None to help, Bengal Tiger to go extinct in Bengal

None to help, Bengal Tiger to go extinct in Bengal

The days of tigers roaming in the wild in Bengal are numbered. (Image courtesy: Wikipedia/ Soumyajit Nandy)

This year’s tiger census had a mixed bag for West Bengal. In the 2014 census, two tigers were sighted in the Buxa Tiger Reserve (BTR) in the north-western corner of Bengal. Unfortunately, a year-long search during 2018-19 by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) did not find a single big cat there. On the other hand, the count of tigers in the Sundarbans, the only other tiger sanctuary of the state, has increased from 76 in 2014 to 88.

Before the census was released, in a tweet Mamata Banerjee mentioned that ‘augmentation of tiger population in Buxa Tiger Reserve has been initiated’. Her advisors did not tell her that the Buxa story is over.

Thanks to mining in the hills of Bhutan and consequent deposition of dolomite-mixed pebbles, the bed of the Jayanti River that flows through BTR is getting elevated dangerously each year. In three decades, the height of the riverbed has risen by a whopping 20 feet. A few feet more, and the entire area of BTR will be submerged. Mechanised dredging at a massive level may still save the day for human populations settled there, but tigers cannot survive in an area of large-scale human activity.

Forgetting Buxa, the media in Bengal and wildlife lovers celebrated the success story of the Sundarbans, quite oblivious to the fact that it is perhaps the last luminous flare of a dying lamp.

Neither the state governments nor the centre exhibits any awareness of the environmental disaster awaiting the Bengal tigers in the Sundarbans. In another 50 years, the hungry tides will claim almost the whole of Sundarbans, denying the big cats their last coastal habitat. Recently, Sudip Bandopadhyay, a veteran Trinamool Congress MP, enquired during Question Hour in Lok Sabha about the possibility of launching a tiger safari in the Sundarbans. If it reflected the ignorance of the MP, the answer given by Babul Supriyo, minister of state for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, was quite unnerving. He welcomed the suggestion and said if the West Bengal government prepared a proposal, the Centre would examine it!

It only shows the magnitude of ignorance about the condition of the Sundarbans among politicians across parties. A mangrove forest grows where the soil is mudflat. The Sundarbans go under water during high tide. One can travel through the pristine jungles only in boats. Trying to make it a tourist attraction and using motorised boats will cause irreparable damage to the habitat of the tigers.

When politicians, even the central ministers hailing from the state in question are themselves unconcerned about the present, is there any chance of saving the Sundarban tigers’ future?

The mangroves that once used to occupy 6,000 square kilometres shrunk to 4,500 square kilometres by 1993. It is said that governmental efforts have reclaimed 500 square kilometres. But each year the sea is biting away chunks of it. A 2007 study by the Jadavpur University concluded that about 80 square kilometres of the Sunderbans had fallen prey to the sea in the preceding 30 years. With global warming, the rate of rise of the sea level has increased further. As of now, during the low tide, the water recedes from vast areas of the Sundarbans. But those days are not far when even during the ebb the water will not recede entirely, and that will make hunting exceedingly difficult for the tigers.

The rise of the sea level in Bengal is above global average. The sea has already devoured quite a few islands at the river mouth. The Sagar island, the biggest one in Ganga delta, is situated just beyond the south-western tip of the Sundarbans. Famous for hosting the Gangasagar Mela, the island had an average elevation of four metres. But the tides broke it up into many islets like Ghoramara, Lohachara and Subarnabhanga. From among these, Lohachara and Subarnabhanga have already been devoured by the sea. Ghoramara, about 25 square kilometres in size till 1969, has been reduced to about three square kilometres now. On its west, another tract of land known as Khasimara has disappeared.

Buxa will have no tiger ever again. Any effort to relocate a few there will only endanger their lives. Relocating Sundarban tigers is fraught with dangerous consequences for human beings, because almost all these tigers are man-eaters by nature. And they may not survive without saline water. But can we do something to save the Sundarbans from being submerged? It is not known. Though time is running out, no concerted effort is on to save the situation.

The 2018-19 census found 2967 Bengal tigers (once called the Royal Bengal Tiger) in the country. But the days are not far away when Bengal tigers will not roam in the wild in Bengal any more.

(Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of books including, A Naxal Story. He is a deputy editor at the Bengali daily, Aajkal)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.