Once, during a field visit to the Sundarbans, I asked an illegal logger what problems he faces in his profession.
He said tigers are life-threatening.
However, when I mentioned extermination of tigers, he protested, saying the absence of tigers would further accelerate deforestation.
This means the people who are scared of or have been attacked by tigers also understand the importance of the animal. To them, tigers are the natural guards.
Over the years, the size of the Bengal tiger population – the flagship animal of the Sundarbans – has been declining proportionately to rapid deforestation.
Even a century ago, Bengal tigers frequented the Bhawal forest in Gazipur. An old photograph of the Bhawal king posing with a dead Bengal tiger proves this.
Now, the Sundarbans is the last shelter for the Bengal tigers.
The Sundarbans accounts for 42 percent of the total forest area in the country. It is also a huge carbon sink.
With at least 24 true mangrove and 70 associated mangrove floral species, the Sundarbans has the richest biodiversity compared to other mangrove forests in the world. Several studies suggest that there are 42 mammal, eight amphibian, 35 reptile, 315 bird, 200 fish, 24 shrimp, seven dolphin and seven crab species in the Sundarbans.
This forest is invaluable. It acted as a natural shield during the recent cyclone Bulbul. In the last 100 years, at least 500 cyclones landed on the Sundarbans. We observed how it saved people during the 2007 Sidr.
We may not have a Taj Mahal which was built in 22 years. But we have the Sundarbans – an invaluable asset that is more than five thousand years old.
In 1968, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman demanded the Pakistani rulers do not cut the Sundarbans plants. His logic was clear – the forest was not built by people, and it was a God's gift for the people of Bengal.
The Pakistani rulers denied Mujib's request, saying that the forest provided 1.5 crores of revenue annually. The amount was certainly huge at that time.
Later in July 1972, the Father of the Nation, while launching a plantation programme in independent Bangladesh, cited exploiting resources of the Sundarbans by the Pakistani authorities as an act of discrimination.
He urged the people to protect the Sundarbans, saying that another such forest cannot be created again.
On July 29 last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the tiger population in his country had grown from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 in 2019.
The development was actually initiated by India's first female prime minister Indira Gandhi more than four decades back. Indira took a project called Project Tiger, a massive conservation programme, amid criticism.
Her successor Morarji Desai once asked noted Indian ornithologist Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali about the protection of tigers that preyed on poor ranchers' cattle.
Dr Sálim said he had no convincing argument, adding, however, that tigers provide intangible benefits.
From my point of view, Bengal tigers save the Sundarbans.
Millions of dollars have been spent but we are still skeptical about the existence of the Sundarbans and tigers. If nature's own course is not disturbed and tigers remain top predators, all the creatures in the food pyramid would survive.
On the Nijhum Dwip, a mere five or six deer were released. Later, their population had grown to hundreds. Now, the deer population is declining because of disease and migration. The mother deer are losing carrying capacity due to overpopulation.
Like Nijhum Dwip, if there is no top predator in the Sundarbans, there will be an unchecked increase in the deer population.
By nature, Bengal tigers control the prey base. They actually maintain the ecological pyramid. If we go to Kachikhali and Katka in the Sundarbans, we will see herds of wild boars following the herds of deer. The deer graze on the grass field and then the boars eat the grass roots.
If the deer population declines, the plants that the deer eat as fodder would grow high. The boars cannot eat long grasses, and thus they would perish.
Tiger poaching is a big threat. But now, prey poaching puts adverse impact on the tiger population. The demand for venison persists as there are consumers.
Nonetheless, sex disparity in the tiger communes poses at some places in the Sundarbans a big threat. The Tiger Assessment 2018 found one male tiger against about ten female tiger ratio in Sarankhola in the Sundarbans. The ideal ration suggests 1:3.
If the male tiger is poached or hunted, what will happen to the female tigers?
Reintroduction is a recognised way of wildlife conservation. But without a well-planed protocol, this process is not viable. Here, smart patrolling and monitoring at least once a year is crucial.
The Sundarbans is surrounded by trenches like waterbodies. In the Bangladesh part of the forest, human habitat is absent which is a positive sign.
If the NGOs concerned and government wings, particularly the Forest Department, are guided by good science and all the crucial issues like conservation of flora and fauna, navigability of canals and creeks, biogeochemical cycle, climate change and most importantly poaching threats are addressed in integrated approaches, the Sundarbans will survive.
The communities should also be made aware of the importance of this species and the Sundarbans, and they should be engaged in conservation processes.
Public awareness is also crucial. During a recent visit to Joymoni in Mongla, I heard a girl TigerScout (an initiative of USAID's Bagh Activity implemented by WildTeam under the leadership of the Forest Department) narrating her story to US Ambassador Miller and USAID Mission Director Brown.
She said her parents loved to feed venison to her as the poor family could seldom ensure protein in meals.
But the girl, after becoming a TigerScout and taking part in a "Motherly Sundarbans" campaign, has stopped eating venison. Also, she has successfully motivated her father not to poach deer anymore.
Dr Md. Anwarul Islam is a professor of department of zoology at University of Dhaka and also the chief executive of WildTeam.