Sunderbans a land in limbo

Published: Sunday 31 August 2008

Sunderbans a land in limbo

Tigers attack people. People impatient, they are second priority. What is the way out?

July 24, 2007. Hungry and exhausted after fishing all day on the Bidyadhari river, Amirul Naiya, his two brothers and three other fishermen pulled up their country boat into a creek in the dense Sunderbans mangroves, to prepare their dinner. Suddenly, with a blood-curdling roar, a massive beast half-leapt on board and sunk its canines into Naiya's side. Beside him, Manirul, his petrified younger brother, crumpled to a dead faint. The tiger, unbalanced by the rocking boat, lost its hold and slid into the water, but pounced again, this time grabbing Naiya's arm.

By then, the other men had collected their wits. One beat on an empty diesel drum, another lit a torch and waved it at the tiger, which finally released its victim and slunk away. Naiya lay on the deck, bleeding from multiple wounds.His companions bandaged him with strips torn from their cotton lungis, and set out on a 12-hour journey to the nearest hospital. "I'm never going fishing again," said Naiya, at the government hospital in Basanti, now out of danger. But Naiya's relatives say the landless fisherman, who lives on a mudflat and has a family to support, has no other alternative.

Just three days later, Pratul Naskar, got grabbed by the throat and dragged into the Benipheli forest in the Sunderbans' Kultali area, while hunting for crabs in a creek. His body hasn't been found.

Down to Earth Unprecedented?
The attack on Naskar was the fifth tiger strike in the Sunderbans in less than a month. Since April 2007, tigers have killed at least nine fisherfolk; 16 times, they have strayed into villages near forests, say the state forest department records.

Widely reported by the local media, these incidents have raised fears of unprecedented tiger attacks in Sunderbans leaving state leaders scrambling for explanation. West Bengal forest minister Ananta Ray says the strays were mostly aging tigers, unable to hunt; he recommends goats and cows be released in the forest for feed. Sunderbans affairs minister Kanti Ganguly says the state government is planning pig and buffalo farming along river banks "to provide food to the tigers and check the rising number of attacks". "These things happen every year," says Simul Sardar, a farmer of Jharkhali village in South 24-Parganas, where the last episode of tiger-straying occurred in February (See table Tiger kills).

Adds Sardar "Last year, five Jharkali villagers were killed while out fishing." Earlier, people in cities didn't even know. "Now, with mobile phones, news travels faster and media picks it up." "An average 16 tiger killings are reported every year, but the actual number is much more," informs Sunderban Biosphere Reserve director Pradip Shukla. A dip, 2005-07, was probably because, after the tsunami, lots of fisherfolk went to the Andamans to work on reconstruction projects, lessening human interference in the mangroves. "Now they are coming back, hence numbers have gone up again." Villagers and local wildlife experts say the actual tally is closer to 50. Many killings go unrecorded; often, villagers don't report attacks in restricted forest areas for fear of being fined or having their fishing permits cancelled.

Almost all killings take place in forest areas. In the past decade, only one person has been killed by a straying tiger. "Our data shows there's no prey shortage in the Sunderbans. If it were so, all tigers would be hunting in the forest fringes," says Shukla. But numbers aside, it is clear the human-animal conflict here remains unresolved.

500-pound swimmer
Ironically, apart from inaccessibility (most islands can only be reached by boat), the big cat is why mangroves here still survive. Dwindling tiger numbers triggered conservation efforts here in the 1960s. By then, conversion of mangrove forests into paddy land and hunting and poaching had contributed to degradation, resulting in the disappearance of the leopard, wild water buffalo, Javan and one-horned rhinos, swamp and hog deer and several plant species.

But the canny Royal Bengal tiger, Panthera tigris tigris, survived. That this massive 500-pound terrestrial beast learnt to swim, walk alone with great stealth to hunt for fish, crabs, reptiles and humans, its varied diet giving it a distinct advantage over other tiger populations, continues to amaze ecologists.

Down to Earth Why eat humans?
Humans as prey are an aberration, but about 5 per cent of Sunderbans tigers are man-eaters. Their taste for human flesh isn't necessarily because they are old and humans are easy pickings. Perhaps these tigers have never learned to fear humans, given their virtually inaccessible habitat.

Pranabes Sanyal, former field director of Sunderbans Tiger Reserve and a renowned authority on the Royal Bengal Tiger, has another explanation. April and May, when the mangrove plants are in full bloom, is the honey-collecting season in the Sunderbans. But this is also littering season for tigresses; protective mothers often pounce on men near their hideouts. "In most cases they kill the man, but don't eat the body," says Sanyal. "But after repeated killings, when the tiger realizes humans don't have as much resistance as other prey like deer or wild boar, they include humans in their prey base. If a tigress turns man-eater, she will teach her cubs to be the same. That's how you find healthy tigers and tigresses turning man-eaters here."

Currently, much of the tiger strikes occur in the northern and north-western mangrove jungle. This, Sanyal believes, is because most of this area falls within the 1,255 sq km buffer zone of the tiger reserve, where permit holders are allowed to fish and collect forest produce. Every year, about 40,000 people--a population the forest department thinks can extract forest produce in a sustainable manner--enter the forest with permits.

But many more venture in without permits, driven largely by lack of alternative sources of income. "We go knowing our life is in danger, and we can get caught by forest guards, but the stomach doesn't listen to fear," says Kiran Chandra Mondol, a fisherman from Jharkhali village. "In any case you can create a reserve forest for the tiger, but you can't hold the tiger within it. It will go where it wishes."

Good point. In spite of a dense 1,330.12 sq km core mangrove area left inviolate and a sound prey base, Sunderbans tigers also routinely stray into transition zone areas like Kalitala, Kultali and Jharkhali. It will happily swim a few km against the tide to get across to a village. Indeed, in places like Shamshernagar village, on the north-eastern edge of the Sunderbans, where the distance between human habitat and jungle is, as range officer Debraj Sur says, "one long jump", it doesn't have to try too hard.

The terrain here has changed. Now, during low tide, the little creek separating forest and village runs dry and, despite netting on both sides, tigers often just walk across. In 2004, a debile tiger was caught here thrice within a month. The first time it killed a nine-year-old girl, the next time it slaughtered cattle in a neighbouring village. Twice, it was returned to the forest, but the third time it was packed off to Calcutta Zoo.

Down to Earth Why stray at all?
First, the Sunderbans tiger can't mark out its territory with its urine, as all cats do, because markings get washed away by the tides. So it roams around pretty much unrestricted. And when it spots a village across a waterway, especially those where the embankments have a mangrove buffer, it mistakes it for forest and crosses over. Once past the trees, it finds cattle and livestock, a perfect reason to repeat visits. An increase in human population has led to a corresponding increase in cattle and livestock today, the allure is greater. Second, a tiger strays due to age, injury or pregnancy which impairs its ability to hunt. Sanyal says this is "rare", but forest officials and villagers believe it to be a primary reason.

Down to Earth
Easy to break Nylon net fences to prevent straying of tigers
New reason
Sanyal cites a third cause--global warming. Rapidly rising sea levels, a combined effect of climate change and subsidence, have increased the salinity of surface water near the coastal mangrove forests on the southern side of the Sunderbans. Kolkata-based oceanographer Sugata Hazra, who's studying change in salinity levels in the region, corroborates this fact through circumstantial evidence like a fall in the population of the freshwater-loving Sundari tree and dwindling freshwater sources. "Though Sunderbans tigers drink saline water, it's now become a little too salty for them," says Sanyal. "Hence the tigers are moving northwards, resulting in a higher density of tiger population in the northern Sunderbans, which, again, are closer to human habitations."

The northerly migration is also accentuated by loss of forest cover in core areas in the southern islands due to rising water and erosion. "Satellite images and topographic sheets show a 20 per cent decrease in mangrove cover in the last 40 years," explains Sanyal. "The southern islands were full of tigers; now we are not finding as many." Records of tiger sightings from forest department watchtowers are another proof. "During the 1980s there used to be maximum sightings at the southernmost tower--Haldibari. During the 1990s, most sightings were in central Sunderbans--at the Netidhopani watchtower. Now maximum sightings are near the northernmost watchtowers--Sajnekhali and Sudhanyakhali". Forest officials don't buy this explanation. "If straying takes place, it's indication the tiger population is on the rise," says Shukla.

What's the solution?
Can't the forest department patrol waterways? "Nearly 50 per cent forest guard positions are vacant here since there's a restriction on recruitment because of financial constraints," says Shukla. "At the ranger and deputy ranger level, one-third to one-fourth positions aren't filled. The sanctioned staff strength, too, has hardly changed since British times. The last increase was about 30 years ago. You have the firearms, but not the people to handle it."

To prevent straying, foresters have put up 64 km of nylon net fencing along forest-village interfaces. This has helped, says Anjan Guha, Sunderbans Tiger Reserve deputy field director, but it isn't foolproof. Nets serve mainly as a psychological deterrent for tigers, but they can easily bring them down. Also, receding tides bring dead leaves and branches that get stuck in nets and pull them down. "They need to be checked and fixed regularly but that's hard to do because we lack manpower," says range officer Sur.

From calming enraged villagers to trapping and tranquilizing--dealing with strays is an ordeal. "The key is to reach the trouble spot as fast as possible," says beat officer Dutta. "The first half hour is the most crucial." Things do get nasty, as in February when a pregnant tigress strayed into Deulbari village near Kultali in South-24 Parganas. The tigress, who climbed a palm tree to hide, suffered burns when villagers lit a fire underneath. Once forest officials trapped it, angry villagers threw stones and beat it with sticks. Four villagers helping forest officials received minor injuries. "The media criticized the forest department for its 'ham-handed' capture of the tigress, but people fail to realize there's not much a few officials can do when faced with a mob," says Dutta.

Over the past few years, the forest administration has realized it can't protect the tiger without cooperation from villagers. To curb exploitation of mangroves, it has to provide villagers alternative livelihood options. So, since 2003, the forest department began setting up village eco-development committees (edcs) and forest protection committees (fpcs) in all villages adjacent to reserve forests. Twenty-five per cent of tourism revenue is distributed to these committees. "Basically, we are doing rural development work," says Shukla.

fpcs, guided by forest officials, help create awareness about saving the mangroves and assist forest guards in patrolling. The edcs undertake basic development work, like making brick roads and irrigation canals, digging freshwater ponds, or vocational training and input in cottage industries. Villagers are encouraged to form self-help groups and start small businesses like rearing poultry, pigs and goats. To date, 52 fpcs and 14 edcs have been registered in the Sunderbans. "Our strategy is, villagers get to see our faces on a regular basis and we develop good relations with them," says Dutta.

These efforts seem to be paying off. 1994-2002, there were 25 recorded cases of tiger straying, and 10 were killed. But 2002-06, though there were 20 cases of straying, only one tiger was killed, in self-defence. "Now if villagers see any strays, any strays, they either contact us or trap the animal themselves and bring it to us for rehabilitation," says Dutta. "Initially, edc members were mistrusted," says Pratidan Doloi, Dulki edc convenor. "But when the tsunami happened our ponds overflowed and the low tide looked like high tide. That's when we first realized the importance of our mangroves. Now everyone knows about global warming. We know we are first in the line of danger. We know if the tiger and mangroves stay, we stay."

Nevertheless, animosity against the forest department runs deep. "edcs and fpcs are highly politicized. The work they do is nominal compared to the number of people depending on forests; it barely meets the financial requirements of people here," says Simul Sardar. Fisherfolk are especially unhappy. "We who go to fish in the jungles, into the mouth of tigers, obviously go because we need to make a livelihood, but the forest officials block us all the way," says Kiran Mondol, a member of the Jharkhali-Laskarpur fisherfolk committee. "Now everything is restricted area, from Sajnekhali to Haldibari. Even permits are limited. Only 960 boats, that is about 15,000 men, have permits to enter the reserve forest. Where will the rest of the 35,000 fishermen of Sundberbans catch fish? And what alternative source of income do they have?" Fines are another problem. "If fishermen purposely cut some firewood or some trees to make stakes for their nets, that's it. Their nets and ropes are taken away and they are fined Rs 3,000-12,000," says Mondol. "Even if a fisherman sells everything he owns, he still won't be able to raise the money to pay the fine. Many have been destroyed this way."

The forest department's efforts are a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. People of Sunderbans need more schools and hospitals. They need more jetties, road and bridges to improve access to the mainland. Ironically, these are exactly what the Sunderbans tiger doesn't need. For these will destroy its unique advantage inaccessibility.

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