Every year, International Tiger Day is celebrated under the theme of "Their Survival is in our hands". It's already been over a decade since the signing of the St. Petersburg Declaration on tiger conservation.
It carried a key message for all Tiger Range Countries (TRC) to acknowledge that "the tiger is one of the important indicators of a healthy ecosystem and a failure to reverse its declining trends will result in not only the loss of tigers but also a loss of biological diversity throughout the entire Asiatic region, together with the tangible and intangible benefits provided by these magnificent predators and the ecosystems they inhabit".
Being an apex predator, the significance of tiger conservation is multifaceted. Tigers and their landscapes not only uphold healthy ecosystem functioning but also play a vital role in human well-being through the provision of key ecosystem services such as food security, medicinal plants and fodder species, carbon sequestration, and sustainable eco-tourism.
Tiger habitats are also considered essential components of disaster risk reduction plans. For example, the coastal Sundarban Mangrove Forest of Bangladesh worked as a buffer for communities against storm surges, such as Cyclone Sidr in 2007 and Cyclone Aila in 2009.
Moreover, in TRC and beyond, tigers are treated as a symbol of beauty, power, valour and fierceness. Tiger has long been an integral part of our culture through its vivid presence in folklore and mythology. Our national cricket team proudly carries the Bengal tiger as their sign. They are also called Bangladesh tigers.
According to the national IUCN Red List Assessments in 2015, tigers were assessed as Critically Endangered in Bangladesh, thereby requiring the highest conservation actions.
Some key recommendations from the previous Red List Assessment were to conduct regular monitoring of the tiger and prey population densities, monitoring tiger-human interactions, formulation of a separate tiger management strategy, and study on the status and distribution of the tiger in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The Government of Bangladesh developed the Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan (2009-2017) to strengthen the conservation strategies for tigers. It has been further updated as Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan (2018-2027) to ensure a "protected tiger landscape in Bangladesh where wild tigers thrive at optimum carrying capacities to perform their ecological role, and which continue to provide essential ecological services to mankind".
The major threats identified are direct loss, prey depletion, habitat degradation and tiger-human conflict. Moreover, they are coupled with unsustainable forest use and climate change, growing pollution and anthropogenic disturbance.
This Plan aims to increase the density of tigers in the Sundarbans from the current 2.17 to 4.50 tigers per 100 sq km within the next 10 years.
The Action Plan also chalks out several goals to address the threats and challenges, such as increasing the tiger population, maintaining sufficient prey and habitat, and ensuring a suitable tiger population in the CHT.
Besides, improving conservation capacity and law enforcement strategies, building capacity and education programmes as well as community involvement, and research and monitoring on tiger conservation are highlighted in the Action Plan.
In this regard, Bangladesh Forest Department conducted a Systematic Tiger Census in 2015 where a total of 106 individuals were found in the wild. Later on, in 2019, 114 tigers were recorded, showing an increase in tiger number in the Sundarbans.
As one of the TRCs, the latest data shows Bangladesh is slowly marching towards the TX2 campaign. The current status of tigers is not known for the last couple of years, but it is expected that tigers are doing well in Sundarbans and elsewhere in their ranges due to the conservation actions taken already.
In Bangladesh, there are a number of experts engaged with the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of IUCN and have been working as tiger experts.
As one of the key specialist groups of the IUCN SSC, the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group brings together a pool of 194 world-leading cat experts, including scientists, wildlife managers and conservationists to promote the long-term conservation of the wild living cat species and their habitat. They are involved in continuous monitoring and assessment, information-sharing, identification of conservation priorities and facilitation of the priority actions through collaborative conservation work.
In 2014, IUCN launched a Tiger Conservation Program called "The Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme (ITHCP)", contributing to the Global Tiger Recovery Programme (GTRP) endorsed at the St Petersburg Summit in 2010.
The program consists of a portfolio of 12 large-scale projects spread across Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Nepal, and Myanmar in key Tiger Conservation Landscapes. All ITHCP projects work at the interface between species protection and monitoring, improved habitat and protected area management, and collaborating with local communities to improve livelihoods and provide long-term alternatives to forest resources.
The program has seen a 35 per cent increase in tiger populations, from approximately 727 to approximately 980 individuals across 53,000 sq km of habitat over the last five years.
Moreover, over 77,000 people living in and around tiger habitats at these project sites have directly benefited through livelihood development, alternative energy sources, and human-wildlife conflict mitigation measures.
IUCN Bangladesh is currently also assisting the Bangladesh Forest Department in the implementation of another landmark project titled "Feasibility study of trans boundary wildlife corridor in Chattogram, Chattogram Hill Tract, and Cox's Bazar with Myanmar and India."
There are historical reports of the presence of tigers in the Kassalong-Sajek and Sangu-Matamuhuri ranges, which are connected with the forests in India and Myanmar respectively. The feasibility study aims to identify potential sites for establishing transboundary wildlife corridors in Chittagong, CHT, and Cox's Bazar with Myanmar and India.
The study will analyze the current state of the wildlife habitat and connectivity, gather information on the historical presence of tigers and elephants in the proposed areas and develop recommendations on the potential wildlife corridor routes.
It is expected that this study will be a milestone work for our country and will provide a comprehensive scenario of the future potentials of transboundary wildlife corridors for tigers and elephants among Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, and contribute to the conservation actions of these flagship species.
On this year's International Tigers Day, we need to remind diverse stakeholders again that survival of our tigers is in our hands. Continuous effort to promote forest conservation and forest-wildlife management models and practices, along with the implementation of nature-based solutions to reduce dependencies on forest by humans and reduced human-tiger conflicts, as well as the need to be further strengthened in simultaneously ensuring human well-being and the long-term conservation of tigers along with other wildlife species. The ecosystem services to be derived in this process will definitely assist in addressing diverse societal challenges we are going to face in coming days.