circumstances, the announcement of the new sanctuary in the Sunderbans is definitely a commendable step in tiger conservation. The Royal Bengal Tigers are a unique species found only in the Sunderbans, noted for their strength, grace and beauty. The coordinated efforts of the West Bengal forest department, WWF India and other related authorities, to save this majestic animal from the peril of extinction, deserves sincere appreciation.