A cross-border initiative, focused on harmonious coexistence with tigers in the Sunderbans, seeks to preserve biodiversity in both India and Bangladesh.

Twelve students (Tiger Scouts) of class 7 and 8 from the Madhya Purba Gurguria Adarsha Vidyapith school in Kultali block, along with their teachers, the Wildlife Trust of India’s (WTI) primary response team (PRT) members, and “Bagh Bondh’s” (friends of the tiger) from the local community in Kultali, South 24 Parganas, (West Bengal) met their counterparts from Bangladesh, as part of this program, said Dr Abhishek Ghoshal, WTI’s Manager and Head of Human-Wildlife Conflict Mitigation Division.

The people-centric engagement took place at Joymoni, Bagerhat District, Bangladesh on February 4 to 8 , under the Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Program supported by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and Germany’s KfW Development Bank. The WTI partnered with the Lokamata Rani Rashmoni Mission, Joynagar (West Bengal), and WildTeam, Bangladesh, on the initiative.

The two countries have Government-level interactions, but it was possibly a first of sorts that people, including students interaced to understand co-existing with tigers and biodiversity conservation in the Sundarbans of both countries, Ghoshal told businessline, adding “It has been an inspiration for both sides.”

The shared experiences that could be applied in their own regions included, picking up on livelihood interventions made to prevent people from going into the forest and picking up firewood, that exposed them to tigers. On the Indian side, people have been supported with smokeless cooking stoves, besides poultry and goats, towards livelihood support, Ghoshal said. And on the Bangladesh side, there were learnings on growing paddy that could withstand the high salinity in water, he said. India has about 79 such varieties of paddy, he said, but the practice was almost extinct given the popularity of high-yielding paddy varieties.

Ashok Haldar, a “Bagh Bandhu” said, he never imagined visiting Bangladesh’s Sundarbans to understand how the local community was involved in tiger conservation, a note on the initiative said. Subrata Mistry, Teacher-In-Charge with MPGAV school added, that students from remote areas of the Indian Sundarbans would be motivated on getting an opportunity to visit Bangladesh and see the work of their Tiger Scouts.

The project has been on since 2018-19, and looks at mitigation – attending to tiger incidents, giving the tiger a safe passage back to the forest to prevent attacks on humans and retaliatory action on the tiger, Ghoshal said. Then came the livelihood support, followed by education and awareness, in the community and among gen-next to teach them to co-exist with tigers, he explained.

In the project area, the last four years has seen no tiger or human casualty, he said, pointing to the success and reason why the non-government organisations on both sides want to continue the interaction, though the project comes to an end in October 2024.

Bangladesh’s wildlife conservation organization WildTeam’s Chief Executive, Professor Anwarul Islam said, children were the future, and equipped with knowledge on Sundarbans, they could play their part in wildlife conservation of Sundarbans in the future, as well. Prosenjit Sheel, WTI’s Project head of Sundarban Tiger Project, pointed to the joint effort between the PRTs and Bagh Bondhus and the West Bengal Forest Department, and how it ensured the safety of the local community from tiger attacks, besides saving the Royal Bengal Tigers of the Sundarbans.