The eyes of Lakshmi Dolui, 38, turned bleary as she narrated how her 16-year-old son Ratan, had to abandon his studies and take up the work of a wage labourer to keep the family going.
Her husband Putibar, the sole earning member, was killed by a tiger on December 3, 2016 when the 50-year-old wiry man had entered the tiger-infested forest of the Sunderbans to catch fish.
“My husband didn’t have the permission of the forest department. We didn’t lodge any complaint with the police nor did we inform the forest department out of fear of harassment. We never received any compensation,” said Lakshi as she wiped her tears standing on the edge of the river embankment of Kumirmari Island – one of the remotest villages of the Sunderban delta.
The government is totally in dark about his disappearance as no complaint or missing diary or FIR was lodged. The other members of the fishing team failed to even recover Putibar’s body as the tiger had dragged it deep into the mangrove.
Putibar just ‘vanished’ from the face of the earth, overnight. Dozens of villagers ‘vanish’ in the same way every year from the Sunderbans as their deaths are not brought to the notice of the authorities. They remain ‘alive’ only on paper.
The Sunderbans is the world’s largest delta formed by three great rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna and spreads over Indian and Bangladesh. The Indian Sunderbans sprawls over 9600 sq km comprising 102 islands. Out of these 52 islands, including Kumirmari which derives its name from the word Kumir (Bengali term for Crcodile), have human settlements.
“My husband was killed by a tiger a few years ago…I informed the police and forest department, but as the body could not be recovered, I didn’t receive any compensation.”
The rest are thick mangrove forests and are home to the Royal Bengal Tiger and some of the world’s most deadly snakes. There is a National Park, a tiger reserve and three wildlife sanctuaries. The rivers and creeks that crisscross the delta are infested with crocodiles and sharks.
“Thousands of villagers from these islands enter the forest for fishing, catching crabs and collect honey every year. But majority of these villagers do not have permits of the forest department. When these illegal entrants are killed by tigers and crocodiles the families rarely inform the authorities out of fear,” said a senior official of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve.
In the winter session in December, the Lok Sabha was told that only six people were killed by tigers in the Sunderbans in 2013 – 14. In 2014-15 the death toll was 10. An estimate provided by the forest department claims that 410 people were attacked by tigers between 1985 and 2010. Only 95 survived.
Shark and crocodile attacks are also common. Around 12 people were killed by crocodiles between 1999 and 2009. These attacks take place when village women and even children wade through waist and chest deep water along the banks of the rivers to catch seeds of tiger shrimps. This is a common sight in almost every corner of the Sunderbans.
“But this is just a fraction of the death toll. Around 70,000 – 80,000 people enter the forest for fishing. But only around 13,000 – 15,000 go in with valid permission and documents. Most of the illegal fishermen do no report the tiger attacks or when there is a killing. This gives an idea about how many deaths can go unreported and how many are reported,” said Pradip Chatterjee president of Dakshin Banga Matsyajibi Samity (South Bengal Fishworker’s Forum).
Out of the 9600 sq km over which the Sunderban spreads in India, barring the core area, around 7500 sq km including a portion of the forest (buffer zone) is open for fishing. But villagers do not stay within this zone.
“Unbridled fishing over the decades have dwindled the fish, crab and shrimp population in the buffer zone. Villagers often enter the core zone illegally in search of a good catch and get killed. These are not reported anywhere and the government remains in dark about these deaths,” said Niranjan Modol, head of the village panchayat at Kumirmari.
Villagers catching crabs in the Sunderbans.These villagers often stray into interiors without permit and fall prey to tigers and crocodiles. (Subhankar Chakraborty/HT Photo)
Apart from this, there are honey-collectors, locally known as Moulis who enter the forest both legally and illegally between March to June every year when the mangroves start flowering and start attracting bees. Around 1000 such Moulis enter the forest every year legally. Sometimes wood cutters also enter the forest illegally.
“It is mostly the fishermen (75%) who get killed by tigers, followed by honey collectors (17%), wood cutters (6%) and forest staff (2%). But it is the honey collectors which are most vulnerable as they go deep inside the tiger territory and follow the bees blindly without any inkling of what lies ahead,” said PK Vyas, chief wildlife warden of West Bengal.
This is not the end of the woes of the villagers. In many cases even though the fishermen enter with valid permits and remain within the permissible fishing zones (buffer area of the forest) they get killed and mauled by tigers. Complications arrive when the bodies are not found.
“My husband was killed by a tiger a few years ago. He had valid permit and was well within the buffer area where fishing is allowed. I informed the police and forest department. But as the tiger dragged his body deep inside the forest and it could not be recovered, I didn’t receive any compensation. The authorities told me that I would have to wait for a few years more,” said a bewildered Astami Mondol, who now has to raise her school-going son all by herself.
Astami Mondal, who lost her husband Srinibas Mondal to a tiger attack in 2014. (Subhankar Chakraborty/HT Photo)
Man-animal conflict is an age old problem in the Sunderbans and there are several villages along the fringes of the forest where one will find a widow in almost every family they come across.
“This has given birth to the concept of widow villages (Bidhoba Gram) in the Sunderbans. These villages are located in the fringes of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve from where people used to enter the forest regularly earlier. At least one member from each generation of a family had either been mauled or killed by tigers. Some families have more than one widows,” said Jayanta Naskar, MLA of Goasaba constituency
Tiger straying and crocodile entering the villages is also common in the Sunderban villages. But rarely have any tiger attacked or killed a human inside the village. For around 90 – 100 km villages share the border with forests separated just by one river. Crocodile attacks are however common in the rivers near the villages as they often come to lay eggs.