South Asia

The frontier of Bangladesh's tiger-human conflict

Tiger in the Sundarbans
Image caption Tigers in the Sundarbans are threatened with an increasingly tough battle for survival

Hafizur Rahman Gazi still remembers the night when the powerful claws of a ferocious Royal Bengal tiger tore through his left arm and the back of his neck.

The fisherman was inches away from death and he instinctively hit the animal with the only weapon he had - a torch. He managed to escape with his bleeding wounds when the tiger relaxed its grip for a second.

The tiger had strayed into the village of Dokhin Kodomtola from the neighbouring Sundarbans mangrove forests, after swimming across the river Dhumkoli in February this year.

Standing on the banks of the river in Satkhira district, Mr Gazi said: "I am lucky to be alive. I still remember how the tiger pounced on me at lightning speed. I needed several stitches on my hand. Still I cannot fully stretch my hand or hold anything properly."

Mr Gazi, who is 50, and other villagers were trying to corner the tiger so that it could be tranquilised. They were part of an initiative to protect tigers, which are often killed by local people when they stray into villages bordering the Sundarbans forests.

After the tiger was tranquilised, forest guards and conservationists later released the animal deep into the Sundarbans forests in the country's south-west.

Enemies

Villages like Dokhin Kodomtola surrounding the Sundarbans forests are on the frontline of an escalating human-animal conflict as both compete for the same natural resources.

Image caption Poachers wanted $25,000 for three tiger skins

The rivers, streams and canals are the only barriers which separate villages here from the mangrove forests that stretch along the border between Bangladesh and India. It is estimated that around 400 tigers live in the Sundarbans.

At the same time, nearly half a million people in Bangladesh depend on the Sundarbans for their livelihood. Fishermen venture deep into the mangrove forests in their rickety wooden boats to catch fish, crabs or gather wild honey. Tigers often attack them.

It is thought that around 80 people are killed every year by the tigers on the Bangladeshi side of the Sundarbans forests. The loss of so many lives forces many locals to treat tigers as their enemies - which is why very few escape alive after straying into villages.

"We avoid going to the toilet in the night because of the fear of tigers," said Asiah Khatun, a "tiger widow" in the village of Gabura, situated on a river island.

Critically endangered

Villagers in this impoverished fishing community live in huts. Their toilets, covered mostly by jute bags or thin bamboo screens, are normally built a few metres away from their homes.

Image caption Waterways are the only barriers which separate villages from tigers

Ms Khatun's father and husband were killed by tigers when they were fishing inside the Sundarbans. She says tigers are wandering into villages more often.

"It's true that after cyclones Aila and Sidr devastated the mangrove forests a few years ago, tigers are straying more frequently into villages looking for prey such as cows and goats," said wildlife conservation official, Tapan Kumar Dey.

"It may be they are not getting enough food or fresh water inside the Sundarbans."

Official figures show that at least 33 tigers have been killed since 2000, mostly in human-animal conflicts and some in poaching incidents.

For a long time, officials thought human-animal conflict was the biggest threat to tigers in the Sundarbans, one of the last refuges of the critically endangered species.

But a startling discovery in February has triggered fears of another kind of threat.

Following an undercover sting operation, Bangladeshi forestry department officials recovered three tiger skins, four tiger skulls and more than 30kg of tiger bones from an alleged poacher in the village of Bangla Bazar in Bagerhat district.

It was the largest haul of illegal tiger skins and bones discovered in the country for decades.

'Forests will vanish'

"We were shocked to find them. The poacher told us that they used poisoned wild boar carcasses as a trap to kill the tigers," Sundarbans forest official Mihir Kumar Doe told the BBC.

Image caption Mr Gazi considers himself lucky to be alive after surviving a tiger attack

"Our investigations suggest that there may be organised poaching groups operating in the area. This is an alarming new trend."

The fear is that the poachers might have killed more tigers in recent years as there is an increasing demand for tiger skins and body parts in China and other south-east Asian countries. Tiger parts are used in traditional oriental medicine.

But Mr Doe said there was no evidence yet to suggest that the arrested poacher had any links with international crime syndicates.

The poacher was willing to sell the three tiger skins, skulls and other parts to undercover agents for about $25,570 (£16,000). The value would have gone up many times by the time it reached its intended destination.

Mr Doe admitted that the forestry department did not have sufficient manpower, weapons or training to counter the poachers who he said were increasingly using sophisticated techniques to trap the tigers.

He hoped a proposed Wildlife Crime Control Unit, to be set up with World Bank assistance, would help to address the issue.

Like Mr Gazi, many villagers strongly feel that protecting the tiger population in the Sundarbans must be given top priority before it is too late.

"If there are no tigers in the Sundarbans, the forests will vanish in no time. People will destroy the mangroves, which protect us like a mother from natural disasters like storms and tidal surges. So, the tiger is the main protector of the Sundarbans," said Mr Gazi.

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