Swapan Haldar had no inkling the tiger was there until it pounced, clamping its jaws around his head and dragging him backwards into the thick mangrove forest. It was the last time anyone saw him alive. Haldar, 35, had set off the day before to fish for crabs, clambering onto a boat and pushing off from the small stone jetty in the village of Deulbari on the edge of the Sundarbans mangrove forest that spans India's border with Bangladesh.
"Don't go," his wife, Minati Haldar, had begged him. There seemed to be tigers everywhere and they were getting bolder and more aggressive. But Swapan would not be swayed. "He said, 'Look after the children, I will be back in five or six days'," Swapan 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."
It was a Saturday morning in January when the crab fisherman set off. His companions returned with his body the following night. It is an all too familiar story in the Sundarbans this year. Rising water levels and a cyclone last December that drove many of the tigers into India from the Bangladeshi side of the border have brought the animals into ever closer proximity with the 150,000 people who live in the area.
The result has been a sharp rise in the number of reports of tiger attacks. The Royal Bengal tiger, perhaps more than most, has developed a taste for human flesh and the fishermen who enter the mangrove forest in search of crabs are easy prey. Official figures show a dozen deaths in the last year, but the number of reported attacks suggests that the true figure is higher. In Deulbari alone, a village of 4,000 people, there have been six deaths this year.
The widows gathered in the long communal hall near the water's edge know the price that has to be paid for living alongside the tiger. There are 29 women in the room who have lost their husbands to tigers. Anita Nashkar, 22, sits 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, ventured into the mangrove forest 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 says. It is all she says. Two days into the trip, a tiger struck, dragging Putul away into the heart of the forest, where the others dared not follow. Panchali Mundal, 24, comes forward. She is mute with shock. It is barely two weeks since her husband Sanjay said goodbye and headed off with some other men from the village in search of crabs. She stares at her feet as the men gather around to colour in the details, how the 30-year-old father of her three children had just bent down to reach into the water when the tiger pounced.
She has no idea how she will take care of the children now. The other women listen and nod. In the past 10 years, more than 50 people from this one village on the banks of the Matla river have been attacked by tigers, but the villagers say the attacks have risen dramatically this year, with 15 already. The ranks of the widows are swelling. Haldar would have hoped to earn between 80 and 120 rupees per kg in the market for the grey-green crabs that he was collecting near the shore when the tiger struck.
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. They can only expect to catch between three and five kg of crabs between them in a day, but it is usually still worth the effort. Worth it, that is, unless there is a tiger around. Instead, Swapan's wife, 30, has been reduced to begging to feed their 12-year-old son and two daughters, aged five and two. "I have no land, and I have three children to look after," she says. "People are helpless here so they have to go into the forest to collect wood and crabs. We have no option. Somehow, we have to live here."
The fishermen listening murmur in agreement. They all know someone who has been attacked by a tiger; many bear the scars from their own brush with death. Naren Sardar, 56, opens his mouth to display an absence of teeth, the result of a clip round the face from a tiger that had attacked him while he was spreading out his fishing nets. The blow dislocated his jaw but he was in luck: the animal that attacked him was a male tiger and when he lashed out with his foot and caught it a blow between the hind legs, the pain was enough to knock the animal off its stride.
Others chime in with their stories. Fatik Haldar was just eight when his father was killed by a tiger while collecting honey in the forest. Fatik is 35 now, bare chested, with a dirty red checked lungi wrapped around his waist. The skin on his right shoulder is scarred from the tiger's fangs; on his back, the skin is only just beginning to heal over the claw marks. It was 10.30 in the morning, about two months ago, when he and five other men stopped their boat in a creek and put their net out in the hope of catching some prawns for lunch. Halder had climbed into the river. Suddenly, he felt a great weight on his shoulders pushing him down into the water.
"For a moment, I thought my friends had jumped on me for a joke," he says. "Then I realised it was a tiger. I looked over my shoulder and at that moment it bit me. I was screaming for help but none of the others came. I locked one of my legs in the mud and dug my hand in as well, so the tiger could not pull me away." Yet despite his injuries, which have forced him to sell what land he had to pay for treatment, he appears to bear no grudge against the animal that attacked him. "I know there are tigers around, but we have to go there for the fish. It was just bad luck. We can't fight the tigers but we don't want to kill them either," he says.
It is a view apparently shared by the others, who claim to accept the presence of the tigers as an occupational hazard. When a tiger stole into the village in February this year, they pelted it with stones and chased it up a tree with burning sticks, but no one tried to kill it. Indeed, no tiger has been killed in the Indian part of the Sundarbans since 2001. Ashutosh Dhali had more reason than most to wish ill to the animal that entered the village. He lifts his kurta to display a mass of mangled scar tissue above his left knee. He had been holding one of the ropes which the villagers had managed to attach to the tiger's legs when it made a bid for freedom. "Suddenly, the tiger stood up," he says. "The people started to run but I had the rope wrapped round my hand."
There was only one thing for it: backing away, he leapt into the water, hoping to slow the tiger down long enough to disentangle himself. The tiger jumped in after him. "I almost got away, but the tiger clamped its jaws on my leg," he explains, looking down at the wound. Yet, he is almost apologising on the tiger's behalf. "There were hundreds of people, throwing stones and poking it with sticks. It was angry."
Fortunately, he managed to escape. Instead of killing the pregnant animal, the villagers were content to wait for a team of rangers from the forestry department to arrive to tranquillise the tiger and take her back into the deep forest to be released. The man who fired the shot that finally brought the tiger down is sitting in his office in the town of Canning, fiddling with his pistol. Gopal Chandra Tanti's hands shake violently, the result of some sort of nervous breakdown earlier in the year, brought on, he suspects, by a lifetime spent pursuing tigers through the Sundarbans. In 30 years, he has caught 64 tigers that have strayed too close to human habitation.
Look the tiger in the eye, he says, raise the gun, fire the dart, wait one minute, two, the ketamil beginning to do its work, three, four, five, watch the tiger's head go down, count on, watch it slump to the ground. Tie it, carry it to a cage, take it into the deep forest and set it free. That was how he earned his living. 1Tanti, 54, is dressed in a crisp yellow shirt, his hair combed neatly. "I feel really feel proud for what I've done during my tenure," he says. "It's true there are so many risk factors involved in this profession but, at the same, I always enjoy the excitement of catching a tiger and protecting villagers from its attack. I am really happy with my job."
Often, the calls have come in the middle of the night. Tanti and his men dress hurriedly and grab their equipment, then head for the speedboat that will take them quickly to the place where the tiger has been seen. He still remembers setting eyes on his first tiger, hiding in the bamboo bushes in the village of Hiranmoypur. It was sundown when he arrived and the villagers had surrounded the animal. He took up a torch and pointed it at the bush. A female tiger stared back at him. Quickly, he assessed its weight, about 100kg, and retreated to load his rifle, pouring 10ml of ketamil into the aluminium tube of the dart, screwing on a plastic flight and attaching the needle to the other end. Pushing the dart into the barrel, he placed a small charge in the breach and snapped the rifle shut.
Returning to the bush, he lay down and tried to aim. "It was my first time and I was very afraid," he says. The tiger watched him, poised to spring. He handed a torch to his assistant and told him to move around to distract the animal. "Then I shot her. The dart hit her left forearm and then we waited. It took perhaps six minutes and then the tiger's head went down. After 10 minutes she lay down. But then she rolled into the pond. I went in after her. She was still roaring. I held her head and her whiskers were touching my body. Everyone else was running around in terror."
Finally, the tiger was pulled from the water and hauled into a cage, to be taken into the heart of the jungle to be released. The worst time was five years ago. The phone call said one tiger had been spotted off Bali island. When he arrived, there were three, hiding somewhere in the paddy fields. "I heard a roar. The tiger was just six metres from me. It started to get away. We could see the rice moving. We were chasing it and trying to push it towards the forest, but suddenly the tiger turned and went for me."
He raises his hands and grimaces in a convincing mime of a tiger about to strike. "I was standing with the gun and the tiger came for me. I jumped and somehow I twisted and it went over me and off into the paddy fields." He toys with the Swiss-made rifle that he has used to tranquillise many of the tigers he has faced since that first one in 1985. "I am the best. No one in India is better than me," he says. It was true once, but not any more. He tries to raise the rifle to sight down the barrel, but his hands betray him again.
"It is not very safe. There is always an element of risk," concedes his boss, Niraj Singham, a conservationist of the forest and the field director in the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. "Because tigers are so ferocious, you have to be very alert and cautious." As the water levels rise and tigers and humans find themselves competing for the diminishing parcels of dry land, it seems inevitable that his teams will find themselves increasingly busy. Inevitable, too, that the ranks of the Deulbari widows will swell further still.