Man-eaters rule in a land of widows
West Bengal's villagers are increasingly the prey of tigers driven out of Bangladesh by flooding
Gethin Chamberlain in Deulbari
Sunday October 26 2008
In the remote village of Deulbari, everyone knows someone who has been attacked by a tiger. Until now, humans and tigers have coexisted uneasily in this outpost in the Sundarbans area of West Bengal, where 274 tigers were counted in the last census in 2004. This year has been different.
Approached through vivid green paddy fields dotted with pink water lilies, Deulbari is a village of roughly constructed houses, some with corrugated iron roofs, others just straw, bleached by the sun. It sits on the Indian shores of the mangrove forests that straddle the border between India and Bangladesh. After a cyclone last winter led to rising water levels and forced tigers from the Bangladeshi side over the border into India, the number of documented tiger attacks has soared. According to villagers, there have been 15 already this year, six of them fatal. The ranks of the tiger widows are swelling, and the horrifying tales are multiplying.
Swapan Haldar, 35, was a crab fisherman, wading regularly through the water along the shores of the forests in search of grey-green crustaceans. Mindful of recent attacks, his wife Minati pleaded with him to think again when he announced one Saturday morning that he was going to the forest with two other men in search of crabs. 'He said, "Look after the children, I will be back in five or six days'," she said. 'I told him I am always worried about the dangers. I told him "Don't go". But he said he had to, because it was the only thing he could do.'
Each catch fetches between 80 and 120 rupees a kilo in the market (£1-£1.50). The fishermen club together to pay the 400 rupees it costs to hire a boat, sometimes returning the same day, more often staying out in the forest, sleeping on board. Although they can only expect to collect between three and five kilos of crabs between them in a day, it is usually still worth the effort. But it is the misfortune of the fishermen and honey collectors of Deulbari trying to scratch a living from the forest that the Royal Bengal tiger, having been uprooted from its usual terrain, has developed a taste for human flesh.
Haldar's companions returned with his body the following night. According to the reports Minati received, her husband had no inkling that the tiger was there until it pounced. It locked its jaws around his head and pulled him backwards into the forest. By the time the others found him, he was already dead. 'People are helpless, but somehow we have to live here,' she said.
There were 29 widows gathered in the long communal hall near the dock from where the boats set out, listening to her story and nodding. Anita Nashkar, 22, sat quietly, pulling her green and yellow sari around her head, lost in her own world of nightmares, her 18-month-old daughter Priyanka asleep in her arms. Her husband Putul, 24, went out with two other men two months ago to fish for crabs. 'The last time I spoke to him he said he would be back the next week,' she said. It was all she said. Two days into the trip, a tiger struck, dragging Putul's body away into the heart of the forest, where the others dared not follow.
Panchali Mundal, 24, came forward. She was mute with shock. It was barely two weeks since her husband, Sanjay, said goodbye and headed off with other men from the village in search of crabs. She stared at her feet as the men gathered round to colour in the details: Sanjay, 30, the father of her three children, had just bent down to reach into the water when the tiger pounced. It dragged his body into the jungle. She had no idea how she would take care of the children now.
The men clustered around. It seemed as if everyone had a story to tell. Naren Sardar, 56, was fortunate it was a male tiger that received his kick between its hind legs as it tried to drag him off when he was on a fishing trip. 'I kicked him in the bichi,' Sardar said. Jungle Paranaik, 42, the village hairdresser, managed to escape by swimming under the boat that had taken him in search of crabs two months ago. Fatik Haldar, 35, was eight when his father was killed by a tiger while collecting honey in the forest. He now sports a neat set of scars from where a tiger landed on his shoulders as he went in search of prawns in July. His injuries mean that his wife Basanti, 30, is now reduced to begging.
For 30 years, Gopal Chandra Tanti was the top tiger-catcher in the mangrove forests. It was in Deulbari, a village of 4,000 people on the banks of the Matla river, that Tanti downed his last tiger earlier this year. The animal, a pregnant female nearly three metres long (8ft 6in), had crossed the river and was lurking in bushes near the edge of the village. At about 10pm she was spotted, given away by the reflection from her eyes.
The villagers grabbed torches and joined the hunt, shouting loudly and waving their burning sticks until the tiger took refuge in the branches of a palm tree. There they tormented her further, jabbing at the animal with the flames. The animal escaped, but was hunted down the next day and laid low by a dart from Tanti's rifle.
The old tiger-catcher's nerves are no longer strong enough to cope with the new influx. In his office in the town of Canning, Tanti fumbles with a plastic flight, trying to screw it into the aluminium tube that forms the body of a tranquillising dart, demonstrating to a young colleague how it should be done. Having decided to retire, he is trying to train a new generation to take on the man-eaters.
'There is a lot of mental pressure trying to tackle this situation' is all he will say of his decision to step down. That pressure shows no sign of easing. The Indian authorities have no intention of relaxing the prohibition on hunting tigers, which enjoy endangered status. For the villagers of Deulbari, fishing expeditions will remain fraught with danger for the foreseeable future. Remarkably, given the carnage in recent months, the villagers appear resigned rather than angry.
'We have always lived with tigers. It is part and parcel of life here,' said Badak Sardar, Deulbari's former schoolteacher. 'This conflict will continue because the man-eaters are looking for humans. Once they have the taste of human flesh, they will always look for it.'
Ashutosh Dhali, who received gruesome injuries to his left leg during an attack, agreed. 'We love tigers,' he said. 'We can't hate them. They are unavoidable, they are part of the place. There are a lot of tigers around now, but without the tigers it would not be the same jungle.
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