On June 13, Kalipada Sardar, a 60-year-old fisherman from Chhoto Mollakhali village of Gosaba area, went out in a dinghy along with three other fishermen at the crack of dawn to catch crabs in a creek near the prohibited areas of Jhila forest within Sundarban Tiger Reserve. They anchored the boat on a bank and were preparing to catch crabs when a tiger came out of the forest, jumped on Sardar, and dragged him inside the jungle.
Others chased the tiger with sticks and oars and found Sardar gravely injured inside the forest. However, by the time he was carried back to the village, Sardar had died.
This happened about a fortnight after the death of Kumirmari resident Sanyasi Mandal, a 50-year-old, in the same Jhila forest area in similar manner.
Notably, fishing in Sundarban’s rivers and creeks is annually prohibited from April 15 to June 15, as this is the breeding season of fishes. However, the state forest department imposed an additional banning of fishing around the entire Jhila forest area since last October after incidents of death in tiger attacks around Jhila forest shot up during 2020-21.
These two deaths took the toll to nine this year, six others have taken place in January and February and another at the beginning of May – all of them when fishermen had ventured near reserve forests, catching crabs on mudflats or fishing in the narrow creeks.
The Sundarbans, spread across West Bengal and Bangladesh, has been described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as ‘the global hotspot for human-tiger conflict.’ Of all the tiger conservation landscapes in the world, the Sundarbans have recorded the highest number of human deaths by tigers. About 40 percent of the Sundarbans lie in India.
Made of 105 islands, the Indian Sundarban has 54 islands inhabited by humans, having a population of more than 45 lakh, and the rest are tiger habitats. From an estimated 70 tigers in the national census of 2010 and 76 in 2014, Sundarban had an estimated 88 tigers in the 2018 national tiger census. However, the West Bengal government’s own annual census put the number of tigers at 96 in both the 2019-20 census and the 2020-21 exercise. The latest round of the national tiger census started early this year.
This year’s deaths have come as a continuation of the over two dozen deaths that happened between April 2020 – coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic-induced lockdowns – and the end of 2021. A majority of the deaths in the past two years have happened around the Jhila forest area.
Speaking of this year’s deaths, S Jones Justin, deputy field director of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve said that all deaths happened while fishing defying prohibitions.
“Jhila is part of the buffer area but the tiger density there is very high. Besides, this being a part of the buffer area, people have traditionally used the creeks and rivers around it for fishing. Therefore, a majority of tiger attack deaths were happening around the Jhila area, due to which we had to impose a complete prohibition for that stretch. We carried out thorough awareness campaigns. Yet, people are venturing there,” said Justin.
Amal Nayek, a retired schoolteacher who has, for many years, been working towards supporting those who are described as ‘tiger widows’ - women who lost their husbands in tiger attacks – pointed out that of the three dozen deaths since April 2020, hardly anyone ventured inside the forests or core area.
“All attacks happened when fishermen were busy catching fish or crabs anchoring their boat along the bank,” said Nayek, who spearheads the non-profit Save Tiger Affected Families (STAF).
Since the victims went to catch crabs without a license or in prohibited areas, none of them is entitled to get any compensation from the government.
According to Nayek, amidst reducing agricultural and fishery produces due to increasing soil and water salinity over the past few years – an impact of rising sea level – the double blow of Covid-19 lockdown and cyclone Amphan in May 2020 increased the local population’s dependence on forest and river produces.
Anurag Danda, director of global non-profit WWF’s Project Sundarban, the visible increase in human tiger conflict is a direct impact of the pandemic-induced lockdown.
“The lockdown increased people’s dependence on forest products. Many people returned from their places of work. From April-May 2020, more people started venturing in or around forests, including those who had earlier stopped going to forests and used to migrate for work. The increasing human flow around tiger reserves increased the number of tiger attacks,” Danda said.
In the second half of 2020, the whole of 2021 and the early months of 2022 had seen increasing instances of tiger straying in localities. An officer at the state forest department said, requesting anonymity, that protective fences remained collapsed or damaged at several places in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan in 2020, allowing tigers to stray into human inhabited islands. There also were stretches where fishermen removed fencings to enter reserve forests for catching crabs or collecting honey.
Most such patches had been repaired between February and April. However, that can come handy only in preventing tigers from straying into human localities, not humans from moving close to reserved forests with unfenced stretches.
“Forests are fenced only when human-inhabited islands are on the opposite bank of the river. In places away from human-inhabited islands, there is no fencing along riverbanks to allow tigers their space for free movement from one forest to another. Fishermen often venture into such areas, in creeks through dense forests, resulting in such unfortunate incidents,” said an officer of the state forest department.
Chandan Surabhi Das, an associate professor of geography at Barasat government college, extensively studied and recorded incidents and patterns of tiger attack victims, including those who died while fishing illegally and are not included in government records. In a 2017 paper, titled ‘Analyzing Human Wildlife Conflicts In Sundarban’, he showed that between 1985 and 2009, 789 persons were attacked by tigers out of which 666 succumbed to their injuries with an average of 27.75 events per year.
His studies also revealed that Jhila forest area is traditionally Sundarban’s most-vulnerable forest stretch for human-animal conflict, alone accounting for 21% of the total incidents between 1985 and 2009.
Speaking to Outlook, he said, “It is difficult to conclude right now if incidents of tiger attacks have increased. The long time pattern shows such incidents peak for a few months, following which the government takes some measures that reduce the conflict for some time, until it increases again.”