Sitting proudly on the chest of their national cricket team, the Bengal tiger is Bangladesh’s most iconic animal. Yet with only a few thousand tigers in a forest that spans over 10,000 kilometers, it’s not an easy animal to spot. Photographer and keen wildlife enthusiast Nazmul Islam headed back to his homeland to spend a day with the Sundarbans Tiger Project and see if he could catch a glimpse of one of the world’s most majestic creatures.
“I was very young when I first arrived in England in the early 70s. I have returned on many occasions, but I’ve never felt I’d seen the real Bangladesh. All I knew was the sanitised and guarded evergreen view of my hometown of Moulvi Bazar. I wanted to explore the true country that I was born in. I wanted to see the true Bangladesh, and the Sundarbans was at the very top of my wish list.
The largest mangrove forest in the world, the Sundarbans covers an area of 10,000 square kilometers that spans both Bangladesh and India. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a shortlist to the New 7 Wonders Of The World, it’s home to one of the most impressive animals on our planet, the Royal Bengal Tiger, an animal I’d wanted to see in its natural habitat all my life. I started planning my visit and quickly discovered The Sundarbans Tiger Project.
DHAKA, HEADQUARTERS OF THE STP & THE WILDLIFE TRUST OF BANGLADESH
My first destination was The Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh where I met with Henry Churchill, the STP Campaigns Manager and his conservation team, Dr Adam Barlow and Christina Greenwood. Dr Barlow explained how the project works in tandem with The Bangladeshi Forest Department and is committed in becoming leaders in tiger conservation through research. They’re also dedicated to the reduction tiger and human conflict via their Tiger Response Team. Tigers are known to wander into villages and attack or kill humans: between 15 and 50 people killed on average every year in the region.
The team wants to help build relations with local people and avoid unnecessary suffering from tiger attacks. Or indeed retaliation attacks on tigers. Education plays an integral part in conservation and the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh and the STP have a new resource centre created to help inform the future generations on the issues of conservation. A tiny team and thousands of kilometres to cover; their work is never ending.
Situated in the south of the country towards the Bay of Bengal, the region is spilt by the mighty River Ganges. The Sundarbans is not an easy place to get to; the long and sweaty journey by road takes approximately eight hours from Dhaka! I finally arrived in Mongla where I met with Iqbal Hussain the Communication And Education Coordinator for the STP. He took me directly to the docks where the STP boat lay in wait, he explained that it was holiday season so the ports and rivers will be very busy. He wasn’t lying.
The port was full of small tourist boats, each one crammed with people heading into the forest. Iqbal informed me with some hesitation that they were all heading for a crocodile and deer park nearby. The sanctuary collect the crocodile eggs and nurture them before releasing them back into the wild. They also keep spotted deer and monkeys. I wasn’t interested in them, though, my heart was set on the tiger. We finally set off from the port and into the delta of the bay. It was just as I expected: the vastness of the river and dense forestry on either side of the banks, it was truly breathtaking.
We had little time before sunset and aimed to get as deep into the forest as possible. On the boat, team members explained about the climate of the area and how the forest is in the cyclone belt. Large areas are often flooded during the monsoon season; we saw the effects of this as we passed government built shelters for people who had lost their homes. It’s truly devastating.
After two hours we finally arrived at a village deep in the forest. The villagers seemed nervous of our presence but overall they were very friendly and a few inquisitive children started following me around asking questions about my camera equipment. More and more villagers gathered around to ask me about the camera, asking for photos. I was only too happy to oblige.
One thing that struck me about the village is its roots in tradition. They enjoy their way of life; the slow pace, the practicality and resourcefulness is obvious to see. The community has a reluctance to accept change, however, and this does not bode well for the tiger. The continual reduction of habitat and loss of prey through illegal deer poaching has had a dramatic effect on tiger reproduction. Iqbal’s team use education as a method to raise this awareness and to support an alternative livelihood development.
As we walked through the village, one of the team brings something to our attention; along the riverbanks he had noticed tiger tracks. The tracks were quite fresh; I was told that they were no more than a week old.
The thought of this magnificent animal having just been in this area was overwhelming. I was equally excited and scared. Never before had I felt such a strong combination of emotions all at once; each of my senses was heightened. Fear is an emotion that all the villagers can relate to as the number of human tiger conflicts continues. The saddest story is that of a member of the tiger team, his brother was a victim of a tiger attack and unfortunately it was fatal. To have the courage to carry on and continue with this noble cause is a commendable commitment. I don’t know what I would do had I had been in this situation. Would I be willing to continue protecting and conserving something that had taken the life of my sibling? It’s something I cannot imagine.
THE LONG JOURNEY HOME
Sadly the day came to an end for me and the team. A two hour trip back to Mongla, beckoned. I stood on the deck of the boat and looked into the distance staring at the amazing sunset ahead of me.
As the literal Bengali translation suggests, Sundarbans truly is a “beautiful forest”. But it’s more than that. It is home to many types of wildlife from exotic birds, spotted dear, macaques, crocodiles, snakes and the ever famous elusive Royal Bengal Tiger. It is also home to hundreds of species of plants including the sundari tree. However, the most amazing thing about the forest is the people who live and work there. The Sundarbans takes a constant battering from natural elements and the people who live in there have developed resilience and courage to endure what nature throws at them. I have heard so many stories of how nature gives an abundance in one hand, but takes with the other.
The Sundarbans Tiger Project is a revolution and is at the forefront of conservation and education in the area. Since their inception, the STP have successfully collared two tigers and are now developing a much deeper understanding of the animal’s movements and behavioral patterns. Meanwhile, the Tiger Response Team continue to patrol the forest waterways, providing emergency medical treatment and transport for victims. The team has also formulated the first Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan in conjunction with the Forest Department. Implementing all its aims and objectives is a mammoth task but it’s clear that progress is being made for the future of the Sundarbans, its people and its tigers.
I might not have seen a tiger, but my first journey to the Sundarbans was one that I will never forget. I would like to thank the STP for providing me with a wonderful insight into the area and the humbling work they do.
For more information on the STP visit www.sundarbanstigerproject.info
To see the images visit Nazmul’s gallery at www.sunstarphotography.com