Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil company, is planning to survey the world's biggest tiger reserve after company geologists pinpointed it as one of the richest potential sources of oil and gas on earth.
The Sunderbans area of Bangladesh is host to some of the world's most endangered wildlife. Besides up to 450 Bengal tigers, it is home to three species of wild cat, the Ganges river dolphin and crocodiles.
Last week, Shell confirmed that it and Cairn Energy, another British company, had signed a contract to start exploiting the area.
The move, which has been approved by the government of Bangladesh, is certain to provoke uproar among environmentalists. The central Sunderbans lies within a world heritage site inside a wider area of internationally protected wetlands.
Shell has said that it has no current plans to exploit the central area, but confirmed that it intends to carry out aerial surveys and back them up with studies that will involve drilling test wells.
Mohammed Ali Ashraf, of Friends of the Earth Bangladesh, said any mineral exploitation would threaten the animals. "The company would need to build pipelines and roads and maybe even a port.
"This is the most important area for tigers in the world and must be protected. Britain would not let a Bangladeshi company drill for oil in the Lake District."
The Sunderbans row mirrors a battle being fought in Pakistan, where Shell wants to exploit reserves of natural gas lying under the Kirthar national park, 80 miles north of Karachi, which is home to many rare species and contains archeological sites from 3,500BC.
Environmental laws ban any mineral exploration in the reserve, but in 1997 Shell and Premier Oil were jointly awarded a licence to explore a region that included the whole Kirthar area. Since then they have been lobbying to lift the law blocking such activities.
Environmental groups will this week start court action against the company, claiming it is carrying out illegal work.
A Shell spokesman said the protests did not take account of "today's high standards of exploration and production", adding: "Shell and its partners respect the Sunderbans and are committed to carrying out all the required environmental and social studies prior to commencing any operations."
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