Pain of India’s ‘tiger widows’
Page last updated at 12:24 GMT, Monday, 14 December 2009
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Climate change is forcing humans and tigers in the Sunderbans delta of eastern India into closer contact – and attacks on people are on the rise. The BBC’s Chris Morris reports.
They are magnificent, but deadly. Rarely seen, hidden in the jungles.
But now the Royal Bengal tigers which roam through the vast mangrove forests at the mouth of the river Ganges are coming into closer contact, and conflict, with humans.
“It all happened so quickly,” says Anar Ali Mullah, a fisherman who saw his neighbour Ahmad killed by a tiger just a few weeks ago.
“The tiger attacked with such force,” he said, gesturing to his neck, “Ahmad didn’t stand a chance.”
Dozens of people are killed every year by tigers in the Sundarbans. And local villagers say the number of attacks is increasing.
Fishermen, honey-gatherers and poachers who venture deep into the forest are particularly vulnerable.
In the village of Jamespur, Seba Mridha is trying to get her life back together. In May her house was destroyed by cyclone Aila. And two months later her husband, Ramesh, was killed by a tiger.
“We’re all afraid of the tigers – in the forest they can kill us at any time,” Seba says, as she sits on a small tree trunk with her two young sons.
“Without my husband how will I live? How will I support these two children? I have nothing right now.”
In village after village across this vast waterscape you can hear the same story – tales of mourning, young widows, and real fear of the tiger.
The last official census in the Sundarbans, carried out in 2004, suggested that there were 279 tigers in the forests.
Some experts dispute the figure and believe the true number is significantly lower. Nevertheless, the Sundarbans remains one of the most important tiger habitats in the world.
And that’s why conservationists are working with local villagers who’ve lived through tiger attacks, trying to persuade them that they need to preserve their whole eco-system if their way of life is to survive.
“Our basic message is if you save the tiger, the mangrove will be saved, and the mangrove will save you,” says Col Shakti Banerjee of the Wildlife Preservation Society of India.
“The mangrove always survives the worst storms. It’s the best protection for the tigers and for the local people.”
Col Banerjee also points out that nearly all the attacks occur when humans enter the forests, not when tigers intrude into the villages. But there’s little doubt that the two species have to co-exist in a shrinking space.
“Climate change is causing accelerated sea level rise and an increase in the salinity of the southern Sundarbans,” says Professor Pranabes Sanyal of Jadavpur University in Calcutta.
“That in turn is causing the migration of the tigers from the southern islands towards the north, close to the human habitation. That’s why we have this man-animal confrontation – and the confrontation is increasing.”
So the villagers of the Sundarbans turn to their local goddess Bonbibi (Lady of the Forest).
In tiny thatched roof shrines, Hindus and Muslims alike pray to the goddess for protection, before they venture back into the forest.
They know their environment is changing – and the effects are felt every day.
“It’s very scary,” admits Madhu Mondal as he prepares for another perilous journey on a small unprotected boat.
“Sometimes the tiger will drag the corpse away as well. You’ll never find it. That’s what happened to my father. We went back later, but we never found his body.”
More than four million people live in the Sundarbans – it’s a precarious existence in an eco-system under threat.
But many people need to fish or gather honey to survive. And they still depend on the wild, where the tiger lies in wait, hidden in the mangrove.