The people who live with tigers

Goni has lived in a village next to the Sundarbans his entire life. As a boy, he spent countless hours cautiously playing on the edge of the forest knowing that a tiger might be watching him; wondering if he might become its next meal.

Now an adult, Goni is one of the most respected leaders of his community for trying to protect the tigers and the Sundarbans forest through conservation that contributes to sustainable development. He believes that the respect and fear of the tiger is what makes the tiger the key to conserving his home.

sundarbansAs little as 100 years ago, tigers were found in forests throughout Bangladesh. Today, in this country of 157 million people compressed into a space the size of Iowa, they are only found in the Sundarbans.

Millions of Bangladeshis like Goni depend on the Sundarbans for food, resources, and shelter from natural disasters such as flooding or cyclones. Despite the terrifying truth that tigers sometimes hunt people in the Sundarbans, tigers are the forest’s protectors and Goni and his neighbors want to protect them.

They understand the connection between the tiger’s existence and protecting their people and culture. If the tigers were not in the Sundarbans, people would not be afraid to enter the forest. The forest and its natural resources could quickly disappear along with the protection these things provide to the country against deadly cyclones.

It is astounding that there is any forest at all fit for tigers in Bangladesh. Such an intense combination of poverty and population would leave most countries nearly void of any real natural environment.

Surprisingly, there are beautiful patches of forest and wetlands in Bangladesh that harbor an amazing variety of wild animals and plants. Wild groups of Asian elephants move between forest and human settlements in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the country. Acrobatic Hoolock gibbons are easily seen leaping from tree top to tree top in a handful of Bangladesh’s national parks just a couple hours outside of Dhaka. Most amazing of all, hundreds of tigers are found in the untamed Sundarbans, the world’s largest intact mangrove forest.

In Bangladesh, particularly in areas like the Sundarbans, where people are dependent on the environment for food, shelter, and income; people like Goni understand that their lives are intimately linked to the fate of the natural environment around them. But understanding does not feed a family and does not build a house. That is why jobs for people who depend on the environment for food and income are crucial to saving the Sundarbans.

At the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), our goal as development workers and conservationists is to find the most balanced ways to ensure that the needs of the people, the wildlife, and the natural environment are met. To accomplish this, conservation and sustainable economic development must work together to enable leaders like Goni to educate and strengthen their communities.

In the Sundarbans and other parts of Bangladesh, we are working diligently to see that development does not happen at the expense of conservation, and the demand for economic development is balanced with conservation. The future of tigers, the Sundarbans, and the Bangladeshi people depend on our coordinated success.

Please watch the video above to see how USAID is working with the Government of Bangladesh, Goni, and others like him to show how conservation and sustainable development can go hand-in-hand.