There is no "Royal" Bengal Tiger. It is a Bengal Tiger.
At the onset, let me clarify that there exists no "Royal Bengal Tiger' in the biological world.
Its original English name, given by people from the West, is the Bengal Tiger, with its zoological name Panthera tigris tigris. There had been nine subspecies in the past but three have already become extinct and the remaining ones are critically endangered or endangered, as noted in the red list of the IUCN.
"The Bengal tiger, therefore, becomes the representative of the race Panthera tigris tigris and the example in the (British) Natural History Museum, ticketed Bengal (Col Sanderson), which is described below, may be regarded as a topo typical specimen of it," reported by R I Pocock under an article titled "Tigers," published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1929.
Pocock further stated, "It is important to bear this in mind in view of the possibility of the admission of other Indian races in the future. At present, however, I refer all Indian tigers to the same race, the name of which, with its principal synonyms, is as follows — Panthera tigris tigris, Linn (Linnaeus)."
Can anyone double the wild tiger population?
The Bengal tiger numbers, or for that matter any top carnivore of land or water, cannot be doubled in 10, 20 or even 100 years in any wilderness area of the world, let alone in Bangladesh.
It can be done only when the existing land area of the tiger reserve or sanctuary is appreciably increased, wildlife movement corridors between the neighbouring reserves or forests are well connected and maintained, and poaching is kept to its minimum, or completely stopped.
I understand there are many sensible people in the current government, as was the case in the past too. However, sometimes it seems as though people at the helm of wildlife affairs are unaware, or even ignorant, when the question of tigers or ecosystem conservation or restoration arises.
For example, a forest minister once said, he would like to introduce an alien species, the hippopotamus - a large African herbivore that kills more people than lions and leopards combined in the African continent - to the Kaptai Lake. Or a finance minister, saying "migratory birds are foreigners, coming from outside the country and eating our food, they should be killed and eaten."
I remember an expert attending an international tiger conservation forum who opined that Bangladesh will double its tiger populations in the Sundarban by the next decade.
Unfortunately, we crossed that decade and the tiger number is where it was 20 years back with a loss or gain of around 10%.
In a zoo or in a captive breeding centre, tiger numbers can be doubled or tripled in 10 years, which can never be done in nature. A zoo is an animal farm like a poultry farm. Here, if proper food, mate selection by a caregiver, sufficient space and cub rearing facilities are provided, then in every six to nine months, a set of three to six cubs can be had from a breeding female.
A lone adult male can be orchestrated to breed or mate with five to six eligible tigresses in a season. Then, take all cubs from the mother and hand-rear them by animal keepers. Thus, any tiger, lion or other wildlife breeding farm in South Africa can provide us with up to 20 males or female tigers of the same age group, if one places an order for such a homogenous group of wild cats to exhibit in a zoo, Safari Park or captive breeding centre.
But this is simply not possible in the wild.
Tigers imprisoned in the Sundarban?
Let's take our Sundarban as an example.
Biologically, a pair of breeding tigers annually needs at least 500 adult Chital or spotted deer to provide them enough food. In addition, the tigers may eat a few wild boars, monkeys and other animals of the Sundarban.
This is based on the tiger research done in Karnataka in India by Dr Ulhas Karanth and partners, and some in Bangladesh by Dr Monirul H Khan and Dr Adam Barlow.
Now, Sundarban has a limited number of deer, boars and monkeys, all of whom are basically dependent on plants for food, although monkeys may consume some animals as food too.
The plant population is always limited by the land availability with seasonal variations depending on rainfall, humidity, tides, daylight hours, grazing and predators, as well as pest pressures.
Therefore, the tiger population in the Sundarban remains static within a range of 10 % or so.
The tiger experts conjecture that in an ideal forest, with sufficient food and space to spread out the young tigers, a breeding male may require a minimum of 10 square km of forested habitats. This could be anywhere from 10 to 50 square km, depending on habitat conditions and the prey base.
Ideally, "A male's territory is about 20 square miles (52 square km), whereas the females roam around about 17 square miles (44 square km) of habitat. Within their home, they usually have several dens that they alternate between," according to forestanimalrescue.org.
Therefore, if Sundarban has about 4,000 square km of land out of 6,000 square km of the total area, then there can never be more than 400 tigers in Bangladesh's part of the Sundarban.
To date, our Sundarban has never reached that extreme number of 400.
As we know, every year, a few tigers die or are poisoned or poached while the ones that enter human habitations usually succumb to human mob attacks.
A tiger is generally known to leave core territory when it is too weak, either cannot hunt animals for food or its teeth have worn out and so it cannot catch prey or digest food properly.
Also, when cubs grow to adulthood they may be pushed by the father or other territory holding males out of their forest territories. So, these new additions of tigers fail to establish a territory of their own and are often forced to make moves towards the forest periphery where too many people are known to live with their large herds of cattle.
Here they enter human-tiger conflict zones. In the end, most of these additional tigers or siblings perish.
So, the wild population of the tiger is forced by natural and man-made forces to remain rather static with very limited fluctuations in the Sundarban. Considering this, it can be said that it is not the best habitat for the tigers.
Also, tigers here in Bangladesh and the West Bengal parts of the Sundarban are 'imprisoned' by the large human population occupying the areas of flood plains lying between the forests in the foothills of the Himalayas. Cases in point, Mymensingh and Sylhet regions in north Bangladesh; and Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Siliguri, Coach Bihar, etc in the northern West Bengal.
That means, tigers can never come out of the Sundarban and disperse in other parts of the subcontinental countries and Myanmar. If they do so, they will be killed by people living around the Sundarban, before being rescued by forest departments or volunteers.
Even when such rescued tigers are returned to the Sundarban their fate is uncertain because of male territorial domination mentioned earlier, or they were possibly weak. Thus, these strayed tigers' chance of survival inside the forest is pretty bleak.
Therefore, no human force can double the tiger population in the wild without serious interventions that will involve a huge increment of land area with suitable vegetation cover and sufficient prey species.
An overpopulated country like Bangladesh cannot fancy doubling its wild tiger population without compromising the lives and properties of human beings, simply because the tiger is present only in the Sundarban and its area can never be increased unless there is an accretion of new islands and/or formation in the south of the current Sundarban.
However, Nepal, Bhutan and some tiger reserves in India have doubled their tiger populations only after their habitat area has been sufficiently increased.
In addition, they have interconnected all neighbouring tiger-holding areas through well-planted corridors, allowing free movements of the tigers and their prey animals. They have successfully kept poaching under control.
But we need to remember that the top predator population cannot keep increasing constantly due to environmental wear and tear, because plants can't grow at the speed animals consume them, and there are territorial fights between tigers to occupy the new space for the prey animals.
Altruistic introduction of mangroves and deer in the newly accreted islands?
For example, without any feasibility study, rather on the whim of someone in the forestry department, or an adviser, the government decided to introduce spotted deer in the newly accreted islands at the seafront along the southern parts of the country.
Even the process of coastal afforestation is against the natural process of land formation, because the forestry sector started planting two to four species of mangrove plants on all newly accreted islands before allowing the new sandbars to stabilise and letting natural plants and animals to take over new coastal lands.
The deer population is increasingly unchecked and there is an overpopulation of it too, causing negative human-deer interactions. Now, can we introduce the tigers bred in Dhaka zoo or the two government safaris in these man-made coastal forests with introduced deer?
Imagine the scenario.
The day one or more tigers are introduced into these forests, the tigers will actually fear the deer as they had never seen such an animal living in front of them.
But once the tigers settle into the forest, they will run amokm killing any number of deer. These deer have never seen a predator, barring a few foxes. They will be more like domestic animals without a proper fear instinct of the largest predator – the tiger.
The tigers will overkill and, in a year or two, most of the deers will be killed. Then, the tigers will turn towards nearby human habitations for food, mainly the cattle. In the process, the tiger and human conflict will increase and there will be casualties on both sides.
We should remember that in the whole world, only once was a Bengal Tiger was transhipped from an unknown location inland to the West Bengal part of the Sundarban. This introduced tiger was killed by a nearby territory-holding tiger within approximately a month.
There is 'no vacuum' in natural ecosystems. Every vacuum created by the loss of an animal is soon replaced by other natural entities from the neighbourhood.
Now the question arises, is it feasible to reintroduce Bengal Tiger in Greater Chittagong Admin Division or in Sylhet, as suggested by our honourable parliamentary committee members on our forestry and wildlife sector?
My answer or any other scientists' answer will simply be, no.
First and foremost, why did Bengal Tigers disappear from the whole countryside, the entire Shal forest and 99% of the mixed evergreen forests in the greater Chittagong, including the Chittagong Hill Tracts?
The simple answer is that tigers have no place to hide or raise a family in seclusion, which means that in the original forest, the cover is missing and bad forestry practices are abundant, along with forest destroying jhum cultivation by the ethnic minority people for over a few centuries.
There are simply no prey animals such as deer, gaur, banteng and wild boars there, because these are either extinct or a tiny, unsustainable population still remains.
Tigers have been hunted down for the pelts and the meat, as well as bones. Last but not the least, the nail in the coffin was placed by our past President Ziaur Rahman, who settled Bangalees who had no knowledge of living in hilly areas. They started grabbing forest land at an unprecedented rate, for cultivation and to increase human habitations.
So, if there were suitable habitats with sufficient prey base, tigers, rhinos, gaur, banteng, barasingha (swamp deer), etc would have lived in harmony in the Greater Chittagong and Sylhet regions. Alas! The reality is very different.
Good money should never be spent on bad investments?
If anyone wants to invest money on the tiger, it should only be done in the Sundarban. Restoration attempts in other places will fail measurably because those mainland areas are only home to humans and not suitable for megafauna or larger species of wildlife.
If conservation money is to be invested to reintroduce the tigers and conserve megafauna in the forests bordering Bangladesh territories with Myanmar and India, then the authority must first assure creating wildlife habitats that existed there prior to the 1947s - virtually free of humans with just a handful of tribal settlements and no Bangalees.
Without creating or maintaining suitable habitats, no wildlife can thrive but humans.
Otherwise, all attempts to conserve megafauna in the CHT and the neighbouring denuded forests will be futile, and any money spent there will feed the stomach of some so-called scientists, forest personnel, admin cadres, local touts, and political thugs.
Create a separate Wildlife Department and restore wildlife ecosystems
Instead of harbouring a false hope of restoring habitats for the tigers, the government and donor agencies should consider restoring the evergreen forest ecosystems in the badly managed forest reserves and wildlife sanctuaries to at least 50% of the pre-1947 level in the Greater Sylhet and Chittagong Admin Divisions.
Hand over such reserves or sanctuaries to a department of wildlife to be created solely to save wildlife and forests, ensure trees are not cut down and replace any alien or exotic plant species with indigenous and area-suitable species.
Such a regenerated forest could provide sufficient cover, edible plant species and produce for the smaller but charismatic species of wildlife. These may include species such as the Hoolock Gibbon, several species of monkeys and leaf monkeys, slow loris, flying squirrels, civets, mongoose, binturong (bearcat), fox, jackal, smaller deer, serow, all wild cats but tigers and leopards.
In addition, many species of birds like the hornbills, mynas, parakeets, reptiles and amphibians will reappear or increase in population sizes, restocking the forests with both prey species and predators.
Dr Reza Khan, is the Principal Wildlife Specialist at the Dubai Safari Parks, Public Parks and Recreational Department, Dubai Municipality.