The Sundarbans, an expansive mangrove forest that stretches for nearly 4,000 square miles across India and Bangladesh, is home to the world’s largest population of endangered Bengal tigers. But due to climate change, the Sundarbans are in trouble—and a sobering study published recently in Science of The Total Environment has predicted that by 2070, there will be no viable tiger habitats left in the region.
Situated on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, the Sundarbans supports a wealth of biodiversity in its terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems. But the forest’s location also makes it vulnerable to rising sea levels because, according to the study authors, the mean elevation of most of the Sundarbans is less than one meter above sea level. Previous research has noted other impacts of climate change, like changes in vegetation, salinity and sedimentation in the region.
The new study set out to predict the implications of this shifting environment for the Bengal tiger, the only tiger species that has adapted to living in a mangrove environment. Researchers used computer simulations to analyze scenarios for the years 2050 and 2070, based on climactic trends developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Their analysis accounted for the effects of both sea level rise and climate change, including factors like extreme weather events. The analysis did not factor in threats like poaching, human-tiger conflicts and disease—but even so, the study authors write, their simulations predicted that climate change and sea level rise alone would be enough to “decimate this iconic species from the Sundarbans.”
One factor affecting tiger habitat is an increase of salinity in the region’s waters, driven by rising sea levels and reduced rainfall, Sharif A. Mukul, lead study author and environmental scientist at Independent University, Bangladesh, told CNN’s Isabelle Gerretsen last month. Higher salt levels are killing the Sundarbans’ Sundri trees, thereby shrinking the tigers’ habitat, and reducing the availability of fresh water. And this is far from the only threat facing the great cats.
“A lot of things might happen,” Mukul tells Kai Schultz and Hari Kumar of the New York Times. “The situation could be even worse if there is a cyclone or if there is some disease outbreak in that area, or if there is a food shortage.”
The Bengal tiger is, of course, not the only animal threatened by changes to its environment. Just this week, a bombshell U.N. report revealed that as many as one million plant and animal species are being pushed towards extinction by human-induced changes to the natural world. And while the situation is dire, for Bengal tigers at least, all hope is not lost. According to Schultz and Kumar, steps are already being taken to mitigate the effects of environmental changes in Bangladesh’s low-lying regions, such as building storm surge walls and redistributing sediment to increase the height of some islands.
Bill Laurance, study co-author and professor at James Cook University in Australia, stresses the importance of conservation measures; establishing new protected areas and cracking down on illegal poaching, he says, would help make the Sundarbans’ ecosystems more resilient in the face of an increasingly erratic climate.
“There is no other place like the Sundarbans left on Earth,” Laurance adds. “We have to look after this iconic ecosystem if we want amazing animals like the Bengal tiger to have a chance of survival.”