SYDNEY – Climate change and rising sea levels could destroy the mangroves of Sundarbans, the last coastal stronghold of the Bengal tiger in India and Bangladesh, according to a study published by the James Cook University on Monday.
The littoral habitat of the predator, the world’s biggest cat, could be completely destroyed over the next five decades, the study by the Australian university found.
“Fewer than 4,000 Bengal tigers are alive today,” said JCU’s Professor Bill Laurance, a co-author of the study.
The scientist said that the animal was now “mainly confined to small areas of India and Bangladesh” and warned that the tigers were getting a “double whammy – greater human encroachment on the one hand and a worsening climate and associated sea-level rises on the other.”
“Beyond climate change, the Sundarbans are under growing pressure from industrial developments, new roads, and greater poaching,” Laurance added in a statement by the university.
The study’s lead author, Sharif Mukul, of the Independent University Bangladesh, said that the Sundarbans region, which spans over 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles), is the biggest mangrove forest on the planet and is “the most critical area for Bengal tiger survival.”
“What is most terrifying is that our analyses suggest tiger habitats in the Sundarbans will vanish entirely by 2070,” he added in the statement.
The study is based on computer simulations to assess the future suitability of the low-lying Sundarban region for tigers and their prey species and uses mainstream estimates of climatic trends from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The researchers’ analyses also included factors such as extreme weather events and sea-level rise.
Despite their bleak forecast, the researchers are still hopeful of the Bengal tiger’s survival.
“The more of the Sundarbans that can be conserved-via new protected areas and reducing illegal poaching-the more resilient it will be to future climatic extremes and rising sea levels,” Laurance said.
“There is no other place like the Sundarbans left on Earth,” said Professor Laurance. “We have to look after this iconic ecosystem if we want amazing animals like the Bengal tiger to have a chance of survival.”