By Anis Ahmed and Azad Majumder
DHAKA (Reuters) - Royal Bengal tigers have been under threat from habitat destruction, illegal trade for body parts, natural calamities and angry villagers, but their cubs are now facing a new danger -- poachers.
Three frail tiger cubs lying in an iron cage in a Dhaka zoo are the first live cubs to be recovered from poachers, who had planned to smuggle the animals out of the country.
"(Tigers) come out of the woods in search of food in the villages, and often get caught and killed," said a forest ranger in the Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh, who asked not to be identified.
"Now, the poachers have expanded their illegal trade by catching and smuggling cubs that are easier to trap and safer to move away."
There are an estimated 300 to 500 majestic Royal Bengal tigers in the 10,000 square km (6,213 miles) Sundarbans forest, which stretches across part of Bangladesh and India and has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
The numbers of the striped cats, which usually weigh over 200 kg (440 pounds) when fully grown, have been falling steadily.
Residents of a Dhaka high rise building found the squeaking and grunting cubs in June when the animals were trying to climb from the ground floor. Special security forces took the cubs to a private zoo, where keepers fed them with bottled milk and put them on display.
But due to health problems and stress from the throngs of visitors, the cubs were taken to a specially designed home in Dhaka's Botanical Garden where they are being fed food imported from China.
The recovery of the live cubs was a wake-up call for conservationists who had been unaware of illegal trade in tiger cubs. Adult tigers are prized for their skins and their body parts are used in traditional Asian medicine.
"We have had reports of tigers being killed by poachers. But this was the first time we saw that they were captured alive," said Reaj Morshed, program officer at the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh (WTB).
Security forces arrested a man and his mother for collecting the cubs and keeping them until the animals could be smuggled out of the country. Each cub was priced at 2 million taka($24,400).
Since the rescue the government has tightened laws for smuggling tiger cubs and imposed a seven-year sentence and a fine of 500,000 taka fine.
Sundarbans forest guards will also be equipped with new guns and trained to curb poaching and smuggling.
Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmad, the country representative for the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), believes the new law is a step in the right direction.
"Previously we didn't have a stringent law to deal with this, but now I think with the law in force and increased awareness on the part of the people, protection will be easier," he said.
But not everyone agrees.
"This country had plenty of laws to govern the forests but they were never strictly enforced," said Mohammad Badiuzzaman, at a nearby village. "Mere talking of laws and launching of plans will do little to help save the forest and its inhabitants."
(Additional reporting by Serajul Quadir; editing by Elaine Lies)