The mangrove forests of the Bangladesh Sundarbans cover approximately 6000 sq. kms and are currently thought to support 300-500 Bengal tigers, one of the world’s largest remaining tiger populations. With all remaining populations of tigers classified as Endangered and tigers cited as the species most at risk of extinction by WWF, conservation of the often forgotten Sundarbans population is critically important. In addition to the ever-present threats of poaching, habitat loss and prey depletion faced by tigers throughout their range, the Sundarbans tigers face two further grave survival challenges: Human-tiger conflicts (confrontation between humans and tigers often leading to the death of the tiger) and the growing threat of exposure to significant infectious diseases.
The Bangladesh Sundarbans Tiger Project (STP) has enlisted WVI in tackling the challenge of safeguarding its wild big cat population in the face of lethal confrontation between humans and tigers, and the growing threat of disease transmission.
Working with Bangladeshi forest department and conservation NGO’s, WVI is involved in a two pronged approach to safeguard the tiger in the Sundarbans from the effects of conflict and disease. The first is to train forest department and conservation staff in the safe capture and translocation of conflict tigers. The second involves developing a ground-breaking disease prevention programme designed to protect wild tigers from serious infectious diseases originating from domestic dogs and cats. See below for details.
Tigers in Conflict
Bangladesh tigers; conflict in the mangroves
Veterinary Support Programme for the Bangladesh: Sundarbans Tiger Population
The mangrove forests of the Bangladesh Sundarbans cover approximately 6000 sq. kms and are currently thought to support 300-500 Bengal tigers, one of the world’s largest remaining tiger populations. With all 5 remaining subspecies of tiger classified as Endangered (IUCN, 2010) and tigers cited as the species most at risk of extinction (WWF, 2010), conservation of the often forgotten Sundarbans population is critically important. In addition to the ever-present threats of poaching, habitat loss and prey depletion faced by tigers throughout their range, the Sundarbans tigers face two further grave survival challenges: direct conflict between humans and tigers and the growing threat of exposure to significant infectious diseases. WVI is part of a team working to provide local wildlife staff and communities with the necessary skills to build sustainable programmes to address these issues.
Problem 1: Human-Tiger Conflict
Bangladesh suffers from a uniquely high level of human-tiger conflict. Each year these situations result in the unnecessary deaths of at least 50 humans, many livestock and a significant number of tigers. When tigers stray into the villages bordering the Sundarbans, they are often surrounded by frightened villagers wielding sticks, spears and machetes and bludgeoned to death.
The Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh (WTB) is the most effective and influential wildlife conservation NGO in the country. Working with the government Bangladesh Forest Department, WTB has developed a plan to prevent these killings, which involves tiger capture and relocation at an early stage of conflict. This requires dedicated and skilled teams, but specialist training in immobilisation techniques is currently unavailable in Bangladesh. Wildlife Vets International can provide such training and is therefore central to the plan’s implementation.
WVI action to date:
In January 2010, WVI was approached by Dr Adam Barlow (Tiger Project Manager, WTB) to provide specialist tiger training. WVI responded – founder and co-director Dr John Lewis trained 30 forest conservation staff to capture, immobilise and re-locate problem tigers. Within weeks the training paid off: In February 2011, a tiger that strayed into a village was saved from the hands of villagers. A trained team anaesthetised the tigress, moved her by boat to a location deep in the forest and successfully released her – a first for Bangladesh.
WVI’s support for this immobilisation workshop has greatly improved the capacity of WTB and the Forest Department to deal with human-tiger conflict, thereby potentially reducing the number of tigers, livestock and people killed each year. This, in turn, helps improve local attitudes and creates better conditions for implementing other tiger conservation initiatives.
In 2011, Dr Mahbubal Alam, WTB’s lead vet, visited the UK for further large cat anaesthetic training with John Lewis.
In April 2012, John Lewis made another highly productive visit to Bangladesh, building on WVI’s initiatives started in 2010. Veterinary input was provided to a workshop of Bangladeshi and international tiger specialists resulting in the ‘Conflict Tiger Management Guidelines for Bangladesh’ – a set of procedures designed to mitigate conflict at all levels. Furthermore, a manual providing guidelines for the immobilisation and capture of Sundarbans tigers was presented to and officially accepted by the Bangladesh Forest Department. The lead author was John Lewis.
WVI was also able to provide tiger-appropriate anaesthetic equipment to enable the WTB to respond in human-tiger conflict situations with the right tools to do a professional job. Such specialised equipment is not available or affordable in Bangladesh.
Problem 2: Threat of Infectious Disease
A large number of feral dogs live in and around the many villages bordering the Sundarbans, and feral domestic cats have established in some peripheral areas of the forest. Viral diseases such as rabies and canine distemper are common problems in such dog populations, and feline viruses such as feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukaemia virus are often found in feral cats. These animals have the potential to become significant reservoirs of disease that could impact negatively on tigers – reservoirs maintained by uncontrolled breeding. Tigers straying into villages and predating on feral dogs, or tigers predating on feral cats in the forest periphery would be at risk.
As an example, Canine distemper virus (CDV) has had a serious impact on other large wild carnivores in recent years. In the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, a canine distemper epidemic in 1994 caused the death of approximately 30% of the lion population well as numerous African wild dogs, leopards, hyaenas and bat-eared foxes. This was the first time CDV had been detected in wild lions. In Namibia, an epidemic occurred in 2002/3 when CDV spilled over from domestic dogs to decimate populations of black-backed jackals and other wildlife. In 2011, CDV was confirmed in two wild Amur tigers in the Russian Far East. CDV has also gravely affected populations of lynx and bobcats in Canada, Baikal seals in Russia and raccoons and endangered black-footed ferrets in the United States of America.
WVI action to date
In 2010, Dr John Lewis and WTB staff identified the need to assess disease risks to tigers in the Sundarbans and to implement a disease prevention programme to protect them from infectious diseases originating in feral dogs and cats. Since 2010, under guidance from WVI, WTB’s vet, Dr Mahbubal Alam, has made considerable progress in developing a strategy to address the issue. Recently, WTB and the Bangladesh Forest Department have identified this disease threat as requiring reduction in the immediate future.
During Dr John Lewis’ 2012 visit to Bangladesh, progress of the Sundarbans disease investigation plan and the management of the feral dog and cat problem were reviewed with Dr. Adam Barlow and Dr. Alam. Priorities were agreed for the next 12 months (see below). The possible involvement of staff and graduate veterinary students from Bangladeshi veterinary schools is another positive development.
WVI tries to visit at least once a year to provide training to new Forest Department, conservation staff and Bangladeshi vets. Whilst in Bangladesh, WVI continues to develop a world first, a disease prevention programme designed to protect wild tigers from serious infectious diseases from domestic dogs and cats.
Donations would cover the following costs:
£20 to vaccination a domestic dog against rabies, distemper and canine parvovirus stopping these diseases from transmitting to tigers and other wildlife as well as all protecting children against deliberating rabies.
£42 will anaesthetise a 200kg Bengal tiger
£80 will test one blood sample for distemper, Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), Feline infections
peritonitis (FIP), Feline leukemia (FeLV) and toxoplasma.
£500 will provide a day’s training by an expert field vet