Where death stalks the forest, for man and beast

by Sarah Rooney

THE SUNDERBANS, India — Sumitra Mondal felt uneasy from the moment her husband refused to eat a proper breakfast. Her spouse, Patiram, was a fisherman and they lived with their three children in a thatched mud hut in the Sunderbans, a vast mangrove swamp in eastern India. On that crisp December morning Patiram was feeling lucky and thought he might bring home a bountiful catch of fish. He wanted to wait until the evening to eat properly when the whole family could feast together.

After Patiram left, Sumitra also went down to the river to catch fish. While wading through the murky waters with her fishing net, her uneasiness grew more acute. When the knots she tied in her net kept coming undone, she saw this as a bad omen and knew for certain that danger would befall her family. Patiram, meanwhile, had happier thoughts on his mind. He had pulled in such a good haul he decided to cast his net out a second time. The fishermen he was with warned him a tiger was prowling in the area, but Patiram thought he would risk just one more catch.

There was nothing anyone could do when the tiger leaped from the cover of gnarled mangrove trees, fastened its jaws around Patiram’s neck and dragged him back into the forest. The fishermen chased the tiger and, because there was a large number of them, they were able to scare it off and carry Patiram back home to his wife. By then, of course, Patiram was long dead.

Zoologists will confidently tell you that your chances of being attacked by a tiger in the wild are exceedingly rare. This is only the case if you’re not in the Sunderbans, located on the Bay of Bengal just south of Calcutta. This watery maze of creeks and forested islands stretches out over 4,000 sq. km and is the largest mangrove swampland on earth. It is also home to some 280 Royal Bengal Tigers. Unfortunately for the humans who live here, part of this tiger’s diet is man.

In the last two years more than 70 people have been killed by tigers in the Sunderbans. This figure doesn’t account for the many deaths that go unreported, and the real death toll may be as high as 100 per year. Villagers are unable to eke out a living from the infertile lands of the Sunderbans and must sail into the unwelcoming swamp in search of fish and crabs, or venture into the forest for wood, honey and venison. There, they become prime bait for the world’s most ferocious tigers.

The Sunderbans is one of the final frontiers between man and nature. Angry villagers seeking vengeance kill a number of these endangered cats each year and human encroachment is eating up the tigers’ habitat. The spread of civilization has left few wildernesses intact, but here in the Sunderbans man and beast are locked in a seemingly even-sided tussle and the jury is still out on who will survive.

Ihave with me a list of tiger victims. It details the person’s name, age, occupation and residence and the place where they were attacked. A column titled “Remarks” illustrates just how ever-present the threat of tigers is to villagers living in the Sunderbans:

“Her [the victim’s] husband was also injured by tiger attack a couple years back.”

Or, “His brother was also killed by tiger.”

Or, “His father was also killed by tiger.”

Other remarks include “dead body was recovered,” though this is rare since tigers usually drag the carcass away to eat. The list covers the period from the beginning of 1999 to the beginning of 2001, and, out of the 71 people killed during this time, only four bodies are noted to have been recovered.

The list also shows that males are clearly on the losing end of the battle. There are 57 male deaths listed and only 14 female deaths. Since it is the men who go deep into the forest on foraging trips lasting up to a fortnight, they are the ones more likely to be attacked. As a result, women like Sumitra Mondal, who lost her husband two years ago when she was 26 years old, must learn to survive without the family breadwinner. In the villages, a woman marries around the young age of 13 and cannot remarry if her husband dies. The Sunderbans is teeming with destitute tiger widows.

While walking along the mud embankment at Chargheri village, I met Sagori Baishnab hiding from the glaring sun under a flowery parasol. She was a handsome 22-year-old woman whose husband was killed by a tiger in July 2000. The couple had only been married one year and had just had their first daughter. Thirty-two-year-old Sundari Sarkar, from neighboring Parashmani, told me in a voice husky with anger how her husband was fishing down a small creek just across the river from her village last March when a tiger killed him. Girebala Sardar lives in a nearby mud hut in Jahar Colony. Her husband was snatched by a tiger only a few months ago. She is 45 years old and wore a tattered white sari that she used to hide her face as she told me her husband’s body was never found.

The Sunderbans is an eerily silent place. Clouds are perfectly reflected in the souplike waters of the winding creeks. A crocodile basking on a mud flat snaps its jaws closed and slinks into the river, leaving behind a slow trail of bubbles. Not far downstream, a Royal Bengal Tiger climbs out of the water, briefly shakes itself dry and disappears among the sun-bleached mangrove roots and thorny palms. Branches crack as a jittery stag careers off into the bush. And then the forest is ear-shatteringly silent again.

One hundred years ago, the Sunderbans mangrove was twice the size it is today. One 19th-century British administrator called it a “hideous den of all descriptions of beasts and reptiles to be improved only by deforestation.” The British cleared land to lease to settlers, but settlers and their cattle were terrorized by tigers. In 1868, one insatiable man-eater picked off one or two settlers each week until he was finally killed by an Englishman. Wrote a British surveyor, “The depredations of a single fierce tiger have frequently forced an advanced colony of clearers to abandon their land and allow it to relapse to jungle.”

Yet humans proved surprisingly tenacious. Today, over 3 million people inhabit 54 of the 102 major islands that comprise the Sunderbans. It’s a hard-scrabble life. There are no roads, telephone lines or sources of electricity. Cyclones with 200-kph winds and waves as high as two-story buildings can flatten whole villages. Precarious mud embankments protect settlements from flooding. Because the unforgiving soil makes farming difficult, villagers are forced to scavenge in the mangrove for food and salable forest products.

The tiger population has also grown. In 1973, when the Sunderbans was declared a national park under the auspices of the Indian government’s tiger conservation campaign, Project Tiger, their numbers had declined to an estimated 121 tigers. Thanks to conservation efforts, the population has more than doubled and there are now some 286 tigers. Evidence of the tigers’ presence is everywhere. At the national park watchtowers, the walkways are caged in and wreathed with barbed wire to protect visitors. Just outside the cages fresh pugmarks are clearly visible in the butter-soft mud. Solar lights are placed around human settlements to deter tigers from straying too close at night. It is a frighteningly inhospitable environment for man.

Villagers call the tiger “borasahib” (literally “big boss,” a term once used for British overlords in colonial times) and believe only divine intervention can save them from its wrath. They worship the black-haired, wild-eyed goddess Bon Bibi, who was born in the jungle and suckled by deer. Legend has it she once faced down the mythical zamindar (feudal landlord) Dukshin Roy, who transformed himself into a tiger to terrorize those who dared forage in his jungle. Shrines to Bon Bibi are dotted around every village and range from technicolor life-size depictions to clay statues residing in dollhouse-size shacks made of palm leaves.

No one knows exactly why the Sunderbans tiger became a man-eater. Elsewhere, tigers are only known to attack humans if they are old, lame or if their cubs are threatened. The harsh environment of the Sunderbans, however, has imposed physiological and psychological changes on the Royal Bengal Tiger. The Sunderbans as it is today was created some 500 years ago when the Ganges River, which used to flood these hinterlands with fresh water, shifted to the east and left the region to the ebb and flow of the sea. The twice-daily tide means the tigers’ territorial markings are regularly washed away, confusing them and making them more aggressive as they are constantly having to renegotiate their territories. The tiger has also had to adapt itself to drinking saline water, and some theorize it has grown irascible on this high-sodium diet.

Another theory has it that tigers are simply running out of other animals to eat. The tiger has to hunt man because its natural prey of wild boar and deer is disappearing, says Mrinal Chatterjee, Project Director of the Institute of Climbers and Nature Lovers. Ironically, it is humans who are responsible for the tigers’ diminishing prey. People are killing wild boar to sell the meat, says Chatterjee. They set traps and snares for small deer and place sharp hooks in bananas. They are systematically depleting the tigers’ prey base.

It is true that man is laughably easy prey for the tiger. When a tiger kills a man, it comes to know that this is an animal without defense. Deer can run, wild boar can charge, but what can an unarmed man do? asks Biswajit Roy Chowdhury, a tiger expert and secretary of the Calcutta-based conservation group Nature Environment & Wildlife Society. It is also possible for tigers to get a taste for human flesh. Human meat is softer than that of other animals. On the next kill the tiger will go for man. Later it becomes instinct, says Chowdhury. It is most unfortunate for a tiger to become a man-eater because ultimately his fate is death.

Night has fallen and it is story time on Sajnekhali Island. The sky is a deep, royal blue and towering palm trees are silhouetted against a full moon the color of lemon-curd. Niranjan Raptan, a 53-year-old Sunderbans native and ardent conservationist, grew up illiterate but taught himself to read and write as an adult. Now, he composes stories and poems which he uses to educate other illiterate villagers about the dangers and difficulties of living in this mangrove swampland. Tonight’s tale, about the tigers’ unlimited patience, goes something like this:

A tiger is stalking a group of fishermen who have sailed deep into the mangrove forest, and now it is waiting. It waits while they lay their nets in the water and pull them up again heavy with fish. It waits while they cook their meager suppers over small charcoal fires on board their boat. It waits while they murmur their after-dinner tales to ward off the blackness of night. Only when it hears the soft sound of snoring does it finally make its move.

The tiger slips into the water and swims noiselessly toward the boat. As it leaps on board, the rickety wooden vessel shakes very slightly under its weight, but nothing else moves. The tiger chooses its target, sinks its teeth into the man’s neck and dives back into the water. There is an intake of breath from the tiger’s victim, a small splash and then silence. Another fisherman, disturbed by the slight noise, rolls over in his sleep.

The tiger is the most cunning of all hunters, concludes Raptan. At no time will a tiger’s victim know he is about to be attacked. Raptan is an ex-poacher turned guide who has been going into the forest since he was 5 years old, and what he doesn’t know about tigers probably isn’t worth knowing. He explains that the tiger always attacks a person from behind and aims for the neck in order to snap the spinal cord and paralyze its victim. To fight off a tiger, advises Raptan, you must punch the most sensitive part of its body, its nose.

The villagers in the Sunderbans, however, often resort to more drastic measures. Angry villagers sometimes kill tigers in revenge. Forest officials report some 11 tigers were killed by villagers in the year 2000. Just a few months ago, in August last year, villagers hacked a tiger to death and in October a tiger that had mauled eight villagers was shot dead. Poaching is also a threat to tigers as the water-logged, inaccessible terrain is difficult to patrol and the Chinese demand for tiger parts has yet to abate.

In order to control human intervention in the tigers’ domain, the national park restricts villagers to certain zones. It is forbidden for villagers to enter the 1330-sq. km core area, but they can apply for permits to forage in the surrounding buffer zones. In practice, however, many villagers go into the forest without permits and, if they are killed by a tiger, their families seldom report it for fear of legal trouble. Chatterjee of ICNL believes these unreported killings could bring the death toll up to 100 a year.

To save the tiger, first you have to save the humans, he reasons. Because villagers are only able to coax one crop from the infertile lands each year, they must go into the forest to find sustenance. If an irrigation system were devised that could provide villagers with biannual crops, they would no longer need to venture into the tigers’ territory. If we can keep people confined to the outer islands, there is hope, he says.

The last century has been disastrous for tigers, with the global population plummeting by a staggering 95 percent. The Sunderbans is one of the last tiger strongholds left in the world. Combined with the neighboring mangrove in Bangladesh (which is plagued by similar man-tiger conflicts), the Sunderbans has around 10,000 sq. km of prime tiger habitat. The potential is enormous, and the hostility of the terrain works in the tigers’ favor. As Chowdhury of NEWS says, “If the tiger survives anywhere in the world, it will survive in the Sunderbans.”

But, given man’s dismal track record, is it realistic to think that humans and wildlife can cohabit in peace? Niranjan Raptan believes it is possible. One night, while we sat on the deck of a boat moored off Sajnekhali Island, he recited a poem he had composed to educate villagers. The mangroves spread out around us, silent and dark, as Raptan half-spoke, half-sang in Bengali.

“There was a time,” purred Raptan, “when humans lived in harmony and happiness with nature. The Sunderbans forest was like a generous mother feeding and protecting her children. But then man grew greedy and began to plunder the forest’s resources. The mother became furious at being betrayed by her own children and rained down ecological disaster on the Sunderbans, transforming the forest into a place that was treacherous for mankind.”

Raptan’s recital rose to a thunderous roar and then died down to an urgent whisper as he delivered the poem’s final message: “If we destroy the forest,” he said, “the forest will destroy us.”