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More tigers than estimated in Sunderbans

                                                                                             The Times of India, Kolkata. 25th May, 2013

KOLKATA: Conservationists can raise a toast. The number of big cats in the Sunderbans is much higher than official estimates. A recent camera-trap study by WWF-India and the West Bengal forest department has detected the presence of at least 77 tigers in the mangroves, much higher than the lower limit of 64 thrown up by the national tiger census in 2011.

While the cameras captured 57 big cats in the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (STR) region, a similar study in areas outside the tiger reserve last year had spotted 20 animals.

The three major ranges under the STR area — National Park East, Sajnekhali and Basirhat — have a minimum of 27, 17 and 13 tigers respectively, said STR field director Soumitra Dasgupta. The STR figure doesn't include the number of tigers in the National Park West range, where a study is currently being conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India. "So, the number of big cats in the mangroves can be higher when the final report comes out," Dasgupta said.

Chief wildlife warden N C Bahuguna, too, backed the claim. "I haven't yet received the report, but whatever the figures are, it's a minimum estimation and there can be more tigers," he said.

The figure of 17 tigers for tourist zone Sajnekhali, spread over only 362 sq km, has especially given foresters a reason to smile. "Two successive tiger sightings last Puja at Pirkhali, close to the Sajnekhali beat office, had resulted in a surge of tourists till January," said a forest official. "Though we generally receive around 80,000 tourists between October and January, the best time for tiger sightings in Sunderbans, last year the number crossed one lakh." The tourism zone covers forests of Pirkhali and Dobanki.

While the National Park East zone, spread over 700 sq km, comprises the Baghmara, Chamta and Gona forests, the Basirhat range covers the forests of Jhila, Arbesi and Khatuajhuri. An official said WWF-India members laid 56 pairs of trap cameras in the core forests and the exercise started last November.

Eminent conservation zoologist Ullas Karanth, who had conducted a camera-trap study in the mangroves in 1998, said the figure of 274 once given out by the forest department was highly inflated. "Only long-term population dynamics studies of the kind we are doing in Karnataka will tell us if the population of tigers in the Sunderbans is stable, increasing or declining," he said.

According to Wildlife Protection Society of India executive director Belinda Wright, Sunderbans is a "critical tiger habitat and a lot of hard work will have to be put in — in particularly protecting the prey species — to see a rise in the number of tigers here".

State wildlife advisory board member Joydip Kundu felt the camera-trap study was a landmark exercise undertaken by the WWF and the forest department. "We should move forward and strengthen the conservation efforts in the mangroves," he said.

Sunderbans forest officials had challenged the 2011 tiger census report that had put the minimum number of big cats in the mangroves at 64.

"Sign surveys, radio-collaring and camera trapping were done then to estimate the number. Later, we decided to go for an intensive study, which will be a tiger reserve-specific exercise, to determine the minimum number," said an official of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, adding that the exercise being conducted now is a landscape-specific census.