A Bengal tiger peeks out of the Sundarban forest.
A Bengal tiger peeks out of the Sundarban forest. Santanu Paul/CC BY-SA 4.0

Deep in the Sundarbans in southwestern Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest mangrove forests saw its tigers disappear at an alarming rate. The population of big cats had begun to disappear at the turn of the 21st century, snatched by poachers and pirates who snuck their way into the wildlife sanctuary in search of tiger skin. But a recent effort to double down on illegal poaching has allowed the population of Bengal tigers in the Sundarbans to increase for the first time in 15 years, according to a new tiger census released on May 21, 2019, the Dhaka Tribune reports.

Split between Bangladesh and India, the Sundarbans mangroves spread their roots throughout 4,000 square miles in the Bay of Bengal, according to National Geographic. It is the largest mangrove forest in the world, and the only one occupied by tigers. In its prime, the forest was a labyrinthine, waterlogged jungle, almost impenetrable to humans—in other words, the perfect place to be an endangered animal. The forest’s entwined roots, brackish water channels, and mosaicked chain of islands protected the endangered Bengal tiger and other rare species, such as the Irrawaddy dolphin, until poachers found a way in and reduced the wild population of big cats to a fraction of what it once was. In 2015, only 106 bengal tigers remained in the Sundarbans—less than a quarter of the 440 counted in 2004.

But the most recent census, taken in 2018, counted 114 tigers in the Bangladeshi Sundarban forest, according to the Dhaka Tribune. This averages out to 2.55 tigers per 100 square kilometers, as opposed to 2015’s average of 2.17. Bangladesh’s minister of forestry, Shahab Uddin, considers this eight percent increase a “great success,” according to Phys.com.

A tiger steps out in a biosphere reserve in the Sundarbans.
A tiger steps out in a biosphere reserve in the Sundarbans. Soumyajit Nandy/CC BY 4.0

Counting tigers in a remote, relatively untouched wildlife sanctuary is no easy feat. Researchers relied on camera traps, strategically deployed at 536 locations in the Sundarbans over 640 square miles of land. The cameras documented 63 adult tigers, four juveniles, and five cubs over the course of 249 days. Researchers extrapolated from this number to arrive at the 114 tiger estimate.

This resurgence didn’t happen out of nowhere. Since the alarming report in 2015, Bangladeshi authorities have adopted a conservation program for the big cats, including doubling the size of the wildlife sanctuary in the forest and also commissioning a security force. One strategy in the program offered a gun buyback scheme, which resulted in 200 pirates trading in their weapons and ammunition to the police for legal aid, mobile phones, and cash. The program also launched a patrolling program to catch future poachers in the act.

But still, Bangladesh’s Bengal tigers face an even greater threat in the form of climate change, according to a story in The New York Times. Around 70 percent of Sundarban land lies just a few feet above sea level, and a new report predicts tigers will have entirely vanished from the Sundarban by 2070.