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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

The tiger widows of the Sundarbans

While tigers are becoming extinct in India through poaching and corruption, in the wilds of the Sundarbans, the beautiful, yet dangerous delta between India and Bangladesh, they kill someone every other day. Suryatapa Bhattacharya, Foreign Correspondent, reports.
A villager prays to the goddess Durga, who is always depicted riding a tiger, in the Bono Devi temple on Gosaba island. A tiger hid in this temple after attacking a woman.
A villager prays to the goddess Durga, who is always depicted riding a tiger, in the Bono Devi temple on Gosaba island. A tiger hid in this temple after attacking a woman.

While tigers are becoming extinct in India through poaching and corruption, in the wilds of the Sundarbans, the beautiful, yet dangerous delta between India and Bangladesh, they kill someone every other day. Suryatapa Bhattacharya, Foreign Correspondent, reports

THE SUNDARBANS, INDIA // Mamata Mandol followed every tradition, every prayer, to save her husband.

She did not light a fire under the stove. She did not wash her clothes. She did not cross rivers.

She stayed in her one-room hut of mud and straw for two weeks, and prayed to the forest spirits for his safe return.

But Bapi Mandol never came home.

When the boat returned early from the fishing trip, the villagers of Sonaga knew someone had died.

Someone from one of the five families who had people aboard the fishing boat. Mamata knew.

"It wasn't like the other times when he left," she says softly, standing in front of her hut, wearing a red sari. "I felt restless.

"Noisy birds were circling the hut. There were bad omens everywhere."

The Sundarbans lies in the massive delta between India and Bangladesh. This is one of the most beautiful but most dangerous places in the world, a place of tigers and crocodiles and dangerous seas and canals.

Mamata is just one of about 3,000 "tiger widows" in the Sundarbans.

Bapi, 26, was pushing the boat back into one of the rivers that lace the Sundarbans when he was taken.

The tiger leapt from behind the trees and dragged him back into the deep forest.

Tigers are becoming extinct in India through poaching and corruption. There are barely several hundred left. But in the wilds of the Sundarbans, they kill someone every second day.

His uncle, Khogan Mandol, 47, was with Bapi on that October day.

"To go hunting is to be hunted by them," he says, adding that the tigers are roaming closer to villages. Locals believe that even to use the word tiger risks summoning one.

The Sundarbans is made up of hundreds of islands of mangrove forests and mudflats created by silt deposits from the rivers of the Ganges delta that empty into the Bay of Bengal.

The area is home to an abundance of animals including spotted deer, crocodiles, increasingly rare river dolphins, crabs, wild boars, flying foxes - and tigers.

One third of the Sundarbans lie in India. The rest in Bangladesh. The jungle is a UN world heritage site.

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This place smells of baked earth at midday. And as the tides ebb and flow, it smells of the sticky black clay banks of the treacherous river channels. And salt.

Away from the isolated villages are boatloads of raucous tourists. Here, the smell is of diesel fumes and rotting rubbish.

It is one of the most heavily populated places on earth. But the Sundarbans, outside the villages, feels like one of the most isolated.

The forests also attract honey-gatherers. With little development, villagers go into the jungles and rivers to feed their families.

The Sundarbans is one of the poorest areas of India and Bangladesh. The author Amitav Ghosh, in his novel The Hungry Tide, writes: "There is no prettiness here to invite the strangers in: yet to the world at large this archipelago is known as the Sundarbans, which means 'the beautiful forest'.

From the swamplands to dry, deciduous and tropical forests, the Royal Bengal Tiger is found in forests across India and the Terai in Nepal.

But their numbers are falling rapidly.

In 2006 poachers killed all 26 known tigers in the Sariska tiger reserve in Rajasthan, just a few hours from New Delhi.

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By 2008, there were only 1,411 tigers in the wild in India, according to rather unreliable figures.

The government increased funding and last year reported the number of tigers had increased by 226 to 1,706.

But rangers across the country are also accused of being involved in tiger poaching.

Tiger parts sell for thousands of dollars across Asia as a traditional medicine to boost everything from virility to long life.

Before the latest census, forest officials estimated there were about 270 tigers roaming the Indian side of the Sundarbans, an area of about 4,200 square kilometres.

The census showed that, at most, 90 tigers live here.

Still, with a death or two every week, villagers here are convinced there must be more than 90 tigers left in these jungles and islands.

Fatal attacks have increased since cyclone Aila hit in 2009. Large swathes of the Sundarbans were destroyed and prey animals became scarce.

Tigers are coming closer to villages in search of food.

"You no longer have to go deep into the forest to be attacked," said Khogan Mandol, who gave up 15 years of fishing after Bapi died.

"They wait at the banks. I have never seen that before."

And they are getting smarter.

Honey gatherers used to wear a mask in the back of their head to confuse tigers into thinking they were being watched.

Tigers normally attack from the back but they seem to have caught on, locals say.

"Before we could understand the way they attacked," said Surendra Jana, 57, a honey gatherer.

"We don't feel safe any more, knowing our brothers have been attacked in spite of the tricks we use."

Valmik Thapar, a wildlife conservationist and author of 14 books on tigers, said the solitary cat's habitat in the mangrove forests is particularly well suited as its hunting grounds.

"Most of the area is inaccessible, except to these tigers that can swim," Mr Thapar said. The aquatic nature of the Sundarbans tigers makes them difficult to see. Until it is too late.

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Tarubala Mandol, 30, is a rare survivor of a tiger attack. She was feeding chickens in the early hours of the morning when a tiger pounced on her from the bushes.

"I thought it was a large dog. I pushed it away and heard a splash," she says.

The tiger was caught off guard and fell into a nearby pond. Tarubala escaped.

But a jagged scar runs from her forehead to the back of her skull. Lumps of flesh were torn from her chest and thigh. She is blind in her left eye.

After the attack, she fled to her hut and collapsed.

The tiger returned, looking for her.

The noise roused the village, and the men went in search of the beast with only their fishing nets for protection.

The tiger was found, hiding behind a statue, in a temple dedicated to Bono Devi - a goddess they believe protects them from the tiger. They wrapped the temple in layers of fishing net to prevent it from escaping, and waited five hours before forest officials used tranquilliser darts to sedate the animal before releasing it back into the wild.

"You learn to live in their presence," said Kumar Mali, 36, a fisherman who had used his net that day, "even if they cast a shadow of terror all the time."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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