By Joseph Allchin
Dhaka, Bangladesh–Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, opened a major international conference on tiger conservation in the country’s capital, Dhaka, on Sunday. With delegates from all 13 tiger range countries in attendance, Hasina stated that her “government will do everything for conservation of the tigers,” lamenting “indiscriminate industrialization,” as a chief threat to habitats.
Bangladesh’s government is, however, involved in several industrial projects controversially located very close to the country’s sole remaining tiger habitat, the largest contiguous mangroves in the world, the Sundarbans. Such projects ask serious questions of the commitment of governments, often in countries struggling with poverty and burgeoning populations. “There’s a lot of country’s here who are trying to paint a rosy picture,” confides one visiting expert, who wished to remain anonymous.
Of particular note for the conference host nation, Bangladesh, is the 1,320 MW Rampal power coal power plant being built within 10 miles of the crucial Sunderbans forests and the autonomy of environmental impact assessments (EIA) of government projects. The plant will inevitably have an impact on the water within the forests, which is vital to the riverine ecosystem. The local University of Khulna estimated that half a million tons of toxic sludge will be released into the forests’s waterways annually. All the coal for the power station will be transported through freshly dredged rivers in the forest to a depot within the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmed, a former chief conservator of forests, noted at the conference that the “impact assessment was just not sufficient, the impact on water and air pollution needs to be calculated.” Now working for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), he has petitioned the government for a new EIA. The current EIA limply states that periodic cyclones will be enough to disperse the high concentrations of sulphur and nitrogen dioxides in the air.
Rampal “will not hamper the forests,” claims Haradhon Banik, Bangladesh’s deputy chief conservator. “There have been so many investigations.”
But for Dr. Y. Jhala, of India’s Wildlife Conservation Society, the the infrastructure to supply the plant “will cause problems.” The mangrove forest is intersected by rivers, which the tigers must swim across. The “continuous stream of barges, carrying coal will fragment the population” by preventing the tigers crossing key rivers. “There are only around five viable wild tiger habitats left in the world for long term hope. This is one of them. If you break these up into smaller parts you lose that, not ecologically, but biologically,” he said.
Bangladesh is hungry for energy, and while the government have made commitments to the South Asian nation’s national animal, the tiger, it is also committed to rapidly increasing electrification, half of which is to come from coal. Currently only 2 percent of Bangladesh’s electricity is generated from coal.
High demand for land in countries such as Bangladesh is a major concern. It is one of the most crowded nations in the world, with the World Bank reporting a density of 1,200 people per square kilometer, compared with the United States’ density of about 35 per square kilometer. Thus the hunger for land both for commercial and residential uses is fierce. Activists opposed to the Rampal plant allege that companies with political connections are eager to set up notoriously dirty ‘ship breaking’ yards near the energy installation, once the infrastructure is in place.
Another indicator of the lack of land and shaky government commitment to forest conservation is a major food silo being built by the ministry of food across the river from the forest at Joymonirgol. The project is being implemented by Toma Group, a company part-owned by the government’s jute minister, Mirza Azam. In November last year the Prime Minister laid the foundation stone on the project despite a theoretical moratorium on building any infrastructure within a 10-kilometer buffer zone of the forest. Banik claimed that the silo project “has passed all the EIAs.”
Bangladesh has one of the largest single populations of tigers in the Sunderbans, thought to number around 500 of the estimated global population of around 3,200 wild tigers. The Dhaka event last weekend was the second stocktaking conference as part of the Global Tiger Initiative, funded by the World Bank since 2010. The initiative attempts to “look into common issues and find solutions in a standardized manner,” amongst the 13 tiger range countries, says Andrew Zakharenka from the Global Tiger Initiative secretariat.
Related National Geographic Video: Tigers of the Sunderbans: