It was with bleary eyes that Lakshmi Dolui, 38, recalled how her 16-year-old son, Ratan, had to abandon his studies and take up a wage labourer’s job to keep the home fires burning.
Her husband Putibar – the sole breadwinner of the family – was killed by a tiger on December 3, 2016, when the 50-year-old man entered the Sunderban forests to catch fish. “My husband didn’t have the forest department’s permission. We didn’t lodge a complaint with the police or inform the forest department for fear of harassment. We never received any compensation,” said Lakshmi, wiping her tears as she stood on the edge of the river embankment of Kumirmari Island – one of the remotest villages in the delta.
Consequently, the government remains unaware of his death. The other members of his fishing team failed to even recover Putibar’s body because the beast had dragged it deep into the mangrove.
Dozens of villagers disappear in similar circumstances every year in the Sunderbans, without their deaths being brought to the notice of the authorities. They remain alive on paper.
The Sunderbans is the world’s largest delta, formed by three great rivers – the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna – and spread over India and Bangladesh.
“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 Indian portion of the Sunderbans encompasses an area of 9,600 sq km, comprising 102 islands. Of these, 54 islands – including Kumirmari, which derives its name from the word Kumir (Bengali term for crocodile) – have human settlements. The rest are thick mangrove forests – home to the Royal Bengal Tiger and some of the world’s deadliest snakes. They accommodate 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 to fish, catch crabs and collect honey every year. However, a majority do not have permits issued by 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 Sunderbans Tiger Reserve.
In the winter session, the Lok Sabha was told that only six people were killed by tigers in the Sunderbans through 2013-14. In 2014-15, the death toll was quoted as 10. An estimate provided by the forest department claims that 410 people were attacked by tigers between 1985 and 2010, leaving just 95 survivors.
Shark and crocodile attacks are also common. Around 12 people were killed by crocodiles between 1999 and 2009. These attacks usually occur when women and children from villages in the region wade through waist and chest-deep water along the banks of the rivers to catch tiger shrimp seeds.
“However, this is just a fraction of the actual death toll. Of the 70,000-80,000 people who enter the forest to fish, only around 13,000-15,000 hold valid permits and documents. Most of the illegal fishermen do not report tiger attacks, even when somebody is killed. This gives an idea on how many deaths go unreported,” said Pradip Chatterjee, president of the Dakshin Banga Matsyajibi Samity (South Bengal Fisherfolk’s Forum).
Around 7,500 sq km of the Sunderbans falling in Indian territory is open for fishing, leaving just 2,100 sq km of the core area unavailable. However, villagers do not restrict themselves to permitted zones.
“Unbridled fishing over the decades has dwindled the fish, crab and shrimp population in the buffer zones. Villagers often enter the core zone illegally in search of a good catch, getting killed in the process. As these casualties are not reported, the government remains in the dark,” said Niranjan Modol, head of the Kumirmari panchayat.
Besides this, there are honey collectors – locally known as Moulis – who enter the forest both legally and illegally between March and June every year, when the mangroves flower and attract bees. Woodcutters also enter the forest in violation of the rules.
“It is mostly fishermen (75%) who get killed by tigers, followed by honey collectors (17%), woodcutters (6%) and forest staffers (2%). Honey collectors are very vulnerable because they follow the bees deep into tiger territory, without any inkling of what lies ahead,” said PK Vyas, chief wildlife warden of West Bengal.
The villagers’ woes, however, do not end here. There have been several instances of locals getting killed or mauled by tigers even if they remain within the permitted zones. Complications occur when the bodies are not found.
“My husband was killed by a tiger a few years ago. This was despite him having a valid permit, and being well within the buffer area – where fishing is allowed. I informed the police and the forest department, but didn’t receive any compensation because the body could not be recovered. The tiger had dragged the body deep into the forest. The authorities told me that I would have to wait for a few years more,” said a disconsolate Astami Mondol, who now has to raise her school-going son all by herself.
Man-animal conflicts are an age-old problem in the Sunderbans, and one finds a widow in nearly every family that resides in the villages dotting the fringes of the forest. “This has given root to the concept of bidhoba grams (widow villages) in the Sunderbans. These villages are located on the fringes of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve, from where people used to enter the forest regularly in the years gone by. Some families in these villages have more than one widow,” said Jayanta Naskar, MLA of Goasaba constituency.
There have also been instances of tigers and crocodiles entering the villages here, though they are not known to attack then. The beasts are not killed either. However, crocodile attacks are common in rivers near the villages, where they often come to lay eggs.