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Do You Know About The Tiger Widows Of Sunderbans?

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The lockdown and cyclone Amphan, which has left most islanders in the Sunderbans into double whammy, have resulted in the loss of livelihood for many people. Even inexperienced groups those returned from other states after COVID-19 breakout have been venturing into the forests in search of a living. As a result, they are easily falling prey to tiger attacks.

The lockdown and cyclone Amphan, which has left most islanders in the Sunderbans into double whammy, have resulted in loss of livelihood for many people. Even inexperienced groups those returned from other states after COVID-19 breakout have been venturing into the forests in search of a living. As a result, they are easily falling prey to tiger attacks.

Every year, people residing at Sunderbans risk their lives and enter the mangrove forests which are home to around 100 Royal Bengal tigers. They depend on risky businesses like fishing and catching crabs in the rivers and creeks. They also here depend on gathering tons of honey from the hives of wild honey bees. Tigers have killed many people in the past but they still enter the forest as it is a lucrative business and their families depend on it.

Last year, the simultaneous occurrence of cyclone Amphan with the crisis caused by the ongoing pandemic of the Coronavirus is serving as a double whammy for these communities living at remote villages of Sunderbans delta. According to a study, where 54 of the 102 islands support human settlements, one in five households now has at least one family member who has migrated for better livelihood but the pandemic has pushed them to return home.

The lockdown has left them without a livelihood in Sunderbans. “There is hardly any money in the house to buy the essentials. Moreover, cyclone Amphan blew away the life we had managed to rebuild over the past years and slammed us to ground zero,” said Montu Kayal, a villager of Satjelia’s Bidhan Colony. Due to pollution and overfishing by trawlers small amounts of fish available in rivers in the buffer zone of Sunderban Tiger Reserve. So nowadays locals enter the core area to fetch a good quantity of fish.

Every year, thousands of people enter the forest to collect honey and catch fish, crabs – legally and illegally – and get attacked by tigers and crocodiles. During one year, 22 people killed by tiger attack while sneaked into the forest “illegally” to collect honey and catch fish, crabs. Of which 16 deaths were reported after May 20, the day Cyclone Amphan hit the Sundarbans. Every year, from October to January small groups of men leave for fishing. It is the peak season for catching crabs and fish. They leave everyday morning and return in the evening.

A large part of the Sundarbans’ waters is officially closed to fishing and it is permitted only in a portion of the buffer zone.

“Though it is illegal to enter the core area of the tiger reserve, the villagers of the Sunderbans have not been provided alternative opportunities to survive and since the fish and crab yields in the buffer zone are not substantial, they are left with no option but to risk their lives every day,” said Pradip Chatterjee Secretary of Dakshin Banga Matsajibi Forum (DMF).

Kuntala (34), widow of Rathin Sarkar (36) resides at Jamespur village in Sunderban’s Satjelia. Rathin, a ‘mouli’ out on a honey collection was found dead on April 20 this year. His body apparently half-eaten by a tiger at Pirkhali jungle in Sunderbans. It was the first case of man-tiger conflict since lockdown announced. His father Niren Sarkar was also killed in tiger attack while entered into the forest to catch crab after cyclone Aila hit their island in 2009. Extreme poverty and lack of livelihood push villagers to enter into the core area of Sunderban Tiger Reserve.
Sulata Mondal (40) resides at Lahiripur village in Satjelia. Her husband, Sujit Mondal (47) lost life in tiger attack on April 29 this year while sneaked into the forest for fishing. Traditionally Sujit and his family catch fish and crabs from creeks of Sunderbans. Sulata said that she also accompanied her during fishing. “But I didn’t accompany him on that day, there were three people in a small boat and a tiger dragged him away inside the forest. We didn’t receive his body,” she added.
Gita Mistry (50) villager of Bidhan Colony in Satjelia. Her husband Uday Mistry (61) lost life in a face-off with Royal Bengal Tiger on June 6. He used to venture in the licensed boat and catch fish inside the buffer zone of Sunderbans. “Due to the lockdown, the forest department didn’t issue any entry pass this year. We had no money in hand after three months of lockdown. He entered the forest with a small boat and planned to return on the same day but it was our luck.” Uday’s body has been recovered by the forest department but a major portion of the body was missing.
Debi Mistry (40) resides at Lahiripur village in Satjelia. Her husband Jamini Mistry (50) died after being mauled by a tiger on July 4 this year. Jamini and his son Milan along with other two fishers from the same village ventured into creeks inside Dutta Forest in Sunderbans. Before anyone could realise what was happening, the tiger had jumped into the boat and attacked Jamini. “I also jumped on it (tiger) while attacked my father’s leg, I tried hard but it was about 10 feet long and strong. It bit his neck within a few minutes. I could save my father if other two helped timely,” said Milan, 26 years old son of Jamini.
Sushila Mondal (50) widow of Susanta Mondal (56) resides Bidan Colony in Satjelia. Susanta along with three fishers went to catch crabs in a canal near Marichjhapi forest and As soon as Susanta got down the boat, a tiger attacked him, killing him on the spot on August 2 this year.
Kanchan Raptan (27) widow of Baburam Raptam (33) resides at Kumirmari in Sunderbans. According to his neighbours, the tiger attacked Babu from behind at Chilamari forest inside the Jhila forest on September 3. “The tiger tried to drag Babu deeper into the forest when some of his mates managed to hit it with a bamboo it then let go of Babu and went away,” his neighbour at Kumirmari.
Ashtami Mondal (25) lives with her 4 years old son at Kumirmari. They depend on support from their family members. Her husband Haripada (34) was only earning member in the family. He was a migrant construction worker, returned from Kerala in August and booked his return ticket on the first week of October but he lost his life on September 29 while went to fishing with four friends. “He didn’t sell fish, he went to the jungle to take some fresh fish for our lunch,” she replied. His body was found by a team of forest officials and locals, deep inside the forest between Kumirmari and Jhilla.
Sabita Mondal (30) is one of the recent tiger widows living at Lahiripur village in Satjelia West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district. It’s been just four days while I visited her house. The death of her husband, Sashankha (45), has left her with two children those are just twelve and fourteen. “I don’t know how can I raise my children in coming days,” she said.

“There are around 3,000 tiger widows in the islands of the Sunderbans, women whose husbands have been killed by tigers while they were fishing, catching crabs or collecting honey for their livelihood”, said Nakul Jana, president of the Sundarban Tiger Widow Welfare Society. These bagh-bidhobas (tiger widows) therefore, cannot claim compensation and so they rarely inform the authorities about tiger-linked deaths.

Every year 80-100 people killed in tiger attack but it is hardly reported. In many cases, the bodies of those attacked by tigers cannot be traced and they are treated as missing persons. “These bagh-bidhobas (tiger widows) are the sole breadwinners of their families, usually taking care of 3-4 children and sometimes also elderly members of the family. Almost every villager in these islands has a tragic story to narrate but the government doesn’t even care about them,” he added. Piar Chand, Director of Sundarban Biosphere Reserve said that state forest department has been running mitigation programs among local villagers to reduce human-tiger conflicts in the region.

“More they enter into the forest the more people will be killed in tiger attacks,” he said. However, Pradip Chatterjee of DMF claimed that lack of fishes in rivers of Sunderbans leads small fishers into creeks inside the core area. “They (fishers) traditionally catch crabs and fishes in the rivers for long time but the recent conservation measures by adopted forest department made them intruder in their own land,” he added.

Experts say the rising count of people dying in tiger attacks in Sundarbans is a result of humans pushing further into Tiger’s territory. In 1952 the human population there was around 1.4 million, which, as per the Census of 2011, has increased to 4.4 million.

Sundarbans is an ecologically-fragile region that has been under stress due to erosion linked to rising sea levels and frequent cyclones.

Local villagers in the delta are facing socio-economic inequalities due to lack of livelihood opportunities, regular man-tiger face-off and frequent natural disaster which, making women and children even more vulnerable than usual. Many of the tiger widows have children in the age group of 9-14, who are unable to continue their education after their father’s death and end up doing the same perilous jobs as their parents.

Tanmoy Bhaduri is a Kolkata-based independent journalist who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues. This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

All photos in the piece: Tanmoy Bhaduri
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