Tigers are one of the most captivating species on our planet. Their distinct orange and black-striped coat is how most 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 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 is a vital carbon sink.
Sundarbans translates to ‘beautiful forest’ in Bengali, with lush 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, 8 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, Bengal tigers balance mammal species populations, which then balance plant species populations, which then allow 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.
A major source of , 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. At the helm of this imperative environment, is the Bengal tiger. It has been for 12,000 to 16,500 years as it is estimated that tigers have been in the Indian subcontinent since the Late Pleistocene.
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. A positive trend in the face of global temperatures rise. Bengal tigers clean polluted air, protect coastal communities from flooding, secure the livelihoods of locals living off the land, and mitigate climate change all by helping the mangrove trees thrive. It is essential that we protect this beloved species and understand the role Bengal tigers play in our shared ecosystem and how their conservation is a .