- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

SUNDARBANS, India — Armed with protective fiberglass vests, steel helmets, guns, wooden clubs, firecrackers and nylon nets, wildlife experts from India and Bangladesh are tracking Royal Bengal tigers in the Sundarbans along the Mouths of the Ganges.

As part of their first joint census of the magnificent but endangered animals, the wardens scour the world’s largest mangrove forest for paw prints they hope will help them gauge how many of the tigers remain.

Traveling mostly by motorized boats at low tide along the crisscrossing rivers and creeks, groups of 10 to 15 game wardens use binoculars looking for pug marks or other evidence of the big cats from a safe distance. On spotting a tiger track, the boat draws closer to shore and two armed guards who accompany each of the teams get off first.

As a medical team stands by in case of attack, the guards check thoroughly if any tiger is hiding in the vicinity and follow the trail for some distance into the forest, until they find the clear impression of a rear paw of the tiger on drier mud.

Escorted by the guards, other members of the team erect safety nets to prevent tigers from leaping out of the dense forest.

Then, as one group make a plaster cast of the paw print, another measures the distance between the tracks to gauge the tiger’s size, notes the direction in which the animal traveled and records the vegetation in the area.

Since tigers rarely attack from the front, most team members wear masks on the backs of their heads to confuse the tigers and, hopefully, discourage attack.

Besides collecting paw prints, the wildlife wardens also seek evidence of tiger breeding and feeding habits in the Sundarbans, and look for reasons why fishermen, woodcutters and honey collectors in this region are still being killed in appreciable numbers by tigers every year.

The Sundarbans — “Beautiful Forests,” spread across the more than 4,000-square-mile delta crisscrossed by scores of rivers — straddle the eastern part of India and the southern tip of Bangladesh. The region is home to an estimated 600 Royal Bengal tigers, the largest number of these animals in one region in the world.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the Sundarbans mangrove forest a World Natural Heritage Site in 1985.

The collection of tiger paw prints that began in the Indian portion of the Sundarbans in mid-January will end on the Bangladesh side in the first week of March.

The molds of the paw prints will be analyzed later to reach a final estimate of the tiger population — a process expected to take at least three months after the conclusion of field work, officials of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (STR) in India said this week.

In the Indian portion of the Sundarbans alone, tigers kill about 10 people per year. A tiger census in the Sundarbans is fraught with serious risk. In 1995, one boatman in a tiger census team was attacked and killed by a big cat.

“No one knows when a tiger can lunge out of the forest. Always, we have to remain on our toes. I still find the job very exciting,” said Nabakumar Kundu, a game warden who has participated as an armed guard in about a dozen tiger censuses of the Indian Sundarbans over the past 30 years.

Elsewhere, tigers seldom kill people except when defending their food or cubs, or recovering from wounds inflicted by a hunter. But in the Sundarbans, tigers behave like no others in the world.

They have hunted people for centuries, said author and naturalist Sy Montgomery, an American who has studied the region for years and recently published a book about it called “Spell of the Tiger.” Scientists do not know why Sundarbans tigers stalk human prey, she said.

“Nature does not obey the rules here,” Miss Montgomery wrote in the book. “Fish climb trees; the animals drink salt water; the roots of trees grow up toward the sky instead of down to the earth. And, here tigers do not obey the same rules by which tigers elsewhere govern their lives.”

The tigers of the Sundarbans are more aggressive because they live in a harsh habitat of water and mud, contends Pradip Vyas, director of the Indian STR.

Atanu Raha, chief conservator of forests in West Bengal state, said: “Human beings are not a natural diet for tigers. A tiger turns into a man-eater only under extraordinary situations, like when it grows too infirm or disabled to hunt, or when there is a scarcity of its natural prey.”

From the Indian Sundarbans, the wildlife experts have already collected 1,088 impressions of paw prints and the preliminary data is heartening for conservationists who have been struggling to save India’s tigers, STR officials said.

“This year’s census has indicated an encouraging trend. We have found some prints of young tigers too. It not only indicates stability in the numbers of the big cats, but also indicates that the tiger population is on the rise,” said Mr. Raha.

India’s Sundarbans is one of the few places left on Earth where a dwindling species is not being eradicated by poachers or by villages encroaching on wildlife habitats.

Arun Mallick, an STR forest ranger, said that last year, not a single tiger was poached in the Indian Sundarbans.

Poaching, shrinking habitat and — despite a ban — hunting by the rich and powerful have pushed down the numbers of tigers in Bangladesh. In the eastern Sundarbans, there were about 600 tigers in the early 1990s. Now only 250 of the animals are believed to survive.

Khasru Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi tiger tracker, said there are about 300 poachers in or near the eastern Sundarbans, and they kill 10,000 deer and at least a dozen tigers each year.

Sources in the Sundarbans say that last year, at least eight tigers were illegally captured on the Bangladeshi side and smuggled to Singapore. In addition, five tigers were killed by residents when the animals strayed into villages.

The world tiger population has dwindled in recent years, mostly because poachers smuggle tiger skins and bones to China, South Korea and Taiwan where people pay high prices for traditional Chinese remedies. A tiger’s penis is supposed to enhance sexual prowess, and powdered tiger bone is believed to be useful in treating rheumatism.

China’s tiger population has fallen drastically since the 1960s, and East Asian restaurants and traditional-medicine specialists now depend on poachers in South Asia.

In Bangladesh, a poacher is paid $750 or less for a large, dead Royal Bengal tiger, while in Taiwan one brewery making tiger-bone wine pays $800 or more for a single pound of tiger bone.

According to a 1999 report by Traffic Japan — established in 1982 by World Wildlife Fund-Japan, and later emulated in Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere — one brewery in Taiwan was importing more than two tons of tiger bones annually, involving the killing of up to 200 tigers.

A restaurant in Taiwan or South Korea selling tiger-penis soup at $400 to $500 per serving might pay as much as $4,500 for the whole penis of a tiger, a Chinese tiger trafficker told investigators last year in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

The tiger population of the western Sundarbans, which cover 1,645 square miles, dwindled to 50 in 1972. But since Project Tiger — initiated by the Indian government the following year — it has rebounded to some extent. A tiger census in 2001 found 271 of the big cats in India’s Sundarbans Tiger Reserve.

According to tiger counts carried out at three- or four-year intervals, the number of the big cats in all parts of India was 3,642 in 2001, up from 1,817 in 1972. The country now has 27 tiger reserves covering nearly 15,500 square miles.

As 40 percent of the mangrove forest is in India and the rest in Bangladesh, the United Nations and other international organizations have been pressing the two countries for years to combine their efforts to preserve the biodiversity of the Sundarbans, including a joint census of plant and animal life across the whole mangrove forest.

The current tiger census is a result of that U.N.-sponsored initiative. The world body welcomed the start of the joint Sundarbans tiger census as a milestone in cross-border collaboration to protect globally significant biodiversity.

“Today Bangladesh and India are taking valuable steps towards restoring pride to the region in having healthy tiger populations and habitats. This approach also underscores the growing realization that tigers are not a threat — rather an asset to be protected,” said Jorgen Lissner, resident representative in Bangladesh of the United Nations Development Program.

Indian wildlife officials say that since the border between India and Bangladesh cuts through the Sundarbans, previous tiger censuses by either country were probably inaccurate, because some tigers were likely missed, and others counted twice as they went from one country to the other.

“A cross-border census is absolutely necessary, because it is one single ecosystem,” said Gopal Chandra Tanti, a veteran STR researcher who has studied the region for 25 years.

Until recently, the STR was under pressure from growing villages and poor residents who encroach deep into forests to farm or live off forest produce. They also kill animals like deer for food, depleting the tigers’ prey.

“As man and animal compete for space and food, they target each other,” said Dipankar Ghosh of the Wildlife Trust of India.

But in the past two years, forest officials in India’s Sundarbans have begun projects to improve the economic condition of the people in villages close to the forest. They also have explained the need to protect tigers to maintain the ecosystem on which villagers depend.

Mr. Vyas of the STR said this has resulted in a huge “attitude shift.” Instead of killing tigers that stray outside the forest, villagers now help forest officials capture them.

“Our relationship with the villagers has improved considerably, and in last two years we have actually captured or immobilized 16 tigers from the villages or from the periphery and released them back in the wild,” he said.

Mr. Raha, the chief conservator of forests in West Bengal state, said that the census is crucial to protect the highly endangered Royal Bengal tigers.

“At the beginning of the last century there were 40,000 tigers in India, but the numbers have now dropped to 4,500, about 60 percent of the world’s remaining stock,” Mr. Raha said.

“Unless we take the best care to protect the Royal Bengal tigers in South Asia, they will meet the same fate as others [tigers] did in many parts of the world. Already four out of eight subspecies [of the tigers] have gone extinct in last few decades.”

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