Indian fishermen in the Sundarbans risk tiger attacks in battle for survival

Seeking a livelihood in the Sundarbans, Bangladesh, puts the lives of fishermen and villagers at risk of attack from the big cats of the tiger sanctuary.

Forest workers release a tigress into the Sundarikati river, the Sundarbans, Bangladesh, after being rescued from stoning by villagers. Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP.
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“If you don’t have guts to fight the tiger, you can’t go fishing in these waters.”

I was to hear this statement several times during the four days I spent in the Sundarbans earlier this month. The first time, it was Monirul Tarafdar. I was staying in his small houseboat and he recalled how his father had managed to escape a tiger attack in the 1990s. Three of the co-fishermen were “taken by the tiger” on that occasion, said the boat man, recounting the incident in graphic, hair-raising detail.

“There was a sudden jolt … My father turned around to see the other boatman had been pawed by the tiger, and was now being dragged into the forest,” he told me. “The mangrove roots that jut out of the ground pierced through his body … My father raised an alarm, gathering his co-fishermen. They followed the blood trail. In the fight that ensued, the tiger struck down two more fishermen … Father and his mates retreated. They went back to the area after gathering a large group of villagers. But by then, it was all over … There were mangled remnants of bodies, but it was impossible to identify who was who.”

Tiger tales span generations in the Sundarbans, the largest block of mangrove forests in the world on the border of India and Bangladesh. They abound among people, in the islands, river channels and creeks.

The area is home to about 260 bird species and is a reserve for threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile and the Indian python. But it is also one of the largest reserves for the Bengal tiger. Attacks are common and much discussed among people in the 52 inhabited islands on the Indian side, several of which I visited. Most people here depend on fishing for a living, barring a few who cater to tourists.

Figures have not been released yet but officials say deaths from tiger attacks in the Sundarbans have decreased. The forest department credits fencing off forest areas with polypropylene nets plus outreach activity in villages for this drop, while also taking pride in the latest increase in tiger numbers. But people in the area say many deaths are not reported. Worse, in the absence of alternative livelihoods, they hardly have a choice but to stare death in the face.

“Deaths due to tiger attacks fall in three categories,” says Sundarban Tiger Reserve field director N Mallick. “The first involves those who have a permit and are killed in the reserved forest area where fishing is permitted. The second involves those who have a permit but are killed in the core area. The rest are those who have no permit and are killed.”

All those in the first category are officially recognised and recorded as tiger killings. Their deaths, in the area where they are allowed to fish, become official statistics. Their families also receive compensation, although people say it takes almost a year for the money to come through.

Several cases in the second category and almost all cases in the third however, are never registered as deaths from tigers, says Mallick. There have been six to seven reported cases since the start of this year, he says, but concedes the number may be higher.

Atanu Raha, former principal chief conservator of the forests of West Bengal, says greed for larger catches tempts some people to sneak into the core forest, thus resulting in unregistered deaths. But people in the estuary think differently.

“Relatives of those mauled to death by the tiger in the core area or those without permits seldom want to deal with the hazard of a police case; forget coughing up a massive fine and having their boats detained for defying laws. They often end up not reporting the matter to authorities,” says Ashok Mondal, a Sundarbans resident who works as a volunteer guide with the forest department.

Several fishermen in the area told me why they dare to take the risk. A quintal (100 kilograms) of crabs fetches 60,000 to 70,000 rupees (Dh3,291 to 3,840) at the Canning auction market. For three fishermen on a non-motorised boat, a quintal of crabs is an easy catch over two good days. People say that in order to earn money to survive, they would wager their lives once in a while.

According to the government, almost 95 per cent of the 4 million people in the Sundarbans on the Indian side depend on agriculture, while about 50 per cent comprises landless labourers.

During the agricultural off-season, people resort to fishing and risk their lives in the process.

The tiger also does not abide by the boundaries of the national park and deaths do occur from tiger attacks in the reserved forest area where fishing is permitted. According to the 2013 tiger census undertaken using camera traps, the count has risen to 103 tigers in the Sunderbans. In other words, there was a tiger for every 20 square kilometres of the delta.

Bidhan Bain, president of Jhorkhali division of the Trinamul Congress that is in power in West Bengal, says there is a case for relaxation of the prohibition on fishing in the core area.

“We don’t damage the forests or attack the tiger and our lives are at risk anyway. So why not relax the laws?” asks Bain. He repeats what several others had told me: that people in the Sundarbans have no other means of livelihood and successive governments have done little for the vulnerable fishing communities.

Contrary to the long-standing demands of the fishermen’s union, now defunct, there are hardly any landing points in the Sundarban islands, nor any cold storage facilities or auction centres. The forest department earns a healthy revenue from tourist permits each season, but very little of this money flows back to the people, for their benefit.

“Only NGOs pour in increasing amounts every year to protect the tiger,” says Tarafdar, ruing how his people are destined to live life on the edge.

Aritra Bhattacharya is principal correspondent with The Statesman and a PhD scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.