Published on: March 7, 2022




Preliminary findings of a study by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) suggest that the density of tigers in the Sunderbans may have reached the carrying capacity of the mangrove forests, leading to frequent dispersals and a surge in human-wildlife conflict


  • Availability of food and space is the primary factors deciding density
  • Male in particular strives to control multiple females with typically smaller ranges
  • How far a tiger will range is determined by the abundance of prey in its forest

  • Correlation between prey availability and tiger density is fairly established
  • A joint Indo-Bangla study in 2015 pegged the tiger density at 2.85 per 100 sq km after surveying eight blocks spanning 2,913 sq km across the international borders in the Sunderbans
  • Low density of tigers in the Sundarbans is an inherent attribute of the hostile mangrove habitat that supports low tiger prey densities
  • The ongoing WII study indicates a density of 3-5 tigers in the Sunderbans. Given that 88 (86-90) tigers were estimated in 2,313 sq km of the Sundarbans in 2018, the population has been close to its so-called saturation point in the mangrove delta for some time


  • The consequence is frequent dispersal of tigers leading to higher levels of human-wildlife conflict in the reserve
  • While physical (space) and biological (forest productivity) factors have an obvious influence on a reserve’s carrying capacity of tigers, what also plays a crucial role is how the dispersal of wildlife is tolerated by people — from the locals who live around them to policymakers who decide management strategies.
  • Social carrying capacity assumes wider significance for wildlife living outside protected forests, it is an equally important factor in human-dominated areas bordering reserves where periodic human-wildlife interface is inevitable
  • Perceived conflict can squeeze the tiger’s domain, which the animal is bound to overstep from time to time, leading to further conflict with no immediate winners.

The way ahead

  • Artificially boosting the prey base in a reserve is often an intuitive solution but it can be counter-productive. However, government’s policies have discouraged reserve managers from striving to increase tiger densities by artificial management practices of habitat manipulation or prey augmentation.
  • To harness the umbrella effect of tigers for biodiversity conservation it is more beneficial to increase areas occupied by tigers
  • Create safe connectivity among forests and allow tigers to disperse safely to new areas. But though vital for genes to travel and avoid a population bottleneck, wildlife corridors may not be the one-stop solution for conflict.
  • Not all dispersing tigers will chance upon corridors simply because many will find territories of other tigers between them and such openings
  • While it has never been easy to share space with wildlife, particularly carnivores, the contours of conflict largely depend on the local perception of animals
  • Removing tigers or any wildlife cannot eliminate the chances of future interface as another lot invariably turns up. The remedy lies in smarter land use to minimise damage and adequate incentives to promote acceptance of wildlife.
  • Generous compensation policies can take care of the financial cost of losing livestock or crops, or wasted man hours when a workplace is avoided due to a passing tiger.
  • Percolation of financial benefits of having charismatic wildlife in the neighbourhood can also nudge some towards better tolerance.
  • Ultimately, it is the people of the Sunderbans who will decide how many tigers can be accommodated in their neighbourhood
  • In a landscape squeezed in by climate change, rising sea level and salinity, their future is nearly as precarious as the tigers