Delta Blues: man-eating tigers of the Sunderbans

Within my last post ‘Back on the menu’ I resisted the temptation to include the Sunderbans in the discussions surrounding an increase in man eating activity among india’s tigers. There are two reasons for this omission. Firstly, man eating events in the Sunderbans have never really subsided and, secondly, there is an influential body of opinion to suggest that some of its resident tigers may be habitual man eaters. There is, however, an equally persuasive argument that this is a myth and that the majority of such incidents are largely serendipitous, due to accidental encounters. How has such a depiction evolved and what is being done to mitigate the risks of man-tiger conflict in this unique environment? Initially, it is instructive to consider the environment here and what makes it so unique.

Map of the Sunderbans
The Sunderbans: a unique mangrove habitat

Many of the realities of life here in the Sunderbans are counterintuitive, contributing to its mystique, giving rise to supernatural tales of shape shifting between tigers and people, reflected in the customs of a deeply religious and superstitious people. Here, tree roots grow upwards towards the sky, land disappears and reappears elsewhere, causing maps to be withdrawn in the space of years rather than decades.Tigers are strong swimmers and can launch themselves from the water on to boats from which they are known to carry away human prey. The big cats, rarely seen, have had to adapt to life in habitats that morph into uninhabitable subterranean environments, wiping out evidence of their occupancy on a regular basis, forcing tigers to constantly reinvent and redraw their territories.

Located above the Bay of Bengal, straddling both India and Bangladesh, the Sunderbans represents the largest mangrove complex in the world. For many years, this region was believed to contain the world’ largest single concentration of wild tigers in a contiguous landscape, numbering anywhere between 400-500 individuals. Recent estimates, however, tell a different story, with the number revised down to just 182 (106 in Bangladesh and 76 in India). On the Indian side, the tiger reserve covers an area in excess of 1,330 square kilometres along the Ganges delta. The reserve is markedly different in character from that of other tiger habitats in India. It is also a particularly inaccessible and inhospitable landscape, its many islands constantly remoulded by tidal activity, its banks ravaged by the effects of severe cyclones travelling north through the Bay of Bengal. Here, the resulting tidal waves may rise as high as 76 metres (250 feet) and there are anywhere between 4-8 cyclonic depressions every year. It is also the tiger reserve at most immediate risk from climate change. The author Amitav Ghosh describes a series of river channels criss-crossing the land like a ‘fine net mesh’ sculpting a landscape in which the boundaries between earth and water are blurred, ‘always mutating, always unpredictable’. This caprice creates significant problems for the Sunderbans’ tigers.

Mangrove trees in sand
The geography of the Sunderbans is constantly changing.

Much if its territory is tenuous and impermanent, washing away periodically before emerging elsewhere and, where it remains, subject to a constant dousing of water with a high saline content. This tidal flow washes away urine and scat that has been deposited by tigers to demarcate their territorial claims. Consequently, in the absence of such markers, the tigers here have to work particularly hard to secure and protect their territories, with any incursions defended with aggression. It is here that local villagers, and other humans active in the area (an estimated 4 million people) are most at risk and aware of the dangers that lurk within the dense mangrove vegetation.

Locals in boat
Over four million people are known to use the Sunderbans to meet their subsistence needs

Tigers are rarely seen here, at least until it’s too late, yet signs of the big cat’s presence are visibly evident in the mud and silt, mapping its omnipresence and recent movements in a graphic warning to would be interlopers. Yet life for many of the area’s human inhabitants is far from easy and, in order to secure their livelihoods they are forced to intrude on the world of the tiger, with often serious consequences. Setting out to collect wood and gather honey, their crouched bodies are sometimes mistaken for prey and taken swiftly by the striped predator. Yet these communities remain surprisingly tolerant of tigers, respecting and fearing them in equal measure. Their anger, when a person is mauled and killed, is often directed not at the tiger but at the authorities who are failing to protect them. A feeling that tigers are valued more than people is a common refrain heard across India, particularly in areas that attract a large influx of tourists. These communities, although incognisant of the language of science, nevertheless understand the role the tigers play in protecting the forest. They may not understand technical terms like trophic cascade but express in their own words the dangers associated with the tiger’s function as a guardian of the forest. For the forest is their lifeblood, without it they would not be able survive. They understand, therefore, that the future of the forest, and themselves, is inextricably linked with the persistence of the tiger. An uncomfortable, yet very real truth, for the mangroves provide a buffer against the constant bombardment of tidal and cyclone activity, dampening the power of such surges. They protect not only the immediate locales but play a vital role also in safeguarding the millions of people that populate the nearby mega cities of Kolkata and Dhaka.

To survive in such an environment, both tigers and people must adapt. The Sunderbans tigers have thus become strong swimmers and have learned to climb trees to protect themselves against tidal surges which can increase water levels by as much as 4.6 metres (15 feet).

Tiger in mangrove swamp
Tigers in the Sunderbans are strong swimmers and have been known to lift human victims from boats

They must learn to survive on drinking water that has a high saline content, although it is believed that this can make tigers particularly fractious, prompting the authorities to institute a network of fresh waterholes in an attempt to curb this aggression. Additionally, in areas where prey is difficult to locate, these fresh water supplies can also attract sources of meat. Indeed, in such an unforgiving landscape, wildlife managers are intervening further through the piloting of breeding centres for larger-bodied ungulate species to boost the prey base. Otherwise, it is feared, humans will continue to be mistaken for prey, exacerbating the already deeply-rooted man-tiger conflicts that plague the region. Other innovations have been developed in an attempt to reduce the incidence of human deaths attributed to tigers. When tigers attack, their preferred method is to take their victims from behind, causing death by a powerful bite to the back of the neck. In order to confuse tigers, locals have long been supplied with face masks to be worn on the backs of their heads.

locals with masks on the back of their heads
Face masks issued to local villagers to deter tiger attacks

Electrified scarecrows have also been utilised, carrying a charge sufficient to cause discomfort and create a fear of humans that appears to have bypassed the Sunderbans tigers. Some claim that these mangrove tigers have not learned to fear humans to the same extent that those elsewhere in India have. It has been argued that this may stem from the inaccessibility of the landscape, meaning that the various poaching crises have largely failed to impact on the Sunderbans and that the humans encountered here are largely defenceless and poorly armed individuals. In short, these particular humans become easy prey in times of shortage of alternative sources of meat. Add to this the regular supply of human corpses washing into the delta as a consequence of devastating cyclones. Tigers will undoubtedly scavenge these carcasses and may become familiar with human meat as a consequence. Moreover, this familiarity for human meat may be passed on through the tiger generations, hence the habitual man eating label attached to them.

While it is far from certain how many people perish as a result of tiger-related conflicts, it is estimated that there are around 60 attacks per year and that half of these result in death. More sensationalist accounts put this figure far higher, but many accept that many such incidents can be difficult to prove as authentic man eating episodes. For example, there is a fear that some humans may lose their lives in other ways, victims of other people, and that their bodies may be left out in the open so that any evidence of criminal activity disappears. Others argue that some of the people may have died from natural causes and that the presence of the bodies in the mangroves may be due to to the pursuit of compensation claims. So, while it may be difficult to calculate with any accuracy the actual number of human deaths caused by tigers, it is nonetheless likely that the figure is greater than that witnessed elsewhere in the tigers’s range. And, regardless of the true extent, it is essential that such potentially deadly encounters are managed carefully to avoid the further escalation of conflict. While people may be culturally tolerant, this tolerance only stretches so far, and the authorities are in constant fear of any backlash towards themselves and the tigers that they seek to manage and protect.

Another consequence of large human populations in such close proximity to protected tiger habitat is the presence of other animals that function in human societies. In the Sunderbans there is a growing problem associated with stray and feral dogs, many of which carry canine distemper, a virus that can be communicated to other species, including tigers. Control of such dogs is difficult and, although vaccinations are available, they are also expensive and difficult to justify in the context of tight budgetary restrictions. Recently, however, researchers have paid increasing attention to the potential of dogs in helping to reduce incidents of man-tiger conflict. Throughout history, dogs have played an important role as an alarm system to warn us of the presence of intruders and to protect us from the dangers their presence may pose. Piloted by conservation biologist, Adam Barlow and his colleagues, an innovative programme has been devised in the Sunderbans to firstly vaccinate dogs and then to train them as an early warning system to signal the close proximity of tigers, allowing people to anticipate conflict situations and to avoid potentially deadly encounters. While the success of such endeavours are difficult to evaluate at this early stage, the need to pursue such ‘win-win’ scenarios is vital to strengthening the armoury of local communities whose main defence against man eating tigers currently relies heavily on the intervention of deities. Religion and superstition continue to retain significance in the lives of many of the communities inhabiting this region and this plays a major role in maintaining their traditional tolerance for dangerous wildlife. Should these customs become eroded in favour of rationalism then many of the control mechanisms that promote coexistence with wildlife will be undermined, leaving the forest and its inhabitants increasingly at the mercy of economic driven management instruments.

In the Sunderbans, those forced to venture into the mangroves to secure their livelihoods pray for the protection of their local deities.

Colourful statue of the deity
The deity Banbibi – the lady of the forest

Banbibi, the lady of the forest, is called upon by both Hindu and Muslim communities entering the Sunderbans, to beseech her for protection against tiger attacks. Folk lore recognises in her arch enemy, Dakshin Rai, the lord of the south, the ability to rule over beasts and demons, sometimes appearing in the guise of a tiger to take certain interlopers who may be impure in terms of their goodness. It is difficult to reconcile this type of devotion with modern techniques designed to challenge man eating among tigers but, within such superstitions, are the roots of tolerance and respect for wildlife witnessed in the region. It is essential, therefore, that any management strategy designed to reduce the incidence of man-tiger conflict recognises the customary significance of such traditions and blends globally innovative solutions with these more local faith systems that underpin societal structures. This, however, is difficult to achieve within a political system increasingly dedicated to modernisation and the lure of a globalised economy, where traditional customs are equated with backwardness. This attitude represents a clear and present danger to tigers, undermining the coexistence of people and animals, eroding the traditional cultural respect and tolerance that has governed such relationships across the generations. To lose this may prove to be the death knell for these tigers of the Sunderbans and, over time, the mangroves themselves.

I would like to leave the final words of this post to Rathin Banerjee, a former assistant director of the Sunderbans tiger reserve. He explained to the author Sy Montgomery in her 1995 book, Spell of the tiger, that the man eater was the most powerful force protecting the forest. “The tiger” he said “is silently doing the work of ecodiscipline. In that way the tiger is a god – the tiger is looking after the forest, and the forest is looking after it”.

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