Sheba Mridha sobs uncontrollably as she looks at the thick mangrove forest on the other bank of Ganral river at Gosaba delta in Sundarbans.
She was widowed a couple of months ago when a Royal Bengal Tiger killed her husband Ramesh Mridha (32) as he was catching crabs in the creeks of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, off the limit area for villagers.
Incidents of tiger, crocodile and shark attacks are occurring with more people scouring the jungle for livelihood after a year of crop failure following sea surge by cyclone Aila in this part of South 24-parganas district in West Bengal.
“Only widows would be left to live in the villages,” Ms. Sheba says, sitting at her tarpaulin shed home with two minor sons.
Almost every household in Jamespur and Annpur villages of Sundarbans has lost one member to tiger, crocodile or shark attacks.
Mr. Ramesh is one of the hundreds of delta-dwellers who are preyed upon by wild animals regularly.
“Ten persons died of tiger attacks this year. More than 20 incidents of tiger straying into human-inhabited deltas have happened since cyclone on May 25,” Field Director of Sundarban Tiger Reserve, Subrat Mukherjee told PTI.
Tigers pounce on fishermen catching fish, crab or villagers collecting honey, firewood in the mangrove jungle which is home to the largest number of tigers in the world.
Estuarine crocodiles prey on the villagers when catching shrimp seeds in the tidal rivers and sharks cut limbs to bleed people to death.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in a survey in 2006 found 30 persons died of crocodile attacks in three months near Bhagabatpur crocodile sanctuary in Pathar Pratima delta, Saswati Sen of WWF says.
Meanwhile, Field Director Mukherjee says more people die of snake bites in the deltas with improper healthcare facilities.
People often become victims of wild animal attack which the residents of the car-free deltas of Sundarbans refer to as “accidents“.
“An average four persons die of ‘accidents’ every month. The number is apprehended to increase as more villagers are now venturing in the forest,” says Dilip Mondal, a resident of Annpur, whose uncle was killed when fishing in the tiger reserve.
“The villages were once emptied of males when farm yield was low and people would depend on the forest to feed families,” he says.
Meanwhile, Prof Ranjan Chakrabarti, Environmental Historian of Sundarbans in Jadavpur University says the fears of more wildlife attack were logical.
“The authorities attributed the increase in the number of people killed by tigers to cyclone in 1919 which made their natural food scarce. Tiger habitat is also shrinking in Sundarbans Tiger Reserve due to climate change and consequent sea level rise,” he says.
Men and women go for week-long journey in the jungle for 2-3 times a month to catch fish, crab, shrimp seed or collect firewood and honey.
Forest department officials issue 927 permits like Boat Licence Certificate (BLC) every year to catch fish and collect firewood.
“Hundreds others venture secretly into the jungle to make a living. Many deaths go unreported as entering reserve forest without permission is a criminal offence. Crocodile, shark attacks and snake bites are never reported as it does not carry compensation,” says Bikash Sasmal, Convener of Aila-affected People’s Committee.
He demands unrestricted fishing rights in the reserve forest for the cyclone—hit villagers for a year to sustain themselves like that was done after super cyclone in Orissa.
Tigers swim to the villages to prey on livestock. They have been pushed into the mangrove forest, else caged, tranquilised, treated and released in deep forest, Field Director Mukherjee says.
“Ageing, injured, incapacitated tigers, young pregnant tigresses and young tigers which fail turf war for control over habitat come to prey on human-inhabited deltas,” he says.
During breeding season, tigers come to the islands to litter cubs in safe paddy fields and bushes near the villages, officials say.
Forest department officials says tigers from Arbesi, Jhilla, Panchamukhani, Pirkhali jungles of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve swim the surrounding rivers to enter 25 border villages. The worst hit villages include Annpur, Jamespur, Rajat Jubilee, Bali, Mollakhali, Samsernagar, Sonagaon, Mathurakhanda, Kalidaspur and Kultali in Gosaba, Kultali, Hingalganj blocks of South 24-parganas district.