As of Monday morning (May 6), the fire that broke out in Amarbunia, under the Chandpai range in the eastern region of the Sundarbans Bagerhat on Saturday afternoon (May 4) is yet to be completely doused.

Although it was brought under control sometime around Monday afternoon, several units of the Fire Service, navy, coast guard, police, district administration, upazila administration, public representatives and locals would need to work another two to three days before it is completely put out, according to the latest update from the chief conservator of forests.

It harks back to May 3, 2021, when a fire broke out in Bharani under the Sarankhola range, which is not far from Amarbunia. Before that in 2016, there were four different incidents of fire in the eastern part of the Sundarbans.

This time the distance of the fire from the nearest water source - almost 2 kilometres - has proved a particular challenge, hindering the efforts to extinguish it. Along with the Forest Department, the Fire Service, Community Patrolling Groups (CPG), Village Tiger Response Teams (VTRT), and members of the navy, air force, police, and coast guard joined the operation, helping to cut off the fire line the next day.

We understand that in the past 22 years, the Sundarbans East Forest Division has faced 32 fire incidents. Every time the community joined the Forest Department and fought against the fire at risk to their lives. They are driven by a spirit, which is Sundarban Mayer Moton (motherly Sundarbans). The Sundarbans protects them from cyclones, gives them food and shelter, and nurtures them the way a mother would.

I had the opportunity to become one of the founders of the WildTeam, a national conservation organisation, that engaged the community through its Village Tiger Response Team (VTRT), BaghBandhus (friends of tigers), TigerScouts and Forest Tiger Response Team (FTRT) to protect the Sundarbans and its biodiversity, including the majestic Bengal Tiger. Today we have about 450 such volunteers spread around the 76 villages of the Sundarbans. We believe People are the Solution. Under the leadership of the Forest Department, we successfully engaged these volunteers during any natural or anthropogenic crisis in the Sundarbans. Our friends in the Indian Sundarbans have replicated our model.

Our slogan is: 'Save Tigers, Save Sundarbans, Save Bangladesh.' Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in one of his speeches in 1972, said that were it not for the Sundarbans, we wouldn't be able to protect Bangladesh (he was specifically talking about natural catastrophes, meaning the Sundarbans acts as a shield as we saw during a number of cyclones in recent times). Tigers are the natural guards of the Sundarbans. Thus, they are the guardians of the Sundarbans.

The increased disturbance of the forest cover caused by such fires as the latest will force the wildlife to leave the forest in search of food inside the villages and enhance the chances of human-wildlife conflict.

We had tigers in almost all the forests of Bangladesh. Today, Sundarbans is the last stronghold of Bangladesh's remaining tigers. According to the last tiger survey in 2018, Bangladesh has 114 tigers. However, we feel concerned about the fact that three tigers have reportedly died in the last five months.

On November 25, 2023, the Forest Department recovered a tiger's carcass from the Kachikata area adjacent to the Raimangal River in the Satkhira range. On February 12, 2024, a dead tiger was spotted in the Kachikhali area of the Sarankhola range located under the Sundarbans East Forest Division. On April 30, 2024, the forest guards recovered a floating carcass of a tiger from the Karamjal area in the Sundarbans east.

Then again, on April 20, 2024, we lost one of the honey collectors in the Sundarbans. He was attacked by a tiger at Notabeki under the Satkhira range of the Sundarbans. The tiger attacked Maniruzzaman and tried to drag him to the deep forest. His fellow honey collector rescued him from the clutches of the tiger, but he died soon. Maniruzzaman was a resident of Gabura, where most of the 'tiger widows' - whose husbands died in tiger attacks - live. He too left behind two of his wives.

Most of the bread earners living around the Sundarbans largely depend on the resources of the Sundarbans. Infertile and inhabitable land, habitat loss, dense population and climate change make the situation complex. Researchers predict that due to climate change and sea level rise, there will be no remaining tiger habitats in the Sundarbans by 2070. About 3.5 million people live on the fringes of the Sundarbans, where fishing, honey and wood collection are their mainstays for living.

More than 40 per cent of the people are on the edge of the poverty line. Salinity, siltation, and climate emergencies make people's lives much harder. Poison fishing, unsustainable fishing, and many other anthropogenic threats are on the rise. These days the fish catch has gone down, which forces the community to venture inside the forest, making them easy prey to tigers.

The Forest Department is the custodian of the country's forests and wildlife. They are forced to work with huge limitations in the Sundarbans. We need to focus on these foresters by increasing their capacity and facilities - the sooner the better. At the same time, we need to engage the community as well and build up their social capital, before we lose our national pride, the Sundarbans and the Bengal Tiger.

The author is the Founder of WildTeam and Editor-in-Chief of UNB and Dhaka Courier.

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