We’ve come to the Sunderbans, the last place in India where people are regularly attacked and eaten by tigers. It is located on the north east border with Bangladesh, which is just a few kilometers from where we write this. Sunderbans is the world’s largest river delta, where the Ganges River enters the Bay of Bengal through an enormous maze of small islands, many of which flood at high tide. It is also the world’s largest mangrove forest. Due to the tidal action, the water is very salty here making mangroves one of the few plants that survive except on the highest patches of ground. It is an eerie place of silty rivers and canals winding between low islands covered in tangled mangrove limbs and strange roots that stick up through the muddy ground. Sunderbans has one of the highest concentrations of tigers anywhere in India. As of last census there were 274 Royal Bengal tigers here.
The Sunderbans tigers are well adapted to this environment. They are slightly smaller and more agile than in other parts of India so as to better maneuver in the tangled and muddy swamps, and they live on smaller prey including spotted dear, fish, crabs, and humans. Although all tigers are comfortable with water, the Sunderbans tigers are required to regularly swim between the many small islands in search of prey, including across wide rivers. Their tracks can be seen on the muddy river banks where they enter and exit the water.
The local people are poor and subsist in small villages along the edge of the tiger habitat. The forest department has erected a fence on the bank across the river from the villages to discourage the tigers from crossing. Given its visible faults and low success rate it is clearly a psychological barrier only. Tigers periodically cross the river to take easy prey — domestic animals and villagers. As a species we’re slow, weak when unarmed, have poor eyesight at night when tigers generally hunt, and a weak sense of smell. Easy pickings for a tiger.
We’re staying right beside one of these villages at Sunderbans Tiger Camp. We arrived here after a four hour bus journey from Calcutta followed by a one hour boat ride. We tour the Tiger Reserve by boat, but the chances of seeing a tiger are slim. The mangrove trees are so dense that unless you meet a tiger swimming you’re unlikely to see one – unless you enter the small channels or the forest itself.
Local men enter the mangrove forests to fish, gather firewood, and harvest wild honey. This work is so dangerous that when their husbands leave for a trip into the forest, the women dress and act like widows until their return. Despite all reasonable precautions, about thirty people are eaten each year.
Tigers attack from behind, preferring to bite the neck or arms of the victim. For protection, the local men wear masks of human faces on the rear of their heads, to confuse the tigers as to which is their back side. This apparently reduced the number of tiger attacks until the tigers figured it out, and now probably has little effect, but the masks are still are worn nonetheless. Tiger census takers visit the shore of many islands to take imprints of tiger paw tracks. They do so armed like a SWAT team wearing helmets and protective vests with high hard collars to protect the back of their necks
There is a local legend where the goddess of the forest saved a small boy who had been left as a sacrifice to appease the tiger god Dakshin Roy. We were treated one evening to a re-enactment of this story by the local villagers, complete with music and traditional songs. All local people including Hindus, Muslims, and Christians worship the goddess Bon Bibi before venturing into the forest so that she will protect them from tigers. Small temples containing her idol exist at most forest entry points.
Once in the forest, the men try to stay on their boats wherever possible, but even this isn’t sufficient defense. Tigers here will attack people in their boats and drag them into the water. Then kill and eat them — hopefully in that order. Their remains are rarely found.
Tiger attacks are far more common in the Sunderbans that elsewhere in India and many theories have been advanced for why these tigers are so aggressive. Some thought it was because the tigers regularly drink salt water and may live in constant discomfort, so fresh water pools were dug, but the attacks continued unabated. Because the tigers’ scent markings are regularly washed away by the tides, they may need to be more aggressive to protect their territories. The most likely reason is that this is a learned behaviour, with cubs learning it from their mothers.
There used to be man-eating tigers across India and attacks were very common. It has been estimated that about 300,000 people were killed by tigers in the 19th Century alone. But the man-eating tigers were hunted down and killed everywhere else, along with the vast majority of all the tigers, leaving only those that were timid and afraid of humans. The reason that Sunderbans is the only place where attacks occur regularly now is that the mangrove swamp is so dense, and the ground so muddy, that it is not practical and far too dangerous to hunt the tigers, even man-eating ones, so they continue to not be afraid of humans and to consider us prey.
Here in Sunderbans, humans are not at the top of the food chain.