Updated: Oct 4
The Royal Bengal Tiger is one of the world’s most charismatic animals; yet not only is it an endangered species, it also has a reputation for being a ferocious man-eater. In the first of this three-part miniseries, Dr. Orton explores the Sundarbans forest tiger and the people who live in its shadow.
The story of the human relationship with the Royal Bengal Tiger is a story about danger. This is a controversial thing for me to say, as so much of conservation work is about dispelling misconceptions about the world’s most endangered predators. Other documentary makers with whom I’ve spoken have often cringed when they tell me the sensational titles of their work, explaining that they’ve emphasised the danger of the animal only because they had to make the documentary eye-catching for audiences.
However, having spoken to many people who live on the border of the Sundarbans mangrove forest, home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, I’ve come to believe that the association between tigers and danger is an important one. The perception of danger needs to be acknowledged if we are to understand the relationship between the tiger and its closest human neighbours.
In the Sundarbans border village of Angtihara, I speak to Sirajul Gazi, a 48 year old man from Ghorilal who was attacked by a tiger twenty-five years ago. He is one of the few people to survive an attack from a Royal Bengal tiger. Sirajul was working in the forest as a fisherman when a tiger pounced on him.
“The tiger caught me and threw me into the water,” Sirajul tells me. “The tiger was looking for me from above and was roaring...I wisely dived and put my feet under the water. Then, pulling myself out, I saw the tiger looking for me in the water. When the tiger saw me, it pounced.”
Fortunately, Sirajul was saved when a large group of people going to work in the forest came along in a boat. He needed over twenty five stitches in his head and back, and two years of treatment. Along with the physical scars on his body, the incident has left Sirajul no longer wishing to live in the Sundarbans. He now lives in the city, returning to the Sundarbans border villages only to visit family.
Sirajul Gazi survived a tiger attack twenty five years ago
Nonetheless, Sirajul knows he is lucky. “Allah saved me,” he says. “After I was attacked, about four or five others were attacked by a tiger in the same place…none of them survived.”
Further east, in the Hindu sector of Kalabogi village, tiger attacks are also an issue. Here, Puspo Rani Gain describes to me how her brother was killed by a tiger while out fishing: “The tiger had eaten a morsel of flesh from my brother's stomach, and now some of the flesh had come out…[The tiger] ate near his eyes in such a way that his eyes came out. Most of one of his hands was eaten away…It was not a sight to behold.”
Puspo Rani Gain's brother was killed by a tiger
Nearly everyone with whom I speak is afraid of tigers. As Nurjahan, a mother from Kalabogi island, tells me, “Oh, my God. When we hear the tiger’s roar, the inside of the chest twists with fear.” This association with danger is central to understanding not only people’s relationship with the tiger, but also its importance to the forest – and how we can protect it.
The Sundarbans Tiger
Spanning parts of India and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans is the world’s largest mangrove forest and the only mangrove forest in the world to have tigers (click the link to read more about the mangrove forest and its importance). Specifically, the Sundarbans is home to the Royal Bengal tiger, widely regarded as the most lethal of all the big cats.
The Sundarbans tiger delivers arguably the highest rate of attacks on humans by tigers in the world, with at least 20–30 people killed each year on the Bangladesh side of the Sundarbans. However, the real figure is difficult to estimate, as attacks tend to go unreported if the person involved did not have a permit to be in the forest.
Tiger population numbers themselves are also difficult to estimate. Previous findings have been pessimistic, although recent tiger studies suggest that the Sundarbans may have one of the largest remaining tiger populations in the world, perhaps having 335-500 tigers in total. Anecdotal evidence from Forest Department staff is also optimistic, both about the increasing abundance of prey species and the fact that the tiger population has benefitted from the government’s crackdown on pirates.
Sujon, a Forest Guard stationed at Kalabogi, tells me that “…the way we used to hear that hunters are hunting tigers, we actually don’t hear these news that much. So basically it’s a little under control and maybe the number of tigers are again increasing”. The Forest Office’s Boat Man is yet more optimistic. “Tigers are now increasing in the Sundarbans,” he tells me. “There are enough deer in the forest now. So food is no longer scarce.”
Many conservationists, however, remain concerned, as the Sundarbans tiger is threatened by habitat destruction, prey depletion, and direct loss of individual animals. The future of the tiger is by no means secure.
The Tiger and Its Human Neighbours
In Bangladesh, nobody actually lives in the Sundarbans. The British colonial administration started to clear the forest, which was assigned to the Forest Department in 1875, and confirmed as a reserve forest in the Forest Act of 1927. Some people I speak to associate the British colonial administration with some level of protection of the forest, even if only to preserve it as hunting ground.
The lower part of the Sundarbans is a sanctuary, with no economic activity allowed. It is illegal to enter the forest at all without a permit. Researchers and tourist visitors must be accompanied by an armed guard from the Forest Department and those entering for resource extraction must obtain the proper permission and adhere to strict rules about which resources are available for extraction.
Researchers and tourist visitors to the Sundarbans must be accompanied by an armed guard from the Forest Department
Having said this, up to 78 % of households situated between 0 and 2 km from the forest boundary depend on the forest for their livelihoods. This might include prawn fishing, crab fishing, nypa palm collection, wood collection and honey collection. The nypa palm (golpatta) is also known as ‘mangrove palm’ and is the only palm suited to the mangrove biome. Even this is highly regulated: collectors must leave three palms on every tree they harvest.
Mowalis, honey collectors who search for the delicious wild honey and wax from the Giant Asian Honeybee from April to June, are especially vulnerable to tiger attacks. This is due to the nature of honey collection: it requires going deeper into the forest, often crouching down like the tigers’ prey species.
Local people acknowledge the greater risk of this kind of work. As Sakhina, a woman from Kalabogi island tells me, “In the forest, looking for honey is like looking for a tiger.”
Living with Tigers
So why do the Sundarbans tigers have a reputation for being man-eaters? One theory is that the tide washes away the territory the tigers mark with their urine, meaning that they have no specific territory and thus they swim into villages; another is that swimming for hours makes the tigers unusually aggressive. Another popular theory is that the brackishness of the Sundarbans waters, exacerbated by upstream dams and barrages, means that the tigers develop a taste for human blood.
Rubaiyat Mansur, a Sundarbans wildlife researcher and guide, has some sympathy with the theory that, originally, this forest was heavily used for resource extraction. This makes people appear like prey as they are bending down. Honey collectors, in addition, are always looking up; they may not see the tiger and may disturb a mother with cubs.
Clearly, solutions are needed that protect people without harming the tiger. A number of proposals have been suggested by scientists with varying levels of success. These include using electrified dummies and digging freshwater ponds to ‘sweeten’ the nature of the tigers. On the Indian side, masks have been distributed to wear behind the head, based on the reasoning that tigers are ambush predators and attack from behind, so it might be possible to trick the tiger into thinking that the person is facing him.
It is not easy to determine the success of these measures. The Indian government have historically been complacent about the success of some of these measures, as Sundarbans expert Annu Jalais has argued. On the Bangladesh side, Rubaiyat is sceptical. “The masks were never tried in Bangladesh,” he tells me. “On the Indian side, we are not sure how much they were used or how much data was kept. I don’t think it’s such a clever idea because the tiger is a stalker and it can see the direction the prey is going.”
Locals dry out golpatta in Kalabogi
Other potentially useful measures depend on uptake by locals. Wildlife biologist Adam Barlow, who has worked on the Sundarbans tiger and local communities, reflects, “As a warning to other people, creek entrances where attacks occur are normally marked with a piece of cloth attached to a tree or pole. If seen at all, such markings do not generally dissuade villagers from using nearby creeks that are very likely within the range of the tiger responsible for the original attack.”
However, Barlow argues, there is potential for scientists to build on this approach by collaring tigers suspected of killing two or more victims. Including villagers would improve relationships between the government, local communities and the tigers, as well as giving insight into why tiger attacks occur.
This kind of scientific inquiry is invaluable, but knowledge of and co-operation with human communities is also essential. I’ve written previously about the importance of vernacular theorising, a concept which means prioritising the voices of local people and acknowledging their expertise about their own communities.
Bangladesh in particular is understudied by folklorists and anthropologists. In this series of blog posts, I hope to open up an important conversation about the people of the Sundarbans and their views. In addition, I hope to show how dynamic these narratives are. Different communities and individuals have a wide range of perspectives to offer, and these can only help in conservation efforts.
As for Sirajul Gazi, the man who survived a tiger attack, he prefers to live in the city now. However, even he would not wish to see tigers disappear from the Sundarbans. He tells me emphatically: “Tigers are definitely good for protecting forests.”
Both humans and tigers, we all agree, deserve protection.
Dr. Orton’s next blog post will explore why Sirajul and other local people say that protecting the tiger will protect the forest as a whole. Come back soon to discover more about the people and tigers of the Sundarbans!
Find Out More
To learn more about Dr. Orton’s research into people’s relationships with animals, visit Our Research Page to listen to her lectures on anthropology and wildlife, or read her blog post on Himalayan narratives to find out why we should prioritise the voices of local people in anthropological research. Learn more about how humans and animals work together in Bangladesh in Dr. Orton’s blog post about fishing with trained otters and learn more about the Sundarbans in her Bangladesh blog series!
Follow our Orton Academy Instagram for our Bangladesh highlight reel to see pictures from Dr. Orton’s fieldwork in the Sundarbans – we would love to connect with you!
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