Police have killed six suspected tiger poachers in the world's largest mangrove forest in southwestern Bangladesh, home to critically endangered Royal Bengal tigers.
The fierce gunfight took place in Khulna's Koyra Upazila area on Sunday, law enforcement officials confirmed, and came as Bangladesh launches a crackdown on poachers after a recent government survey found that there has been a drastic fall in the number of tigers.
Local police official Harendranath Sarker said authorities recovered six bodies along with the skins of three adult tigers and seized four rifles and a pistol, the Associated Press reported.
All of the deceased men are believed to be members of the notorious Ilias Bahini poaching gang, which is active within the 10,000-square-kilometer (3,860-square-mile) forest that straddles Bangladesh and India, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Some local media reported that the suspects were arrested in different parts of the forest before they were killed, but police said they died during the raid.
"The poachers first fired at us as we raided their den at Mandarbaria canal in the forest. We fired back. Six poachers were killed in the gunfight," local police chief Harendranath Sarker told AFP.
Some 440 tigers were recorded in the Sundarbans forest in a 2004 census based on collecting tigers' paw prints, but a year-long survey that ended in April 2015 using video cameras estimated that the current tiger population at between 83 and 130, averaging about 106.
Bangladeshi forest officials say the new estimate is more accurate because of the use of cameras. They and other experts say poaching is a major reason for the decline of the tiger population. Police chief Sarker said the Sundarbans, with its network of rivers and canals, had become a magnet for poacher gangs.
"They now sell tiger bones, meat, and skin for a lot of money," he said, adding that a lack of sufficient protection had contributed to the decline of big cats.
Indonesian police, meanwhile, have arrested four men for allegedly killing a Sumatran tiger and trying to sell its body parts. As few as 400 Sumatran tigers could remain in the wild, according to Greenpeace.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.