The ‘tiger widows’ of Sundarbans: Caught between the jungle and the rising sea 

Climate change that turned the Sunderbans waters saline, making agriculture unviable, shrinking tiger habitat in the ecologically fragile region.

Published - October 30, 2022 02:03 pm IST

The Indian part of the Sunderbans with 54 islands has a population of about 40 lakh and around 100 tigers. Image for Representation.

The Indian part of the Sunderbans with 54 islands has a population of about 40 lakh and around 100 tigers. Image for Representation. | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

With both his sons jobless and money running out, Biswajit Mistry left home one summer morning to venture deep into the dense jungles of the Sundarbans in search of raw honey that would fetch a better price. His body was recovered two days later, mauled and bearing unmistakable signs of a tiger attack.

More than a year on, his wife mourns the unhappy collision of circumstances that led her 68-year-old husband quite literally into the jaws of death – climate change that turned the waters saline, making agriculture unviable, shrinking tiger habitat in the ecologically fragile region and the Covid aftermath that robbed her children of their work.    

“My husband went so deep into the jungle to earn more. My sons are migrant workers and they had to return from Chennai during the pandemic after losing their jobs. It was becoming very difficult to support the family. Their father went without telling anyone so that he could collect honey to sell in the market,” Lakshmi told PTI.

The 52-year-old, who has joined the rank of the marshland’s ‘tiger widows’ with her husband’s tragic death,  said he left his home in the Sundarbans’ Kakmari village to go into the restricted Marichjhapi jungle, home to many tigers, to collect better quality raw honey.

“It is believed the deeper you go into the jungle, the purer is the honey you get,” Biswajit’s son, 24-year-old Somitra Mistry, said.

The family has received no compensation because Biswajit was killed in a restricted jungle and is struggling for survival.  They can barely manage two meals a day, said Lakshmi, one of the many who lost their husbands to tiger attacks in the last few years.

The Indian part of the Sunderbans with 54 islands has a population of about 40 lakh and around 100 tigers, according to government data. With one of the largest single populations of tigers in one area, it is called a global hotspot for human-tiger conflict. About 40 per cent of the Sundarbans lies in India while the rest is in Bangladesh.

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Nihar Ranjan Raptan, director of the NGO Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra (GGBK) who works in the Sundarbans, spelt out the problem.

Tiger attacks were once very frequent but the numbers reduced when many locals migrated from the region in search of livelihood. This changed during the pandemic.

According to data collated by GGBK, 30 tiger attacks took place in 2019, the year before the pandemic. This went up sharply to 78 in 2020, the first year of Covid, and 60 in 2021.

Climate change is adding another dimension to the rise in tiger attacks, Raptan explained.

"It was mostly seen that during winters tigers would enter populated areas. Now, with more and more shrinking land due to climate change, such attacks have become more frequent through the years," Raptan told PTI.

Apparently disparate factors have combined to make for the crisis in the region today.

"All migrant workers working in different parts of the country returned home during the pandemic due to which livelihood opportunities reduced drastically. As agriculture is fast becoming unviable due to the increase in salinity of the water because of sea level rise, there were many aspirants for one job," he added.

This increased the desperation of the people, many like Biswajit risking their lives by going into the jungle to collect honey or catch shrimps and prawns.

Their stories are many.

Nabin Sarkar, 59, was dragged by the tiger into water from his boat in August last year when he was trying to catch small fish in the shallow waters of the Marichjhapi jungle. It had become difficult to support his family when he had to return home during the pandemic and he courted danger every day.

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His wife Momita Sarkar, a resident of Kumirmari village, has been left with the responsibility of their five-member family.

"Life was not easy earlier too but it became even more difficult in those Covid months. The number of crabs, prawns and fish population was reduced in most areas as everyone in the area resorted to fishing. When the situation became desperate and we had nothing more to eat other than rice, which we got from government rations, my husband started going into the restricted areas of the jungle," she said.   

The coronavirus-triggered lockdown had a devastating impact on the economy as well as on the livelihoods of lakhs of migrant workers. The plight of migrant workers who were walking from several urban centres to their villages hundreds of kilometres away had grabbed headlines for almost two months in 2020.

The problems continue to escalate for the people of the Sundarbans, which holds a vast mangrove forest and is one of India'a worst affected regions due to climate change.   

The government gives compensation of Rs 4 lakh to the families of those killed in a tiger attack. This is not done if it happens in restricted forest areas.   

According to a 2017 research paper titled Analyzing Human Wildlife Conflicts In Sundarban by Chandan Surabhi Das, associate professor of geography at Barasat government college, between 1985 and 2009, 789 persons were attacked by tigers out of which 666 succumbed to their injuries. This averaged 27.75 events per year.

"The restricted areas are dangerous and have a thriving tiger population, we have  'tiger fence' to ensure separation between the tiger habitat and human-inhabited areas to prevent such incursions but even then people enter illegally," an official said.

Life was always difficult for women like Lakshmi Mistry and Momita Sarkar. With their husbands lost to the big cat on the prowl, the lives of Sundarbans’ tiger widows have become even tougher. 

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