© naturepl.com / Tim Laman / WWF

Year of the Tiger

Mangroves and Big Cats

Written by Emma Barnes (WWF)

Lunar New Year arrives on February 1st, 2022, and with it, a new animal takes the reigns of the Chinese zodiac. This year is the year of the tiger.

In global culture and many belief systems, tigers are often represented as rulers of the forest: powerful, majestic, cunning, and even immortal. However, in nature, all subspecies of tiger are classified as endangered under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Humans and tigers have long competed for the same land and as a result of deforestation, poaching, and human-tiger conflict, there are less than 4,000 wild tigers left.

Despite their small population, tigers have an enormous habitat range across subspecies, from snowy Nepal to equatorial Indonesia. But one of the most unique tiger habitats are mangrove forests. While you may not expect tigers to live among the tangle of mangroves, Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) have made the Sundarbans mangrove forest—split across India and Bangladesh—home, the only forest where tigers live along a marine coast.

The Sundarbans is one of the largest continuous mangrove ecosystems in the world and covers more than 5,000km2 of coastal forest across dozens of islands along the Indian ocean. While the forest is an amazing expanse and supports incredible biodiversity, it still faces threats from deforestation and sea level rise. In fact, the entire ecosystem is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems.

© Nitish Madan / WWF-International

Fortunately, India and Bangladesh are working to preserve this unique tiger habitat. Sections of the Sundarbans were given World Heritage Site status in both Bangladesh and India and much of its extent is nationally protected by each government.

That protection doesn’t mean that people are completely absent from the landscape, though. In fact, millions of people depend on the Sundarbans for their livelihoods and about half of the forest’s islands are inhabited. The forest has been cleared to support crops in some areas but there are still a variety of resources that are collected from the ecosystem sustainably including mangrove palm fruit, crabs, and fish. The most notorious livelihood of the Sundarbans, though, is honey.

Collecting wild honey is a traditional and valued source of income for Sundarbans communities but each venture to collect from wild hives carries potential danger. Bee stings alone can make honey collection daunting, but the need to venture into Bengal tiger ranges within the forest brings an additional, deadly, risk. On average, human-tiger conflict kills 6 wild honey collectors every year.

This presents a complex conservation issue—needing to protect endangered tigers and the biodiversity of the forest without continuing to endanger human lives. But there is a solution. Communities are beginning to bring hives closer to home with support from the government and conservation organizations via apiculture (maintaining beehives). Keeping beehives nearby makes honey collection easier for communities and lowers the conflict risk both for the tiger and any human that would otherwise have crossed its path.

Several Global Mangrove Alliance members, including the Bangladesh Environment and Development Society (BEDS) and WWF, are supporting sustainable honey collection to protect tigers, help people, and sustain the awe-inspiring Sundarbans mangrove forest. There is still room to improve conservation efforts but there is good news—the last few decades have seen mangrove loss decline and tiger populations slowly grow. You can read more about ongoing conservation work to protect the Sundarbans mangroves and tigers in The State of the World’s Mangroves report.

The mangrove forest in the Sundarbans.
© WWF / Simon Rawles