SAVING THE LIVES OF TIGERS AND PEOPLE IN THE SUNDARBANS
Following destruction caused by Cyclone Amphan, quick action is needed to save the lives of both people and tigers. The Rapid Response Facility (RRF) is supporting WWF India to restore human-tiger conflict prevention measures in the Indian part of the Sundarbans, home of a World Heritage Site, Biosphere Reserve, and Ramsar site.
The Sundarbans is the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest, expanding across India and Bangladesh. Located at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, these forests are home to the magnificent Bengal tiger. Uniquely adapted to the mangrove ecosystem, the Sundarbans tigers are strong and skilful swimmers, adept at hunting within the harsh, muddy terrain.
Sundarbans tiger. Credit: Shuvarthi Guha
The Indian Sundarbans are also home to 4.5 million people. Living in close proximity to these forests and dependent on its natural resources, these communities often risk coming into close contact with wild animals (including tigers). Unfortunately, these interactions could cause tragic loss of life on both sides. Reducing these instances and negative interactions is, therefore, vital. One such measure is a ‘tiger fence’, to ensure separation between the tiger habitat and human-dominated areas, and acts as a physical and psychological barrier. In partnership with the Forest Department, WWF India installed tiger fencing along the fringes of villages in 2018. Since then, no tigers have strayed into areas of human habitation.
The Sundarbans are a climatically vulnerable region, exposed to severe impacts from climate change. Sea-level rise, increased frequency of cyclonic storms, erratic rainfall and underdevelopment, make the local population highly vulnerable. By the time ‘super cyclone’ Amphan made landfall in the Sundarbans in May 2020, it was moving at around 130km per hour - devastating local livelihoods and infrastructure. UNESCO called upon the international community to support recovery efforts (https://whc.unesco.org/en/news/2121).
Around 80% of existing tiger fencing in the Sundarbans is now damaged, with netting split and bamboo poles uprooted. The situation is further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many locals who had migrated to India’s big cities to find work having now returned to the area. This increases pressure on the natural resources and the probability of human-tiger interface.
‘Tiger fence’ Credit: WWF India
Without effective fencing in place, there is significantly increased risk of negative human-tiger interactions. With restoration efforts having begun by the Forest Department, RRF is supporting WWF India, in collaboration with the West Bengal Forest Directorate and the local community, to replace at least 50km of nylon net fencing in strategic locations. This includes purchase and replacement of damaged bamboo poles and fibre/nylon netting.
As communities rebuild their lives following the devastating cyclone, protection from tigers that may unwittingly stray into human settlements is key. Restoration and reinforcement of the fence will act to prevent negative human-tiger interactions, and ultimately, save lives of both people and tigers.
Header photo credit: Niladri Sarkar