About three years back, on 20 August 2020, Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) Md Amir Hosain Chowdhury announced publicly that the Bangladesh government was thinking about reintroduction of Bengal Tigers in Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT), where tigers were native even a few decades ago.'
He revealed this while addressing an e-conference on tiger conservation titled "Tiger Conservation and Community Participation: Transboundary Experience Sharing," jointly organised by the Bangladesh National Committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Asia Regional Committee of the same organisation.
Amir said that a feasibility study was underway, and once it was completed the following year, the government would decide whether or not to reintroduce tigers in the CHT. Experts from four tiger range countries participated in the conference and shared their experience in tiger conservation.
The "Feasibility Study of Transboundary Wildlife Corridor in Chattogram, Chattogram Hill Tracts and Cox's Bazar with Myanmar and India" was initiated in July 2020 and was scheduled for completion by June 2021. Later it was extended by six months.
The feasibility project was supposed to identify potential sites for the corridors to be set up in the project area. It would also assess the status of wildlife connectivity and identify potential wildlife habitats. The Bangladesh government provided more than Tk3.81 crore for the project.
So what happened to the plan?
Experts who participated in the study say conditions are not suitable at present for reintroduction of tigers in CHT.
"Area-wise, the forests in the CHT are alright, but the question remains, is there sufficient prey-base in there for tigers?" Dr MA Aziz, a professor of Zoology from Jahangirnagar University, posed the question.
"If we release tigers there, spending crores, then if there is not enough prey for the tiger to survive on, they will come near human habitats, and will get killed," he added.
Professor Aziz mentioned that the time of the study coincided with the monsoon, so it was difficult to work in the remote forests. He said winter is the best time for camera trapping, which was not possible due to the timing of the project. He also pointed out that they got only two months for the field work.
Professor Aziz said, assessing the prey-base, and secondly, building confidence in the local population, is the most important work before taking a decision on tiger reintroduction. But the wildlife corridor study did not give much importance to these elements, and reintroduction of tigers was not central to it.
"But we didn't say releasing tigers in that part of the land was impossible or there was no tiger there. There is evidence that there is a presence of tigers in Kassalong Reserve Forest. But assessing the prey-base more meticulously is what we underlined time and again, but could not complete," the tiger expert said.
"Reintroducing tigers in a forest is a mammoth task. One has to take in consideration the location of the source population of the tiger, the genetic status of the tiger being translocated, the genetic and health status of the pre-existing tiger (if any) in the destination forest etc. Huge preparation and research are needed before taking up a project like that, and we are nowhere near that," continued the conservation biologist.
"We cannot release captive-bred tigers in a forest, so we will have to catch new ones from the Sundarbans. How will the citizens feel about it? Will they accept it? It is not possible to address all these overnight," said Dr Aziz.
Cambodia's dry forests in the Eastern Plains once hosted a large number of tigers. Intensive poaching of both tigers and their prey left the forest bereft of tigers. The last time a tiger was spotted in Cambodia was more than 15 years ago. The country has taken an initiative to reintroduce the majestic animal, but it has not been possible so far. A memorandum of understanding has been signed between Cambodia and India about translocating some of India's tigers to Cambodia, but its realisation is faced with uncertainty.
India, however, has reintroduced tigers in its domestic reserves successfully, starting with a translocation project implemented at Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan 15 years back.
Dr Monirul H Khan, another professor of Zoology from Jahangirnagar University, was also a member of the study team. He said, "We mainly focused on creating a forested corridor connecting the natural forests of CHT. We gave priority on habitat restoration so the prey-base is improved. "
The professor also echoed Dr Aziz in saying that there are many stages before planning a translocation of tigers in a new forest, which cannot be done suddenly. In the study, the experts recommended the must-dos to that end, including sensitising the local population.
The expert clarified that suitable conditions do not exist in CHT forests for tigers at present.
"If the conditions were perfect, there would be tigers in these forests already, and there wouldn't be a question of reintroduction," the wildlife expert said.
Whether or not there are tigers in CHT is shrouded in mystery. There is speculation that tigers do roam across the border, as there are some on the other side of it. There are tigers in Dampa Tiger Reserve in western Mizoram, India, which is just across the border near Kassalong Reserve Forest in Rangamati, Bangladesh. Also, in 2016, a local conservationist group called Creative Conservation Alliance photographed a 13-centimetre pugmark of a feline in Sangu Reserve Forest in Bandarban, which experts believe was a tiger.
Dr Khan said the corridor project has not been kicked off yet.
Raquibul Amin, country representative at IUCN Bangladesh and head, South Asia Sub-region, also said that the main goal of the project was to create a wildlife corridor connecting the forests in CHT, which would help the movement of elephants, and of tigers if they existed.
Raquibul said IUCN completed the study and submitted the report to BFD. He further said that BFD would have to work in unison with all the stakeholders - CHT Hill District Councils, Mochta (Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs), CHT Development Board, DC offices and above all, local communities to implement such a project.
"We found that CHT has the potential for a tiger habitat. However, whether you will reintroduce tiger there is another question. Will you be able to ensure its security? Does a competent management exist there? Above all, do local people want it? We need more consultations on these issues, and this is what we recommended," Raquibul said.
Chief Conservator of Forests, Md Amir Hosain Chowdhury, who floated the idea three years back could not be reached for a comment. Repeated calls to his mobile phone and official number were not answered. However, he was recently quoted in an international news outlet as saying that the BFD has retreated from the plan to reintroduce tigers in CHT. He mentioned the lack of prey for tigers in the hill tracts as well as the presence of human settlements to be the reasons behind the decision.
Some researchers, however, think our wildlife programmes are too biased towards tigers. They think we need to focus more on other wildlife species still living in the country.
"The CHT forests host globally threatened carnivores like sun bears, black bears, leopards, clouded leopards, and wild dogs. The forests have sambars, serows, muntjacs, and boars - evidenced through trophies and camera-trap footage. It is high time we come out of tiger-centric strategies and look at the more pressing problems," opined Muntasir Akash, an assistant professor of the Department of Zoology in the University of dhaka.
"Nonetheless, securing connection between our ever-fragmenting CHT forests still has merits because we need to pay equal attention to the species that already exist there," he added.
Conservation in CHT forests is more complex than other forests in the country. Most of it is categorised as Unclassed State Forests (USF) - covering about 29% of the total forest land of Bangladesh - which is controlled by the Ministry of Land, and not the Forest Department. Besides, decades of armed insurgency have left many parts of these forests inaccessible to civil administration and tourists. Many parts of Khagrachhari and Rangamati (including Kassalong Reserve Forest) have been off-limits to civilians for the same reason.