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.
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.
“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).
“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.
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.