Course:CONS200/2021/Human-tiger conflict in the Sundarbans: Strategies for mitigation and conservation
The Sundarbans is a mangrove ecosystem composed of about 200 islands, separated by approximately 400 interconnected tidal rivers, creeks, and canals.It is the world's most extensive mangrove forest exposed to both freshwater and saltwater. Its geographical range spans two neighboring countries, India and Bangladesh. The Sundarbans's eco-region is rich in biodiversity, with 290 bird, 120 fish, 42 mammal, 35 reptile, and 8 amphibian species. This unique eco-region has immense ecological significance because it provides humans with ecological services and functions. Currently, the Indian region of the Sundarbans is considered endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems framework. This ecosystem is also a critical habitat for the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). This tiger population of the Sundarbans delta forests of India and Bangladesh is one of the largest tiger populations in the world . These tigers are specifically adapted to life in these mangrove swamp environments and provide a vital ecological niche for the region. Not only are the Sundarbans known for their large tiger population, but are also infamous for having a large number of human-tiger conflicts.
Conflicts between humans and tigers
History of Conflict
The Bangladesh Sundarbans is a Class 3 Tiger Conservation Landscape of Global Priority . Class 3 categorization of the Sundarbans tiger population suggests that the success of achieving conservation within the next decade is possible but not ensured .
The Sundarbans are home to one of the world's largest remaining tiger populations, approximately 300 – 500 individuals. While there are few villages within the Sundarbans' mangroves, village proximity to tiger-prone regions increases daily, as a result of locals foraging deeper into the Sundarbans in search of resources and food. Up to 78% of households located within a 2km radius of the Sundarbans boundary depend on natural resources for income .
The Sundarbans area is at the highest risk for the rate of tiger attacks in the world . As per recent studies, human deaths caused by tiger attacks, have been recorded since 1860 . At present, approximately 20-30 people die each year because of tiger attacks, but the actual figure is much higher, since not all attacks are reported to the local authorities . Cases wherein victims engage in illegal work are rarely reported . It is worth noting that this conflict is not one-sided, and approximately three tigers are killed per year in this strife .
Causes of Conflict
Reasons for Human Killings:
The Sundarbans is one of the poorest and most densely populated regions of South Asia, with an approximate population of 8 million people (India and Bangladesh combined) . Its populations are highly dependent on its limited natural resources and precarious ecosystem . Rapid population growth in the area has reduced the amount of fertile land per capita and has led to overcrowding and a high unemployment rate . Studies show that approximately 44% of locals live in extreme poverty . Poverty combined with lack of employment opportunities has forced many villagers to extensively rely on natural resources for income ; approximately 78% of the economy and 65% of local livelihood is made up of agriculture . Yet, environmental changes such as land erosion, salt-water inundation on agricultural and shrimp farms, and fresh-water restrictions have resulted in many agricultural workers (e.g., farmers, honey-gatherers and fisherman) resorting to forest-based livelihood activities  ; in turn, this has increased human-tiger encounters and subsequent tiger attacks, with 90% of overall reported attacks occurring in the forest .
Increased human-tiger conflict is also attributable to the changing climate of the Sundarbans. Cyclones are a common weather occurrence in the Sundarbans and can displace natural prey distribution and abundance; thus causing tigers to seek out alternative food sources such as people or livestock  . Alternatively, cyclones may be responsible for the displacement of tigers, as many parts of the Sundarbans can become flooded. These reasons alone force tigers to move and thus stray into villages .
Moreover, the severe underdevelopment of the Sundarbans further exasperates the human-tiger conflict. Poor infrastructure of housing, transport and communication networks renders villages highly vulnerable to attacks . Moreover, most of the region has no electricity; statistics show that only 17% of households have electricity . The lack of electricity is thought to contribute to local villages' increased vulnerability, especially to stray tigers .
Finally, poor access to schooling prevents local children from gaining an education, and subsequently, city jobs . As a result, these same individuals are likely to become reliant on the Sundarbans ecosystem for income, which not only puts them at a greater risk for encountering a tiger , but further feeds into the loop of poverty and dependency on natural resources.
Motivations for Tiger Killings:
Based on interviews with villagers, motivations for tiger killings were associated with four main features, including concern and fears over tiger attacks; perceived lack of government and local support; revenge for past attacks on people or livestock and lastly, personal or social incentives . Recent evidence has suggested that the strongest motivators for tiger killings were: concern or worry about imminent and future tiger attacks, lack of responsiveness from local authorities, and retaliatory killings .
Understandably, past experiences with tiger attacks have rendered many villagers fearful of imminent or future tiger attacks. Furthermore, increased poverty has meant that many villagers are highly cautious when protecting livestock, a common source of income for locals . As a result, most villagers are willing to kill a tiger in the name of self-defense .
Lack of support and responsiveness from local authorities has meant that many villages have had to act and thus kill tigers out of protection and need to survive . Furthermore, many villagers have expressed anger and resentment towards tigers for past attacks and repeated recent incidents. While such expressions are rare in studies, it is not uncommon for locals to seek out, track and hunt tigers out of retaliation for past experiences . Finally, social and personal incentives have also been identified as drivers for tiger killings . Reports show that individuals responsible for killing tigers not only received praise from fellow villagers but, in some cases, received a monetary reward in exchange for their heroism . Local reports have further recognized that tiger body parts hold social and medicinal value (e.g., protection from further attacks) for villagers and are often kept or taken by villagers following killings .
The above reasons highlight why many humans target tigers, thus shedding light on the Sundarbans' human-tiger conflict. While tiger killings do occur, research has shown that a more positive attitude towards tigers and tiger life is correlated to a more negative view towards tiger killings . Furthermore, factors such as proximity and severity of the attack also influence whether villagers are likely to attack tigers. Research has shown that villagers deem tiger killings less favorable if the attack occurs in the forest instead of in the villages, and if the incident is not too severe .
Social, environmental, and economic implications of the human-tiger conflict
Social Impact of Conflict
The local peoples of the Sundarbans claim that there is little to no action taken by authorities when human-tiger conflict occurs. The lack of interference has led to significant distrust between the local peoples and their authorities. This diminishment of trust in the authorities has led to an increase in the probability of local residents taking it upon themselves to retaliate against the tigers.
Since human-tiger conflicts are a normalcy for residents of the Sundarbans, the killing of tigers is widely accepted and occasionally praised; in some instances local people were rewarded with money or other valuable gifts for their violent actions.
In contrast to the positive connotations with the killing of a tiger, there are many negative implications from a tiger attack on local residents, beyond the often fatal consequences. Religious and spiritual beliefs of the local people of the Sundarbans relate many phenomena to divine intent. Thus, when a local resident is killed by a tiger, it is often viewed as reprehension by a divine entity. This belief translates to stigmas associated with tiger-widows in the community, who are then often ostracized from society and subject to life-long sufferings. Tiger-widows are labeled by the in-laws and community as the “unholy and evil women” and they are even blatantly blamed for their husbands’ death.
Environmental Impact of Conflict
Human-tiger conflict and its resulting tiger casualties, can inflict devastating damage to the Sundarbans environment because large carnivores are crucial in maintaining high biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Apex carnivores, such as the Sundarbans tigers, require large numbers of prey and expansive habitats. Their high food requirement and wide spreading habitats often bring them into situations of human conflict. The Sundarbans tigers are vital to their ecosystem and occupy a unique niche. They are carnivores that prey upon species such as chital deer (Axis axis), and wild pig (Sus scrofa). The tigers act as population control for these prey species, helping to mitigate the local environment from overpopulation issues. Not only do large carnivores help to maintain species abundance and richness, they also influence other ecosystem processes such as disease prevention, carbon storage, stream morphology, and crop production. If human-tiger conflicts are not reduced, the Sundarbans environment will most certainly be negatively affected.
Economic Impact of Conflict
The human-tiger conflict has a negative economic impact on the local Sundarbans village community. Human-tiger conflict is in part caused by and contributes to high poverty levels of the Sundarbans villages. These communities are in a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty in which tigers play a key role. For example, many villages rely on the natural resources of the Sundarbans, increasing the chances of conflict with tigers. The infrastructure of the villages are poor with no electricity and structurally weak houses, this results in insufficient protection against tigers. This relationship between poverty and tigers shows the economic implications at the local level. On the broader level, the Sundarbans and its biodiversity is vital to the health of millions of Bangladeshi and Indian citizens. The Sundarbans coast provides vast ecosystem services such as cyclone protection, food, building supplies, fish, and contributes to carbon cycling. Tigers can influence certain ecosystem processes and influence these ecosystem services as well. To protect the economic livelihoods of all people who rely on the Sundarbans, the human-tiger conflict should be resolved.
Additionally, the Sundarbans is a major contributor to the national economy of Bangladesh. It is the largest source of forest produce (charcoal, wood oil, resin, honey, silk, etc.) in the country. The forest also provides raw materials for wood products and timber. If resource extraction results in habitat loss of the tigers, this will increase the magnitude of human-tiger conflict as tigers have to migrate to more populated areas.
Strategies for mitigation and conservation
Ecocultural Mental Health Initiative
Casualties caused by the human-tiger conflict have contributed to a stigmatized cultural perspective of tigers. Tiger-widows face socioeconomic challenges, psychological damage, and negative community interactions; each of these factors can contribute to increased hostility toward tigers.
To reduce tiger stigma in communities impacted by attacks, an ecocultural mental health initiative involving community members, municipal governments, and conservation authorities could be implemented. This initiative would seek to eliminate negative attitudes toward tiger attack survivors and tiger-widows.
Since a primary food source for tigers is wild game, it is important for conservation efforts to focus on eliminating illegal hunting of tiger prey; the population density of wild tigers in the Sundarbans is proportional to the population density of prey species such as deer. Reduced prey populations from poaching increases the likelihood of tiger extinction due to reduced female fecundity and food availability for tiger cubs; furthermore, tigers can be killed or injured by snares intended for wild game.
Primary motivations for poachers in the Sundarbans include a lack of enforcement and lenient punishments such as small fines. To discourage illegal poaching, governing official in the Sundarbans should consider employing more forest officers to detect poachers, while punishing offenders with large fines or imprisonment.
Reducing Hostilities Between Humans and Tigers
Human-driven mortality of tigers in the Sundarbans is largely influenced by communal and individual perceptions of threats posed by wild tigers. Tiger interactions in human settlements can result in death, injury, property damage, and livestock depletion, however, retaliatory responses such as tiger-killing are defined by complex sociopsychological factors, not the scale of damage caused by the offending animal.
Risk tolerances of tigers are influenced by other factors such as weather, education, health care, and community infrastructure; for instance, a community investment in street lighting infrastructure could reduce fears of tiger attacks since they commonly occur at night in poorly lit areas. Furthermore, bright lights and flames have been used historically to scare away tigers.
Communities in the Sundarbans are often engaged in localized economies that are dependent on utilizing wilderness resources for income; villagers who rely on the jungle for food and other resources are more likely to hold negative perceptions of tigers due to an increased likelihood of experiencing an attack while working. Furthermore, the majority of village inhabitants in the Sundarbans believe that their reliance on local natural resources contributes to ecological damage that negatively alters tiger behavior; for instance, tigers are forced to extend their hunting range into human settlements when their food sources are depleted from poaching. Thus, in order to reduce negative interactions between humans and tigers, it would be beneficial to reduce communities' reliance on the Sundarbans for natural resources and employment.
Utilization of domestic dogs to deter tiger attacks
To reduce the aforementioned risks of tiger attacks for Sundarbans residents working in local forests, domestic dogs were utilized from August 2005 to January 2007. Local domestic dogs were trained with positive reinforcement techniques to detect the presence of tigers, with an overall success rate of 67%. When a tiger was nearby, dogs would display auditory and visual cues toward workers such as barking, growling, and quick movements. It was determined that the presence of dogs effectively reduces the likelihood of humans being attacked or killed by a tiger while working in the forest; this is especially important for local occupations such as beekeeping, which involves low-visibility conditions from smoke used to sedate bees.
The excessive amount of human-tiger conflicts that occur in the Sundarbans pose a plethora of implications on the human populations who reside within a close proximity of these delta forests. Factors exacerbating this issue include the poor economic standing of the region, present social stigmas (such as those which ostracize tiger-widows as well as an ever-present localized distrust in authorities), and environmental impacts such as climate change. The impacts of human-tiger conflicts reverberate negatively across both the tiger populations and the well-being of local communities. Initiatives including the implementation of alternative economic resources for local peoples (aside from the utility of local natural resources), creating eco-cultural mental health initiatives, increasing enforcement of poaching of tigers and their prey, and utilizing domestic dogs to deter tigers from local communities are hopeful strategies for the mitigation of these conflicts.
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