Journey Through Bangladesh
Protecting the Predator
Wild Life Trust of Bangladesh has been training local people in the villages adjacent to the Sundarbans since 2007. There are 29 “Tiger Teams” saving both tigers and people. As people's lives depend on the forest and there have been occasions where Tigers have roamed out of the forest, confrontations between man and tiger is unavoidable. Rather than displacing the populace living for ages near the world's largest mangrove forest, it is important to train them to co-exist with large felines. These Tiger Teams perform heroic acts to protect our endangered national symbol “The Royal Bengal Tiger”.
Zia Nazmul Islam
When a tiger enters a village, Abul Hossain gathers his team members and locates the exact position of the tiger. Calming the villagers down, he along with his team members perform a heroic act; surround the feline from three sides leaving one opening towards the forest. Beating drums, shouting and blowing horns they scare the beast to escape through the only one opening – back into the forest. Abul Hossain is a leader of one of the 29 “Tiger Teams” who are scattered in villages adjacent to the home of the largest cat in the world. Also known as VTRT (Village Tiger Response Team), each team, consisting of 7 members, is equipped with only a blow-horn and hearts full of courage. For the first time on 10th February 2012, the leaders of the 29 team met in Khulna University open ground to celebrate their success and to plan the future. Naming it “Sundarban Mayer Moton” (Mother-like Sundarbans) the event held a rally, an art competition and a concert. Vice Chancellors of Dhaka and Khulna University were present to raise awareness amongst the general public about the VTRT project run by WTB (Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh). Musicians and celebrities from Dhaka and Khulna performed in the event.
Lutfur Rahman Shana speaking for Tiger Teams
The job description for these men is hard to comprehend. They not only protect the villagers but also drive the tiger to safety. On frequent occasions they found half eaten bodies of men who had wandered into the forest and were killed by a tiger. Lutfur Rahman Shana from the Shorbotkhali village explained, “It's the pride and respect they receive from the villagers that is unparalleled”. People from far away villages know a VTRT team member by their names. “Just go to any villager and ask for a VTRT member, they will walk you to our homes” he boasted.
People do many things to earn their name, but does it worth one's life? Though successful, the process of returning hungry to the forest is not a 100% full-proof system. The tiger will keep looking for food and will wander out again. One of the team members was killed by a tiger not even a month ago. “It's the love for the forest that gives us the courage” said VTRT leader Abul Hossain. Their ancestors have been living near the Sundarbans for thousands of years. So was the thousand year habit of the villagers to beat any wandering tiger to death. The mindset has changed after this project started in 2007. Their livelihood depends on the mangroves. Over 3.5 million people live in the Sundarbans' Ecologically Critical Area (ECA), with no permanent settlement within the Sundarbans Reserve Forest. Of them, about 1.2 million people directly depend on the Sundarbans for their livelihoods. Most of these people are Bawalis (wood cutters/golpatta collectors), fishermen, crab and shell collectors, Mawalis (honey collectors) and shrimp fry collectors. As most of the water is salty, there is almost little or no cultivable land. The attachment they feel towards the forest has turned into a love relationship which makes these men risk their lives to protect it and its reigning king, the Royal Bengal Tiger.
Being in a 'Tiger Team' is a 24 hour job without salary. They receive no money from anyone for their heroics. And there is the added risk of poachers who are well armed and have 'friends in the right places'. Then what motivates these men work against all odds? “Money brings a feeling of a job which will ruin the whole purpose of self-awareness about the Sundarbans” answered Ashraful Haque, the program coordinator of WTB. “People who are not at all interested in saving the Tigers would flock in to join for the money” he added. So, these Tiger Teams are people who are motivated only by the need to protect tigers. Even without the temptation of money, the project started off with 8 teams in 2007 – now there are 29. WTB plans to double the number in few years seeing the interest among the locals and success of the campaign. “There will be a time when all the villages adjacent to the forest will have a Tiger Team”, Ashraful said with determination. There is also plan to honor the best performing team with prizes, give them more exposure and putting them in a place where a son will want to follow the footsteps of his father. After all, sustaining the program is in everyone's mind.
According to World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), there are around 3,200 tigers in 14 Tiger Range Countries (TRG) of the world. In 1900, there were a hundred thousand tigers! The need to bring tigers back from being endangered has never been greater. Wildlife protection agencies and activists term the Sundarbans the most intense human-tiger conflict zone. In 2004, a census of tigers estimated the existence of 440 tigers including 298 female, 121 males and 21 cubs in the Sundarbans. But the actual current number of tigers in the Sundarbans is unknown. Some “Tiger Teams” haven't seen any tiger for years while others find them prowling their villages once or twice a year. No matter what the number is, it is for sure they are on the verge of extinction. Therefore, projects like “Tiger Team” must succeed while there is still a glimmer of chance to revive the tiger population. The whole survival of the forest depends on the tiger, since they are on the top of the food chain. Without tigers, the deer population will grow faster and exhaust the vegetation of the forest.
All the ecological significance of tiger may sound like jargon to these men, most of whom had no formal education. But they are the first-hand observers of how the Sundarbans saved millions of lives from “Cyclone Sidr”. The wind was swept upwards by the dense forest of the mangroves thus saving millions. They understand how fragile the nature is and to toy-around with it is nothing but to destroy their own lives.
No doubt, a better equipped “Tiger Team” could save even more people and Tigers. Right now, they only receive a blow-horn, medical kit and an illuminating jacket. Asking what other equipment would ease their job – they all came up with various issues like winter cloth, tranquilizer gun, medical supplies and cell phones to alert the forest officer (who has a tranquilizer gun). With awareness comes the interest, and hopefully, so will the funding to equip the teams to better handle tiger intrusions. This is what motivated the grand awareness campaign held in Khulna.
When asked why the Sundarbans and the tigers matter, a parent of a child participating in the children's art competition said “We are living in the lap of our mother, protecting us from the frequent storms of Bay of Bengal. Losing tigers, our national symbol, would cause tremendous harm to the forest. And, it will be a mental blow that we just can't afford”. The campaign slogan, therefore, so fittingly reads “Sundarban Mayer Moton”.
(R) thedailystar.net 2012