Updated: Oct 27
In her last post, Dr. Orton talked about the Royal Bengal Tiger of the Sundarbans and its reputation for being a fierce man-eater. She argued that those who are at most risk from tiger attacks are vital in conserving it. This week, Dr. Orton describes local people’s perspectives on why protecting the tiger is so important.
As we saw in my last post, not only is the Royal Bengal Tiger an endangered species, it also has a reputation for being the most lethal of all the big cats, delivering arguably the highest rate of attacks on humans by tigers in the world.
The good news is that local people overwhelmingly want to protect the tiger. Researchers on the Indian side of the Sundarbans have found that 95% of local people said that they would not support the killing of tigers to protect the human lives.
Also in Bangladesh, wildlife biologist friends of mine report being told by locals, “Without a tiger; we don’t have a forest” and I myself heard this many times during my fieldwork. I wanted to get a sense of what people meant when they said this, so I spoke to Muslims, Hindus and the indigenous Munda who live in villages on the forest boundary.
A common response was that tigers protect the forest because people are afraid of them, which disincentivises people from going into the forest to cut down trees. Helal Murol, a 32 year old shrimp farmer from Angtihara, told me, “There should definitely be tigers in the forest. If there’s no tiger, is that even a forest? Even though there are tigers, people are indiscriminately cutting down trees and if there aren’t any, will there be any forest at all? Won’t people end the whole forest then? If there’s no tiger, people won’t have that fear of going into the forest.”
Rekha Rani, a Hindu woman I met at the at the Monosha (snake goddess) shrine in in Burigoalinee, agreed that tigers are associated with danger in her community and that this keeps people out of the forest: “If we know that there is a tiger nearby walking or roaming around for prey, we don’t go in the forest. This way we maintain our safety.”
Rasheda, a fisherwoman I met on the Chura River, agreed: “There is fear of tigers. When we work here, we see tigers…As a child I saw them too,” she said. When asked whether there should be tigers at all in the forest, she answered in the affirmative: “Isn’t it better? Otherwise, people would keep roaming in the forest. Tigers are better.”
Murol Huda, a Muslim crab fisherman and honey collector from Golkhali, echoes this statement: “Many were again taken by the tigers,” he said. “Actually, tigers cannot be called enemies because if there were no tigers we ourselves wouldn’t have kept the forest. So there’s definitely a need of tigers.”
Members of the Munda community agree that the tiger is dangerous. In a group chat with members of the Munda community in Burigoalinee, people stressed that Sundarbans tigers are more aggressive than elsewhere: “Our tigers are the tigers of the Sundarbans. And the tigers of Sundarbans are generally aggressive compared to the tigers of other forests.”
There was a consensus in this group that tigers are needed: “There should be tigers. If the tigers are on the earth, it will be saved. The Sundarbans will be saved; there will be a future. If there is no tiger, there will be no forest. Isn’t the forest our wealth? If there are tigers, people cannot willingly cut down trees. Also hunters cannot kill other animals and birds. They won’t be able to do these illegal things.”
Kabirul Islam, a 22 year old student from Golkhali, added that tigers, not just the Forest Department, protect the forest: “Definitely we need a tiger,” he said. “Tigers are very beautiful to look at and tigers are definitely needed to protect the environment and forests…Many people come from abroad to visit this Sundarbans and they enjoy the beauty of the Sundarbans. If there are no tigers, people will not be afraid to enter the forest. Many people go to the forest and they will go and bring back those beautiful trees. Of course there are forest officers but there is no hope of how much the forest will be saved. That's why tigers are needed.”
However, I must stress that opinion on the tiger is by no means uniform, and members of various communities emphasised the distress caused by the fear of tigers. In Angtihara, I spoke to Alluddin Morol, a 26 year old who has engaged in honey collection, fishing, crab catching and multiple other forest jobs told me, “The fear of danger is too much… The tiger should go.”
When challenged by a friend, who objected, “The jungle is the tiger's own place!”, Alluddin insisted, “If there is no tiger then we will have more advantage…Because if there is no tiger we can work in the whole forest.”
Local people explored the idea that tigers respond to human behaviour. In a group chat with members of the Munda community in the government housing project of Burigoalinee, Shantosh Munda described his understanding of this relationship: “Where we used to cultivate; there were tigers, fox, deer, pig…[These animals] would see these weapons and wouldn’t dare to come close to us…But after we moved here, we mixed together with the Bengalis. Some of them would harm or harass those animals. Then the tigers got furious and since then they started attacking us.”
Shantosh’s friend Nilkanto wholeheartedly agreed, describing his mixed feelings about the possibility of finding safety from the tiger: “What is there to think about the tiger? [The] tiger is like our enemy…when we have no weapon, we are the ones to fear them.”
There was some hint that traditional beliefs about menstruation affect women’s relationship with the forest and the tiger from both Hindus and Muslims. Indeed, it is expected that women do not enter the forest for resource extraction.
Sakhina, a Muslim woman in her 30s from Kalabogi island, told me, “We consider ourselves impure after our menstruation and the forest is our source of income and a very sacred place. We do not want to go to the forest in an impure state and commit atrocities. Women do not go because we defile the forest, and for that tigers oppress us, cross rivers and come this way and eat people. That’s why the women don’t go in the forest.”
However, many women are compelled to enter the forest for financial reasons, in spite of the social and religious barriers. Hindu women I spoke to at the Monosha (snake goddess) shrine in Burigoalinee told me that, even though it is forbidden, women have to go into the forest.
Durga Mondel, a 65 year old woman, told me, “…both my husband and I have to go into the forest. What else can I do if there’s problem with women going into the forest? I have to earn living, too. But during our periods, we don’t go there…it is from our religion. The forest is the creation of mother nature, and we are not allowed to go there during menstruation. It is said that we may fall ill if we go there in that state.”
In Angtihara, Ibali, who estimates himself to be in his early 60s, put the danger from tigers into perspective by considering other, greater dangers of life on the Sundarbans forest boundary.
“If there are tigers, the forest will be preserved. The people won’t be able to cut trees… There are tigers in the forest but if we don’t go - if we consider tigers and don’t go there - then we have to starve and die without food and income.”
In Datnekhali, members of the Munda community gave a similar perspective, coining the pollution and problems of city as the “tiger in the city”: “I believe that the "tiger in the city" is more dangerous. You see, if a bus’s brake suddenly fails, all the people of the bus will be in danger. But if the tiger in the Sundarbans hunts anyone, it cannot hunt more than one person at a time; not 10 people at a time…if there were no tigers in the Sundarbans, there would be no Sundarbans.”
Life holds many more hazards than tigers. Far from being the greatest danger of life in the Sundarbans, tigers are the forest’s greatest protection.
Dr. Orton’s next blog post will explore how people protect themselves from the tiger using mantras and religious beliefs. Come back soon to discover the depth and complexity of human attitudes towards the Sundarbans tiger!
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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