Tiger makes royal entry as green activists walk the talk
Sutapa Mukkerjee Kolkata
Thursday, November 26, 2009
The Sun is slowly setting down. There is a nip in the air and the birds are rushing back home. Down in the jungle roads thousands of villagers and urban folks are rushing to get back to their houses. The boatmen are hollering out to rush them, “Shono tomra tara tari esho, ayi jongol shondheyer porey toder jonno theek noye” (Hey guys these jungles are not safe after dark, so hurry). The masked men (few dancers wearing masks like tigers) jig a little and try imitating tigers as they hop into the boats.
And in the midst of this din a huge tiger appears right on the bank, yet maintaining distance in the jungle. He stares at the masked men and growls (read chuckles) at their attempt to emulate his brethrens. Then patiently the big cat waits till all the men, women and children safely board the boats. As the king of the Sunderbans, the royal host, he walks alongside the crowd as they sail for home.
Sometimes he stands, crouches or just stares lazily at them. Now and then he takes a break looks at the crowd as if to say, “Just hang on there and let me mark my territory”, does this bit and strides again. At the end moves into the dark and deep green while the boat moves far into the river and the tiger turns around and gives a loud roar.
This is not an extract from any folklore. Instead it is a page from the six-day campaign, ‘Walk for the tiger’ organised by Sanctuary Asia that took place in the Sunderbans a couple of weeks ago. “The idea was to educate the locals to live with the tigers with a greater sense of tolerance,” says Joydeep Kundu, coordinator Sanctuary Asia. He adds, “The people here should be trained not to get panicky if a tiger enters their village and take the right action thereon, that is inform officials and volunteers from the forest department.”
Anil Mistry from his experience (poacher to conservationist) says, “Till date over tea the locals reminiscence the ‘tiger’s three-hour walk’ they had witnessed. Personally, I have never experienced a similar case before. My friends here have started believing that this was one ominous way to convey their (tigers’) gratitude towards us mortals.” Anil says after the ‘Bagher jonne hatun’ (Walk for the tiger) campaign reaching such a dramatic climax, people are almost fully convinced that if the tigers survive, forests will grow, if the forests grow, environmental hazards will be less and people will be safer”. The message that the ‘walk’ was ordained to send out, has been well assimilated by all at Sunderbans.
The day one of this campaign, the first of its kind, started at a local fair where the ice-breaking ceremony was performed by villagers who were hired for the walk and had come all the way from Bhanjanagar hamlet in Ganjam district in South east Odisha. These dancers (all men) wear striped tawny clothing and masks akin to tigers as they dance and recite tales in favour of the wild cat. The ‘tiger dance’ has a superstitious connotation attached to it: When evil falls on any family, a ‘tiger dance’ takes away all calamities and the family lives happily thereon. The religious connotation still exists in India; Mother Goddess is oft referred as ‘sherawali’ — the one who rides on a tiger. Hence the tiger too needs to be revered.
The ‘Bahger Jonno Hatun’ took place over six days wherein villagers from most islands joined the walk. The walk was organised by several NGOs and voluntary workers. Says Col Shakti Banerjee, honorary director, Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), “The purpose of ‘Bagher Jonne hatun,’ has been well fulfilled; the idea was to convey to the people here that the tigers are the true dwellers of the islands and need to be protected.”
Most often due to sudden attacks from the big-cats, it is indeed difficult to convince the villagers that they can handle the tiger with some wisdom and tolerance. The villagers here depend solely on fishery and forest products for their livelihood. Most often when while engrossed in their work, they stray into the fringe areas and become a victim to a tiger.
That this walk will be fruitful, no one doubts especially the people who have worked for tigers for decades together. Says conversationalist Belinda Wright, Executive Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India, “I missed watching a tiger walk with so many people for such a long time…it is so unusual, never have I heard something close to it before. I take it as a divine blessing from the tigers to help conserve our environment.”