WildTeam Tiger_2015_01_15
According to estimates, the Sundarbans forest in Bangladesh is home to several hundred tigers. Image: Samiul Mohsanin, via WildTeam

In the Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh, villagers shout in alarm. A tiger has entered their village. A group of men armed with long, thick sticks converge on the intruder. They raise their weapons and beat the ground, setting off a ruckus that drives the cat back into the forest – a benign end to a potentially lethal encounter.

The Sundarbans is one of the world’s largest mangrove forests. About 350,000 villagers live off the resources it provides: honey, shrimp fry, shells and more. According to estimates, a few hundred tigers roam the forest too. Not surprisingly, the Sundarbans is the gunpowder keg of human-tiger conflict: between 1881 and 2006, that conflict claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people and 1,000 tigers. Livestock losses were unrecorded.

Although casualties have eased, up until five years ago – before the villagers learned to chase the predators away – tigers entering a village would still meet a bloody end. Men would surround the tiger and beat or hang it to death. Between 1991 and 2000, human-tiger confrontations in Sundarbans villages killed three villagers and up to three tigers every year.

“One of the world’s largest mangrove forests, the Sundarbans is also the gunpowder keg of human-tiger conflict.”

In a region where tigers have robbed many people of family members or property, you might expect killings to be driven by vengeance. Yet it seems villagers did not kill tigers out of hatred. A recent survey of local attitudes, which included respondents affected by human-tiger conflict, revealed retaliation as a weak motivating factor. The survey was conducted by scientists from the University of Kent and WildTeam, an NGO that works to conserve tigers in the Sundarbans.

In fact, the study showed that locals revere the tigers. “Universally, if you ask the villagers what they think of the tigers, they would say that the tigers are the ‘guardians of the forests’, that without the tigers there would be no forests,” says Dr Adam Barlow, a member of WildTeam who was not directly involved in the survey.

Barlow explains that villagers kill intruding tigers largely because they do not know how else to respond to the threat. Sometimes, men would also partake in the violence for fear of being branded cowards otherwise.

A few years ago, WildTeam cooperated with the Bangladesh Forest Department on a novel approach to mitigate the human-tiger conflict in the Sundarbans. They recruited villager volunteers into 'Village Tiger Response Teams' and trained them to deal with tiger encounters. When a tiger was spotted, the teams would alert the villagers and keep any crowds that gathered away from the animal. They would then chase the tiger into the forest by beating the ground with sticks and shouting, or call in a specialised team to tranquilise and relocate the animal safely. 

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The response teams delivered: there have been no tiger killings in the villages in the last two years. Early reservations about the initiative quickly faded as village after village successfully adopted the new approach. There are now 49 response teams in the region – and counting.

Empowering the locals with the skills, equipment and – most importantly – the responsibility to protect themselves and the tigers they love is proving to be an excellent solution for both humans and wildlife in the Sundarbans. The teams take pride in their roles and have even extended their services to manage other wildlife like pythons.

“Once the villagers own the conservation, they do really extraordinary things,” says Barlow.

He relates the story of one response team whose leader was killed by a tiger while on duty. Barlow had feared that the tragedy would break the team’s resolve to save the tigers; instead, he recounts, the victim’s son stepped forward and took his father’s place to help protect the animals. Elsewhere, young people from the villages who are eager to participate are forming their own 'junior' response teams.

Barlow says he believes in the future of tigers in the region. He anticipates that poaching will remain a danger to both the cats and their prey, but feels that "over the long term, tigers have got a good chance of surviving" in the Sundarbans.

References:

Barlow, A.C.D. et al. 2010. Use of an action-selection framework for human-carnivore conflict in the Banglades Sundarbans. Conservation Biology 24: 1338-1347.

Inskip, C. et al. 2014. Understanding carnivore killing behavior: exploring the motivations for tiger killing in the Sundarbans, Bangladesh. Biological Conservation 180: 42-50.

Top header image: Ian Duffy, Flickr