The important role Bengal tigers play in the Sundarbans mangroves
One Earth’s “Species of the Week” series highlights an iconic species that represents the unique biogeography of each of the 185 bioregions of the Earth.
Tigers are one of the most captivating species on our planet. Their distinct orange and black-striped coats are how much of humanity, at a young age, learns colors, animals, and just how amazing nature can be.
A “charismatic megafauna,” Bengal tigers join the list of species like African lions, humpback whales, giant pandas, bald eagles, and emperor penguins, among many others that have a worldwide symbolic value. Yet, far too often, one of the most fascinating things about Bengal tigers is overlooked.
They are the apex predator, and therefore indirect tenders, of the Sundarbans mangroves, a jungle swampland on the coasts of India and Bangladesh that serves as one of Earth’s most vital carbon sinks.
Keeping harmony in the jungle
Sundarbans translates to ‘beautiful forest’ in Bengali, with lush Heritiera fomes trees making up 70% of this jungle landscape. It is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, with 150 species of fish, 270 birds, 42 mammals, 35 reptiles, eight amphibian species, and new discoveries of insects and fungi regularly.
At the head of this ecosystem, Bengal tigers can weigh up to 325 kg (717 lb), run 64 kph (40 mph), and consume 40 kg (88 lb) of food at one time. As pure carnivores, these tigers balance mammal species populations, which then balance plant species populations, allowing the mangrove trees to become the dominant vegetation in this flourishing delta.
Without Royal Bengal tigers, as they are sometimes called in this region, this tropical coastal swamp would not stretch the 140,000 hectares it does today.
The importance of the Sundarbans
A major source of Blue Carbon, mangroves store four times more CO2 than terrestrial forests. In 2017, Raghab Ray from the University of Tokyo and Tapan Kumar Jana from the University of Calcutta found that the Sundarbans sequestered 98% of the carbon emitted by a coal-based power plant in Kolaghat, India.
Mangroves not only take the greenhouse gases that are being pumped into Earth’s atmosphere and store them for hundreds of years, but the trees produce oxygen, purifying the air we breathe. They serve as a duel threat in tackling the climate crisis.
At the helm of this imperative environment is the Bengal tiger. It is estimated that these tigers have been in the Indian subcontinent since the Late Pleistocene, 12,000 to 16,500 years ago.
Protecting tigers to protect the Earth
Yet, poaching and extreme habitat loss have made the Sundarbans lose 95% of its historic tiger population. Through conservation efforts throughout India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, it is reported that the number of wild tigers is now up to 3,890 individuals from just 2,000 recorded in the 2000s.
Bengal tigers clean polluted air, protect coastal communities from flooding, secure the livelihoods of locals living off the land, and mitigate climate change by helping the mangrove trees thrive.
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