Around one third of the tiger reserve area of Indian Sundarbans was destroyed due to super-cyclone Amphan and the flooding at Assam has killed hundreds of wildlife at Kaziranga, inundating 85 per cent of the forests while submerging thousands of villages across the region.
The enigmatic Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris) is the carnivore and keystone specie of the tropical ecosystem.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red data list, tigers are ‘Endangered’, and their population is following a ‘decreasing trend’. Unlike other cats, the tiger’s range is restricted to pockets of wilderness scattered around eastern Asia. In India, hunting of tigers was totally restricted by 1970 and Project Tiger was initiated by Government of India in 1973.
The recent tiger census report indicates an increase in tiger population from 2,226 in 2014 to 2,967 in 2018 which is a success story of tiger conservation efforts.
The highest population of tigers in eastern India are in tiger reserves of Assam (Manas, Nameri, Kaziranga and Orang) followed by West Bengal (Sundarbans and Buxa), Arunachal Pradesh (Namdapha, Pakke, Kamlang), and Mizoram (Dampa). But these regions are also an active hub for tiger poaching and illegal wildlife trade because of their proximity to China and Myanmar due to the demands of tiger parts in Chinese medicine.
Research indicates that the Myanmar border town of Tachilek and its Thai neighbour, Mae Sai, were important hubs for the trade in tigers in South-east Asia.
Tiger parts were sold without restrictions in the MyanmarChina border town of Mong La for their use in traditional medicine as well as decoration. According to a report, there is a sharp decline in tiger population outside the protected areas in the eastern states of India.
Despite government initiatives and conservation measures, illegal smuggling of wildlife is common. According to a report, illegal trade continues in the Tamenglong district of Manipur.
This may be a major reason behind slow increase in tiger population in eastern parts of India in comparison to other Indian states like Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka or Uttarakhand. The situation got worse with the current Covid-19 pandemic and its associated economic hardships.
To aggravate the already bad situation, super-cyclone Amphan and extensive flooding impacted the infrastructure and disrupted economic recovery in the Tiger project buffer areas of Sundarbans and Assam respectively. These catastrophes resulted in wildlife casualties in these areas of impact.
According to a report, 100 animals have died due to flooding in Kaziranga, a UNESCO world heritage site and abode of about 2,400 one-horned rhinoceros. Eighty-five per cent of the reserve forest area of Kaziranga in under water.
Thousands of villages are submerged due to the flood and people have been shifted to temporary relief camps. Wildlife displaced due to the flood is also migrating to the higher grounds for survival and this may increase man-wildlife conflicts in the region.
The Indian Sundarbans is the only abode of mangrove tigers in the world. According to the latest tiger census, the numbers of this big cat have increased from 88 to 96. Human-tiger conflict is common in the villages of Sundarbans. Primary victims of these tiger attacks are fishermen and honey collectors. Tiger widows are women who lose their husbands in a tiger attack.
According to a report, Satjelia Island in the Gosaba block of West Bengal has around 100 such tiger widows. According to official records, 52 people were killed between 2010 and 2017 due to tiger attacks. But the real figure could be higher as illegal entries into the reserve forest are not intimated to forest authorities by the families.
On May 20, Odisha, West Bengal and Bangladesh were hit by supercyclone Amphan. This resulted in massive devastation throughout the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve amidst the Covid-19 lockdown. Official statements have mentioned that about one-third of the Sundarbans was damaged due to the disaster and 1,200 sq km of the total 4,263 sq km of forests had been destroyed.
The cyclone and associated flooding destroyed earthen dams that would impact the productivity of farmlands. In this economic vacuum, illegal entry into the forest and tiger poaching cases may increase which would result in more humantiger conflict.
The Covid-19 pandemic has restricted the ecotourism influx in forest areas; labour migration was also stopped due to the lockdown.
As a result, the socio-economically marginalised forest fringe communities are under immense economic stress. This may result in more humanwildlife conflicts scenario as well as push people into the clutches of illegal wildlife traders of China.
The enigmatic tiger, the flagship conservation specie of India, faces an uncertain future amidst the natural disasters and Covid-19 lockdowns in eastern India.
The writers are associated with the Jindal School of Environment & Sustainability, O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana, India.