Experts say the rising count of people dying in tiger attacks in the swampy marshland of Sundarbans in West Bengal is a result of human residents pushing further into the big cats’ path.
Two women were killed by tigers in Sundarbans in two days adding to the number of people being mauled to death by the big cats to 11 since December 2018.
The Sundarbans is spread over 16,900 sq km, two-thirds of which is in Bangladesh. The archipelago comprising more than one hundred islands is famous for the world’s largest mangrove forest and the Royal Bengal Tiger. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
The topography of Sunderbans changed in 2009 when Cyclone Aila brought giant waves that submerged the islands in brackish water, leaving thousands of acres unfit for traditional rainwater farming. With trees, plants and livestock gone, thousands of people in Kultali, Basanti and Gosaba in South 24 Parganas district lost their homes and livelihood.
Efforts by the government have restored normalcy to a large extent but experts say that man-tiger conflict is on the rise because the human population is growing.
Sunderbans-based scholar Kanai Lal Sarkar said in 1952 the human population there was around 1.4 million, which, as per Census of 2011, has increased to 4.4 million.
“In sharp contrast, resources available for human habitation and livelihood has not increased,” Sarkar, who has conducted research for 30 years on the islands, said.
Unlike their counterparts in the rest of India, the Sunderbans tigers are restricted to a hostile habitat but have rarely ventured into human habitations.
“Tigers kill only when people enter their territory,” said RK Sinha, principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife) and chief wildlife warden, West Bengal.
This is quite different from the situation in the rest of India, where half of the people killed by tigers are in or outside the buffer zones of tiger reserves. The Sunderbans tigers are smaller and slimmer than the ones found in the mainland.
In none of the killings, forest department officials said, the tigers ventured out of their habitat.
The poor inhabitants, who live in and around the World Heritage Site, entered the tiger reserve and even core areas for fishing or catching crabs, considered a delicacy.
According to the 2015 tiger sensus, there are approximately 76 tigers on the Indian side and 114 on the Bangladeshi side, down by 44 since 2004.
Ammajan Bibi was killed on Tuesday while illegally collecting firewood and Banalata Tarafdar had gone inside the core area to collect crabs when she was taken away by a tiger on Monday. Tarafder had a permit for fishing.
“We found the body of Ammajan Bibi, 38, who was killed on Tuesday. The body of Banalata Tarafdar, 50, is yet to be traced,” said Tripti Saha, divisional forest officer (south) in South 24 Parganas district.
In March this year, fisherwoman Bhagabati Mandal was pounced by a tiger in a creek and taken away as her husband, Tushar Kanti Mandal, and two other women watched.
Mandal, like Tarafdar, had ventured into the tiger land looking for crabs. Forest department officials said her body is yet to be found.
West Bengal’s minister of state for Sunderbans affairs Manturam Pakhira said the government has done a lot to generate income by supporting farmers and self-help groups.
“Some people enter restricted areas because of poverty. People need alternative means of livelihood or else why will not stop venturing into the forests,” Sarkar said.
Jul 11, 2019 11:07 IST