Tigers burn bright in the Sundarbans

Ramen Mistry (55) climbed a tree to pluck some fruits during one of the fishing expeditions he undertakes for livelihood in the perilous Sundarban forests in the Gangetic delta.

Tigers burn bright in the Sundarbans

Pritha Lahiri and Sujoy Dhar 

Ramen Mistry (55) climbed a tree to pluck some fruits during one of the fishing expeditions he undertakes for livelihood in the perilous Sundarban forests in the Gangetic delta. A Royal Bengal tiger followed him, climbed up the tree and began pawing at him. It dug its claws on his hip as he bled profusely. As Mistry screamed in pain, his companions rushed to his rescue and shooed away the tiger. He was rushed to a hospital in the South 24 Parganas district, where he remained for three months.

 The incident occured nearly 20 years ago.  But Mistry still ekes out a living from crab fishing and honey collection in the same tiger-infested mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. 

Three months ago, when Mistry was in one such crab fishing expedition, a tiger attacked a young village boy accompanying him. Undeterred, Mistry rushed to the boy’s rescue and threatened the tiger with his axe. The tiger finally left.

“We see tigers passing now and then as we go fishing. It is dangerous but this is our only way to survive,” he says, pointing towards his hip which he says is still scarred from the attack.

Less human lives are lost from tiger attacks now but still village after village one comes across young as well as elderly widows whose husbands got killed after attacks by tigers in the Sundarbans.

Amid concerns, the big cat population is not declining in the Sundarban National Park (SNP), the world’s biggest mangrove forest and gene pool of tiger population, say officials of the forest department in West Bengal.

Stories of the man-animal conflict abound, though not all incidents of tiger attacks reach the mainstream media. According to the park authorities, they carry out meticulous conservation efforts. 

“We carry out extensive awareness campaigns among the locals to dissuade them from going into the core area,” says Nilanjan Mallick, chief conservator of forest and field director of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve.

A 96-km-long nylon net has been strung across the village-forest interface to prevent the straying of the beast into human habitation. “The Sundarbans is the only forest in India where no human habitation has been allowed,” he said.

Due to efforts under Project Tiger, which was launched way back in 1973, India has now the distinction of having the maximum number of tigers in the world (2,226) as per the 2014 assessment, compared to other tiger range countries. The 2014 country-level tiger assessment has also shown a 30 per cent increase of tigers (from 1,706 in 2010 to 2,226 in 2014). The tiger corridors for gene flow have been mapped in the GIS domain.

The camera trapping method in the Sundarbans, say officials, captured 87 big cats, excluding cubs and sub adults. The actual figure could be much more.

Intensive patrolling is carried out in the buffer and core areas and at strategic locations in the Sundarbans National Park, which was brought under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act in 1973. The patrolling is as much to contain man from venturing into the restricted area as to ward off poachers — a major threat to the striped beast.

The Sundarban National Park, located at the south-eastern tip of the South and North 24 Paraganas districts in West Bengal, got its name from Sundari (Heritiera Minor), one of the mangrove plants.

The Sundarbans are a part of the world’s largest delta formed by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. The Sundarbans is a vast area covering 4,262 sq km in India alone, with a larger area in Bangladesh. The 2,585 sq km of the Sundarbans forms the largest tiger reserve and national park in India.

It mainly consists of mangrove forests. The core area of the park has its own natural boundaries with the Matla river on its west, the Haribhanga on its east and the Netidhopani and Gosba rivers in the north. The tigers in the Sundarbans are smaller and slimmer than those elsewhere in India but remain extremely powerful. They are infamous for destroying small wooden boats.

Locals and government officials do take certain precautions to prevent tiger attacks.  Fishermen and bushmen originally created masks made to look like faces to wear on the back of their heads because tigers always attack from behind. Local fishermen say prayers and perform rituals to the forest goddess Bonbibi before setting out on expeditions. Invocation to the tiger god Dakshin Rai is also done by the locals for safe passage throughout the Sundarbans.

Even at the rate of 50 or 60 kills per year, humans would provide only about three per cent of the yearly food requirements for the tiger population of the Sundarbans. Thus, humans are only a supplement to the tiger’s diet, not the primary food source.

This does not mean that the notoriety associated with this area is unfounded. Even if only 3 per cent of a tiger’s diet is human meat, it still amounts to the tiger killing and eating about one person per year, given the amount of food a tiger typically eats. Villagers in the area have agreed to occasionally release livestock into the forest to provide an alternative food source for the tigers and discourage them from entering the villages. Government has also agreed to subsidise the project to encourage participation by villagers.

“The human death rate due to killings by tigers has dropped significantly due to better management techniques and fewer people are killed each year,” Mallick maintained.

“No illegal entry is allowed. Neither is encroachment encouraged,” he specified.

The efforts have brought twofold results. Human casualty has decreased though the number of tigers has increased. According to earlier statistics, tiger attacks would regularly kill 50 or 60 persons a year. The number has fallen to three kills a year now.

The number of tigers, too, has registered an upswing. According to Mallick, camera trappings carried out in 2016-17 indicated their number at 87.  “This number, however, does not include cubs and sub-adults,” the chief conservator said.

Despite all efforts, poachers do sometimes sneak in, he rued. Apart from poaching, which has been considerably contained, threat to the big cat comes from another quarter. “The tiger may slowly lose its habitat due to the rise in sea-level because global warming may swamp land,” Mallick warned. The four Sundarbans National Park have been grouped together as they all share common features of the estuarine mangrove ecosystem.

The park area is divided into two ranges. Each range is further sub-divided into beats. The park also has floating watch stations and camps to protect the property from poachers.

The delta also harbours large reptiles like the monitor lizard, estuarine crocodile and the olive ridley turtle, for which there is a conservation programme. The leopard, Indian rhinoceros, Javan rhinoceros, swamp deer, river terrapin, Ganga river dolphin, hawksbill turtle, hog deer and water buffalo have all become locally extinct from the delta in the recent decades. 

The present Sundarban National Park was declared as the core area of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve in 1973 and a wildlife sanctuary in 1977. On May 4, 1984, it was declared a national park. It was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987 and as a World Network of Biosphere Reserve (Man and Biosphere Reserve) in 2001.

The natural environment and coastal ecosystem of this biosphere reserve and world heritage site is under threat of a physical disaster due to unscientific and excessive human interference. Conservation and environmental management plan for safeguarding this unique coastal ecosystem is required.

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