Every year, many people die from tiger attacks in the Sundarbans, where depletion of the forests often drives the animals into human locality
Sundarbans, the great wilderness with a maze of mangrove trees and waterways, stretches along the coastline of Bangladesh and India. It is a delicately balanced ecosystem with a heart of steel protecting one of the most densely populated places on earth from the extremes of nature. Close to four million people live in and around the Sundarbans. Many of them are farmers or fisher folk, and another two million people from the country's southern parts are directly or indirectly dependent on the mangrove forest (Sundarbans: A fight for survival, 2021).
This is one of the trickiest and dangerous places to live with, crisscrossing saline channels, streams, and creeks guarded by estuarine crocodiles, king cobras, and pythons. Every river split like veins into narrow streams where the tiger lurks. Storms and floods kill thousands of people every year. Adding to this, upstream pollution increases the salinity of the freshwater sources and the gradual depletion of the forests. One of the respondents mentioned, “The forest is a place of great difficulty, our heart no longer wants to go there” (FGD with mixed group, Munshiganj union, Shyamnagar Upazila, Satkhira, February 2020). But, the greatest peril for those who enter the forests remains the notoriously famous tiger. Every year, many people die from tiger attacks and snake bites in Sundarbans.
Most people in the Sundarbans region relying on the forest and the river are fishermen, bawalis (wood fellers) and, mawalis (honey and wax collectors). Collecting honey is one of the most dangerous jobs in the area. It has traditionally been more accessible for villagers who cannot afford the equipment or boats needed to undertake the other main profession of this region — fishing. Ironic as it is, their quest for survival often takes them to the claws of death.
April 1 each year marks the start of the official honey-collecting season. Hundreds of boats gather in the Sundarbans and race towards the forest braving all dangers to find the best honey spots. The honey collectors always travel in bands, armed with primitive weapons such as axes, tangis, ballams, bows and arrows. However not all them return alive.
During the field visit in Golakhali Village of Shyamnagar Upazila, Satkhira, a small town on the border between India and Bangladesh, the Tapestry team interviewed Rabeya- who is a tiger widow.
Three decades ago, Rabeya’s husband- a local honey collector, encountered a Bengal Tiger and never returned. During the season, her husband would generally go into the forest along with his group to collect honey early in the morning and come back home as soon as the sun came down. One fateful day, as they were walking in a line inside the forest, a tiger suddenly jumped at him from behind and pounced in the neck. Rabeya’s husband died on the spot. The others in the group could not help Rabeya’s husband. The attack had been so smooth that even the next man had not noticed until it was too late. They came back home, gathered more men, and returned to retrieve his body, which was not eaten.
After the death of her husband, Rabeya settled in Golakhali. She makes her ends meet by fishing. Fishing has saved her. Already grieving the loss of their partner, women like Rabeya become 'tiger widows' (in Bengali: bagh bidhoba) overnight. They become pariahs in their homes and villages at a time when they most need support. They are often left with little means to support themselves or their families. There are many with the similar fate as her.
Being close to the forest, her family can see the tiger prowling outside Sundarbans, next to the canals on a regular basis. One day as the light of dawn seeped into her room, Rabeya rubbed her tired eyes and walked to the courtyard to find the wild cat sleeping next to her vegetable garden. Frequently the neighbours sight Bengal Tiger casually strolling on the muddy grounds or roaming around the mosaic of paddy fields. Sometimes they launch silent attacks on domestic goats and swiftly runs back deeper into the forest. Despite measures to deter them with waist-high blue net on the river bank, the villagers of Golakhali have become used to such encounters with the cunning beast. (FGD with mixed group, Golakhali Village, Shyamnagar Upazila, Satkhira, March 2021).
“Majestic and clever” are the words the group of women used to describe the Royal Bengal Tigers during the FGD. “The Tigers come out of nowhere. You do not see or hear them. This entire place, it is like their playground. They know it inside out. They attack you from behind, and by then, it’s too late,” they explain.
The locals reckoned that the tiger moved into the locality in search of food. The most likely causes are depletion of their natural habitat and a shortage of prey. With a million people living on the fringes of the mangrove forest, food scarcity is a problem for humans and tigers alike, with each poaching the other’s prey. Tigers are an endangered species, and it lives a much harder life too. Twice a day, hundreds of kilometres of the forest disappear under the currents of the high tide, pushing the tiger to drink saline waters and lead an amphibious life. Climate change and human development are reducing their wild habitat. Moreover, regular cyclone fatalities might have been habituating them to easy human meals, often forcing them towards villages searching for food.
In the quest for livelihood and survival, the fisher and honey-collector’s most powerful shield is alertness. The battle is half-won if one becomes aware that he is being stalked. He can then choose his position and path with care. One of the fishers explained that the tiger does not strike impulsively. Even when it is stalking a team, it targets only one individual and continues to seek a chance to attack him or her. Thus, when the team has become aware that it is being stalked, it can take suitable precautions. Often, despite precautions, someone from the middle of the field would be missing. His absence would be noticed suddenly, without any sound or forewarning.
A fisherman Shahjahan of Datinakhali explains, “When you see a tiger in front of you and think that you will run away, or climb up a tree, you will not be able to save yourself. If you encounter a tiger in front of you, the only way to save yourself is, not to lose eye contact with the tiger.”
When eye contact with the tiger is established, it is important to do two things—to show no sign of weakness and try looking at the tiger, preferably directly at its eyes. According to the experience of the local fisherman, a tiger tends not to attack from the front, particularly when the prospective prey is staring back. (FGD with a mixed group, Datinakhali Village, Burigoalini Union, Shyamnagar Upazila, Satkhira, March 2021).
The findings of the long-term and ongoing research in the Sundarbans delta under the TAPESTRY project reveal that people who have to rely directly on the Sundarbans for their livelihoods are highly vulnerable to environmental changes and are most at risk. People near Sundarbans are already struggling for sustenance. Moreover, declining resources due to climate change and the frequent effects of cyclones leads to increased human-tiger conflict.
Due to the uncertainty of life and livelihood, many now want to change their traditional livelihood patterns. However, despite the wish for a change, most alternative sources of income are out of the question, especially considering that the terrain and individuals’ education do not allow for much options. As an alternative, many are now migrating to other parts of Bangladesh and even India in search of work. However, none of them wants their children to choose the same profession going inside the forest because it is more likely to make them face death.
In countries with the highest risks of climate uncertainty like India and Bangladesh, TAPESTRY focuses on the marginal group to find transformational adaptive approaches and how such approaches can be scaled up. Going forward, if the resources of the Sundarbans cannot be preserved, in a few years, there will be no one left to go into the forest to practice traditional livelihood like their ancestors. ‘Bawali’ and ‘Mawali’ will then only become words used in fables.
Sumaiya Binte Anwar (Sumaiya Binte Anwar is a Research Officer at ICCCAD working in the Urban Resilience Programme. She is a Civil Engineer and a Climate enthusiast. She can be reached at [email protected]
Mahmuda Akter is currently working as a Senior Research Officer under Climate Change and Disaster Management Unit at SAJIDA Foundation. Can be reached out at [email protected]