On the tiger trail
“IF you are standing on your own in a forest, bending over in an area known for man-eating tigers, you’re really asking for it,” says Christina Greenwood.
These are the rules of engagement in the Sundarbans – a vast mangrove forest on the borders of Bangladesh and India. Dozens of people every year – many woodcutters and honey-collectors – do go into the forest alone and fall foul of a tiger. The big cats also venture out of the forest and into villages to kill a cow, a goat or even a human being.
“On a normal year, we might lose one person per week,” says Christina. “But last week we had three people, one per day, in a certain area.
“Usually tigers enter villages by night to take livestock. But occasionally they bump into a person and may kill the person too. These people don’t live in brick houses, they are in wood and thatching houses. Tigers can break in. When you are sleeping over a river from a forest full of wild tigers, it’s pretty scary.”
By night, the tigers tend to come and go as they like, undetected. By day, though, the predator may become the prey.
“If a tiger enters a village by day, the whole village – a thousand or so people – may surround the tiger and beat it to death with sticks and tools. Usually the tiger will have a good go at the inner circle of people, so you may have injuries and fatalities from the village as well.”
This uneasy co-existence is seen in a BBC2 Natural World documentary tonight. The programme shows one novel solution to cut down on fatal encounters – stray dogs trained to warn of the presence of tigers.
Nowhere on earth is the conflict between man and tiger so intense. And Christina, aged 30, and partner Adam Barlow, a 33-year old biologist, are dedicated to mediating in that conflict. Employed by the Zoological Society of London, their Sundarbans Tiger Project is liaising with the Bangladeshi government to development a Tiger Action Plan. But the project needs donations to help its work, and the global downturn is squeezing its cashflow.
“Tigers represents wilderness, and without wilderness we are like the sky without stars,” says Christina. “If we cannot save the tiger, the most popular of all animals, then what chance do we have of securing our own future as humans on this planet?”
The Sundarbans is home to up to 500 Bengal tigers and it is the only place in the world where tigers inhabit mangrove swamp. That population is ever more precious as the global numbers of tigers have dwindled from 100,000 a century ago to less than 4,000 today, spread across 14 countries.
The couple divide their time between the bustle of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, where they liaise with the forestry department, a flat in the town of Khulna and a house boat which they navigate through the waterways of the Sundarbans, stretching across 6,000 sq kms of Bangladesh.
It’s all a far cry from Christina’s upbringing in Lancashire as one of five children whose parents now live in the Isle of Man. Educated at Clitheroe Royal Grammar School, she studied business and economics at Durham University and was offered a job with global management consultancy company Accenture.
“I really wanted to do conservation, but I did the whole sensible degree option,” she muses.
But before starting work as a project manager, Christina did a gap year with a tiger and rhino monitoring project in Nepal, where she met Adam. Back in the UK, she worked for Accenture on a project in Knutsford, living in Hale Barns before buying a small home in the Ribble Valley.
“But the seed had been planted in Nepal when I met my first tiger in the wild,” she says. “I didn’t want to go to my death bed with terrible feelings of regret.”
After six years in the job, Christina took advantage of a scheme by which her employer allowed people to take a wage cut and go to work for a non-governmental organisation. So in 2007, she went to work in Kenya, in an area where the conflicting needs of man and elephant had to be resolved.
In January 2008, Christina visited Adam and fell in love with the Sundarbans. Their friendship had blossomed into romance and she decided to leave Accenture and work with Adam.
“We want to spend two or three years helping the government develop its Tiger Action Plan,” says Christina. “I think we probably see ourselves staying around Asia because that’s where the tigers are. We’ll probably stay on the trail of the tiger.”
Man-Eating Tigers of the Sundarbans is on BBC2 at 8pm tonight (repeated Sunday ). Visit http://www.sundarbanstigerproject.info/