Man, tiger and cattle battle for survival where the land, river and sea meet.
This is not a pretty travelogue, though there is no place more exotic and wilder than the Sundarbans. Because nowhere else is the man-animal conflict—one of the biggest issues confronting wildlife conservation—as acute or as complex as in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, where people and “man-eating” tigers are engaged in a prolonged, bitter battle for survival.
Occupying 2,585 sq. km of the 4,000 sq. km of the Ganga delta that lies within India—another 6,000 sq. km of the delta is in neighbouring Bangladesh—the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve is hunting-gathering ground for locals, who venture into the forest for wood, fish and honey, their sole means of livelihood. And tigers, similarly, sneak into human habitation, driven by hunger. Like the tigress that set up camp in Satjelia island for a week in July. Her mere presence struck terror as she roamed the fields and preyed on cattle. Finally, she took the bait and was trapped by the forest department, to be released later.
Freedom? By all rights, it should have been euphoric, that precise moment when the tigress escaped from captivity to liberty, from cage to forest. I had witnessed her outrage while incarcerated, as she paced her tiny cage. Yet, even as the heart rejoiced, it was impossible to ignore her bleak prospects in the aquatic forest of the Sundarbans, deprived of prey, vulnerable to poachers.
Tigress 001—that’s her microchip code—had been there, done that and returned for a rerun: This was the second time that she was being captured and then released. The first instance had happened in July. Barely two months later, she returned, killing a cow and a pig over a week before walking into a trap in Rajatjubli village on Satjelia island. To ensure she didn’t stage a second comeback, she was to be released near Kalash in Dhulibhasani, at the mouth of the Ganga, about 40 nautical miles (74.08km) from where she had been trapped.
On the official boat that would release her, Tigress 001 looks scrawny, haunted, terrorized, a far cry from the much-maligned man-eater of the Sundarbans. Yes, tigers do occasionally prey on man, forced by circumstances such as shifting tides, diminished habitats and unavailability of food. But the fact is, if the Sundarbans’ Royal Bengal Tiger were a habitual man-eater, more than 1,000 people would be killed every year.
“The problem of the Sundarbans is complex,” explains Biosphere Reserve director N.C. Bahuguna, who rides on the boat with us. “No less than four million people live in and around the reserve, more than two-thirds of them below the poverty line. With no employment opportunity, most depend on fishing and honey-collecting for sustenance.” So they venture into the forbidden core area, where the catch is better. Patrolling and monitoring are practically non-existent; most locals admit in confidence that they do not fear the forest department, only the tiger.
Van shramik Ranjit Mondol has just finished cleaning the cage, replenished the fresh water, and generally tried to make a clearly angry—and unhappy—tigress comfortable. Mondol is a daily wager, not a permanent employee of the department, despite having been with them for nearly two decades. Still, he is the department’s go-to man in times of crises such as these. He is an “expert” at capturing tigers (and crocodiles too). It isn’t easy, manoeuvring the predator amid a frenzied crowd. And it’s risky: In another recent incident involving a captured tiger, when the door slammed shut on the cage, Mondol found himself on the wrong side—with the tiger. It was only his presence of mind that saved him. “I held the tiger tight in a hug,” he says. The beast, still suffering the after-effects of a tranquillizer, simply had no room to attack.
Mondol is a member of the Green Army, a euphemism for the foot soldiers of the Sundarbans, who put their lives on the line for the sake of the tiger for less than Rs100 a day. The irony—and the tragedy, of course—is that Mondol and others like him risk their lives for what is essentially a meaningless effort. Catching and releasing tigers is not a solution in a region besieged by conflict: It’s like applying Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
Experts say the Sundarbans have seen an unprecedented increase in tiger-straying incidents—about 15 in the last year itself—mainly because of the shrinking prey base. The paucity of food drives the tiger to human habitation, and the deepening tussle over territory only serves to heighten the animosity towards the big cat. With just 94 guards to man 4,000 sq. km of jungles and sea, and hopelessly short of boats and boatmen—even the vessel that ferries Tigress 001 and the director has been hired—the forest department knows it is fighting a losing battle.
Natural disasters such as cyclone Aila, which ravaged the Sundarbans in May, don’t help. One evening at Satjelia, which doubled up as refugee camp and hospital in the aftermath of the storm, villagers come out with their own tiger tales. The day the cyclone struck, one—no, two tigers—sought refuge in Anpur village. “Ekta bagh dompoti—a tiger and a tigress under the bed!” narrates Bhupati Mondol with a twinkle in his eye (a forest officer later says there was only one tiger). I marvel at his resilience: Bhupati lost his wife to a crocodile, his brother to a tiger, his home and crops to Aila, yet he has retained a sense of humour and a will to live.
Perhaps some variation of the same doggedness manifests itself in the region’s animals. We see Tigress 001 being released, but all of us are aware that hunger pangs could drive her back to human habitation again—as they did a tiger, three times over, before he was permanently placed behind bars in Kolkata’s Alipur Zoo just over a year ago.
Later on the trip, we go on an aquatic safari through the delta of the Ganga, the largest in the world. As we watch, a rare Gangetic dolphin breaks the waters, and a monitor lizard, a dragon in slumber, perches on a tree. A black-capped kingfisher flashes past, while a pied kingfisher hovers over our boat and then dives into the waters for a meal.
On the banks, we spot pug marks. Deep, fresh. Close to human territory. “After Aila,” says the forest guard, “things have only become worse.” With their means of sustenance lost to the tide, the local people’s dependence on the forest will increase, leading to yet more conflict as people venture into tiger areas.
It’s a desperate situation and there are no easy answers. But hope swells as our boat glides over the waters, by the villages, through the forests. Months after Aila, the pattern of devastation is visible even to the untrained eye. Aila was selective in its destruction: Some villages have been ravaged, a few almost erased, but the forest lay untouched, protected by mangroves. When the 2004 tsunami hit, mangroves broke the impact, acting as a shield. For the first time in two heart-wrenching days, I feel a ray of hope. If we protect the mangroves, they will shield us from gathering storms—they are the key to survival in the Sundarbans, and other coastal areas.
Now, if only we would learn.