A tiger is stalking villages of Jhargram, and it’s all anyone can talk about
A month after it was first caught on camera, the big cat is still all anyone can talk about in Jhargram, West Bengal. There’s impatience and fear, conspiracy theories (‘there is no tiger’) and heated debates at chai shops over the best way to catch it.Updated: Apr 02, 2018, 13:56 IST
It’s been a month of firsts for Bangeshwar Mahato, 62: first tiger attack, first drone. On February 28, a tiger snatched one of his cows and wounded another. About a week later, when he was resting in front of his hut one afternoon, some people from his village ran past shouting and pointing upwards. He looked up to see a small machine in the sky. “It was a very small helicopter,” he whispers.
Mahato is a farmer from Amliya village on the edges of the Lalgarh forest, in Jhargram, West Bengal. His was one of eight cows (seven adults and a calf) to disappear, one after another, in the last week of February. “We initially thought it was hyenas,” says Mahato. “There are also leopards in the surrounding forests, but they don’t attack such big animals.”
After multiple complaints from villagers of three villages in the area, the forest department set up camera traps. What they saw on March 3 was a first for them too — an adult Royal Bengal tiger was stalking across the frame. “This forest spanning parts of Jhargram and West Midnapore districts has no record of tiger sightings in documented history, going back 50 years,” says state principal chief conservator of forests, Ravi Kant Sinha.
The clip sparked a frenzy in the villages and, as the forest departments scrambled to find and relocate the animal before there was more bloodshed, a worried state government sent in help via the Kolkata police, in the form of two drones (and cops to operate them).
For two days, the drones flew over the forest near the affected villages, but the vegetation was too thick for it to see through and the aerial scan was abandoned.
The hunt moved to the ground, where traps were laid. Three weeks on, there are still 30 people, including veterinarians and a tranquiliser team, on standby in the Lalgarh forest area, in case the traps or camera traps help net their prey.
“The tiger is a cautious animal and it is always a challenge to capture one,” says Nilanjan Mallik, field director of the state’s Sunderban reserve, which is providing assistance on the ground.
Worried villagers now walk about with their eyes trained on the ground, shouts greeting every fresh sighting of pug marks.
Three traps have been laid in the spots where the marks were most concentrated. First, goats were tried as bait; their bleats are often helpful in luring predators. After 16 days, the bait was changed to plump pigs, which were considered more tempting.
The tiger has studiously avoided the cages, even though pug marks have been found nearby.
“Any trap or cage is a foreign object and a big cat can recognise this,” says Mallik. “In some cases, a tiger goes for the prey anyway because it is desperate. Here, there is enough prey for the big cat in the forest. There is plenty of boar and deer. So it can afford to ignore the traps.”
At tea stalls, bus stops and chaurahas, the big cat is all anyone can talk about. Everyone has a pet theory about where it’s come from, why it’s here and the best way to catch it.
“There is no tiger,” says Anubrata De, a sales executive in his 40s taking a break at a tea shop gathering in Midnapore town about 40 km away. “The Maoists don’t want people to enter the forest. That’s why all this talk of a tiger.”
“What about the pug marks?” says another man at the stall. “Have you seen them yourself?” De shoots back. “How can a tiger not go for prey for so long?”
Paresh De, a chemist in Midnapore town, suggests they bring in hunters, build machans and wait for it to appear near the cages at night. To the locals who gather in his shop in the evenings, he has become somewhat of an expert. “We need huge nets that will be thrown down on the tiger as soon as it is close,” he says. “I have watched a lot of such videos on YouTube.”
The big cat’s even become something of a tourist attraction. Last week, Madhushudhan Karmakar, who runs an adventure tourism company in Jhargram, had a group of seven bikers walk into his office asking if he could help them go tiger-spotting. “I explained that the forest is out of bounds right now, because of the tiger,” he says.
The staff at the Rajbari government guest house in Jhargram say their visitors are asking about the tiger too.
Tourists generally come here for the peace and quiet, the hills, forests, and forts like Jhargram Raj Palace and Kurukbera. “We read the newspaper and got curious. Since we were here, we thought why not at least try to spot the majestic Royal Bengal tiger,” says Saikat Das, one of the bikers who approached Karmakar.
- Though recorded history does not have a mention of a big cat, the folk culture and history of adivasis in the area is replete with stories of tigers.
- “On our Bondebota puja which happens in the end of March we worship the tiger. Every five years, 52 villages in the area get together to worship Bondebota or tiger god,” says Indrajit Singh, 62, in Kakrajhor village of Jhargram.
- Another reference of tigers is found in the local history of Laljal village in Belpahari block. The people here follow a saint, Ram Swarup who stayed in the village 85 years ago and is believed to have a pet tiger.
- The image of the saint is also worshipped with the pet tiger and the cave of the tiger, which is next to his ashram is considered a holy place.
Conservationists think the big cat travelled here from either the Simlipal tiger reserve in Odisha, about 255 km away, or the Palamu tiger reserve in Jharkhand, 400 km away.
“Tigers can travel long distances for a range of reasons,” says Joydip Kundu, general secretary of the conservation organisation, Society for Heritage and Ecological Researches (SHER) and member of the state wildlife board. “A stronger tiger may have chased it out of its territory. Sometimes, a disturbance like mining or road-building can prompt a move.”
For the villagers, the reasons and origins are academic pursuits. They want to be allowed back into the forest.
“Our lives depend on the forest. We get food and fuel from there. Our cattle graze there. How long can we keep them tied up at home?” says Gopinath Murmu, 60.
Murmu claims to have seen the tiger even before the traps did. “It was the size of a big calf but smaller than a cow,” he says. “I just saw it for a few seconds in the forest. Since then I have not ventured in or taken my cattle there.”
The tiger hardly anyone has seen is now starting to affect the local economy. Couples like Murmu and his wife, who work as farm labour in harvest season, earn an additional Rs 50 a day collecting sal leaves, which are used to make plates, and twigs for sale as firewood.
With the forest out of bounds, these earnings have stopped. “Now, some days we earn nothing. How will we eat if this goes on,” Murmu says.
In the markets of Lalgarh, eateries are paying double for the sal leaf plates and dry wood fuel. “Supply has really dipped,” says Shyamal Mahato, who supplies sal plates from Lalgarh to Jhargram and Binpur 1.
The three policemen from Kolkata are still in Binpur 1, meanwhile. They have to stay put as long as the drones remain in the region. “We were well-received by the people when we first arrived,” said one. “But since then, we have had little to do.”
The villagers say they are losing patience with all the official talk and want to see some action. “We are traditionally a community of hunters. If the department has failed let us do the job,” said one villager who has been volunteering with the forest department to help keep villagers out of the forest. “Why put our lives and livelihoods in danger?”
The forest department reiterates that they are doing all they can. “The tiger though has not moved out of the area,” says chief conservator Sinha. “We can only ask that people in the area to cooperate for their safety.”