Tiger sightings in the Sundarbans have reportedly gone up as tourists, fishermen and honey collectors, who used to disturb the tranquillity of the forest, are barred from entering it, according to forest department officials.
Obviously, this cannot be verified independently, since nobody else is supposed to be in the forest at this moment. And we understand that tigers may roam more freely where human activity has decreased. Forest officials however did not name the locations where such sightings have been occurring citing 'security reasons'.
What might be these security reasons, when tourists, fishermen and honey collectors are already banned?
The answer is, wildlife sighting locations are usually kept undisclosed where there is a high risk of poaching.
While tourists, fishermen and honey collectors are not being allowed into the forest, poaching and logging have apparently been going on unabated amid the shutdown.
Inzamamul Haque, a local journalist from Bagerhat, informed this writer that deer poaching has risen since last December and also continues during this shutdown. He and other journalists have knowledge of venison having been occasionally sold in multiple places ranging from Bagerhat Sadar to Rampal upazila.
On May 4, forest department officials arrested three poachers with venison near Sharankhola range. According to another media report published on May 5, 30kg venison, 700-foot net trap, three trawlers and a boat were seized, while at least four poachers managed to escape during the drive. 22 deer were reportedly rescued and released.
On May 7, several newspapers reported an attempted smuggling of Sundari timber using a trawler hoisting a forest department flag. Fingers have been pointed at certain corrupt officials, and the forest department has launched an investigation into the matter.
Asked why such illegal activities are on the rise again, Inzamamul, indicating to the restriction imposed on fishing and honey collection, said, "When you squeeze people's legal means of income, they are only left with the choice of illegal ones."
He added that fishermen would always tip off journalists about smuggling and poaching, but news stops coming out when people cannot go to the forest.
The forest department is severely undermanned and underequipped. On top of that, there are corrupt officials. Banning people who traditionally live off the forest is in fact counterproductive.
Until a few years back, pirates were a menace to the Sundarbans. Kidnapping fishermen for ransom was what they did. Many of them were involved in poaching too. But forest department officials often avoided confronting them.
Puspakathi is a remote forest patrol station located near the Bay of Bengal, about 60km south of Shyamnagar, Satkhira. This is no place for tourists. Five years back, when this writer visited the place, there was no mobile phone network, and there were only four forest guards. They had no guns, because pirates could attack them and take the guns away. The wireless device had been out of order for a long time. A forest guard told us that the pirates occasionally slept at the camp quarters!
On the same trip, we entered a canal near the Patkoshta station when we heard the sound of wood-chopping from up ahead. The armed forest guards accompanying us ordered the boatman to reverse course so we could avoid facing a possible armed group of pirates or loggers.
Lately, law enforcers, especially RAB, conducted regular raids, and many pirate gang members and their chiefs were killed in "crossfire". Eventually, other gangs surrendered and now the Sundarbans is mostly pirate-free.
The abovementioned events should give an idea how weak our forest department is when it comes to protecting the forest against real threats.
Mohammad Arju, a conservationist working on coastal ecosystems and communities, said that tourists have no access to 85-90 percent area of the Sundarbans. They only get a guided tour in the unrestricted areas. Besides, motorised fishing boats are banned inside the forest for many years now.
On the contrary, the Sundarbans lies on one of the protocol routes of Bangladesh-India inland water transit and trade. Dozens of ships pass every day through the forest's Malancha and Arpangasia rivers. They make stops anywhere they want. An even larger number of ships ply the Pasur river, which connects Mongla port and a hundred industries to the sea right through the middle of the forest. These industries, built between Digraj and Joymoni along the 28km stretch of the Pasur river, are responsible for the ever-increasing shipping through the forest as well as water pollution.
"Tourists and their launches do cause disturbances to the wildlife in certain areas. Then again, they are not the only ones who do this. Dozens of coastguard outposts have been built inside the forest, who use powerful floodlights at night, and they use engine boats too," said Arju.
"Besides, many Indian fishing trawlers travel through Bangladesh's part of the forest to reach the Bay of Bengal. These are powerful boats which the forest department cannot chase and catch," the conservationist added.
The rise in tiger sighting does not mean an increase in tiger population. Also, tourists are not the biggest threat to any forest, including the Sundarbans. They pose a nuisance to the forest at best.
Besides, we must also keep in mind that while some threats, like those involving the pirates, are being eliminated gradually, a systematic aggression towards the forest, such as commercial shipping and industrialisation in nearby areas, continues unabated.