Cyclone ‘Yaas” devastated vast tracts of the Indian Sundarbans on 26 May 2021, breaking the vulnerable earthen dams along the river-banks and flooding the islands with salt water. The devastation amounted to an estimated Rs 15,000 crore in the state of West Bengal, according to government sources. ‘Yaas’ has also impacted the wildlife of the Sundarbans as much as it has disrupted human lives.
The Sundarbans region is also home to 96 mangrove tigers. The region is protected by the Tiger Project, the nearby National Park and the largest Ramsar wetland conservation site of India. Tigers have five sub-species living within eastern and south-east Asia. These are the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Indochinese Tiger, the Siberian (Amur) Tiger, the South China Tiger and the Sumatran Tiger.
The Royal Bengal Tiger has the largest wild population amongst all these sub-species. Sundarban tigers have unique behavioral and adaptation traits, unlike tigers of other parts of southeast Asia. Tigers are territorial. Male tigers mark spaces with pheromones and violently guard their territory from rivals. The Sundarbans have diurnal tidal regimes where the mangrove forested islands are washed by tidal waters at least twice a day. This makes marking of territories difficult.
Tigers of the Sundarbans can augment their diet with fish and crabs. They can swim with an estimated speed of 13 km/hr. Sundarban tigers can climb trees, drink salty water, hunt in daylight and prey upon humans. These preying behaviours are different from other members of this species. A scientific study indicates that these tigers have smaller, lighter frames than others because of their ability to swim and climb trees. There is a dearth of fresh water in these islands and tidal waters contain around 1.5 per cent salt.
Drinking salty water makes the tigers suffer from liver and kidney problems. This also makes them more irritable and aggressive. Human-tiger conflict is a reality in the Sundarbans. These deltaic islands are unsuitable for human habitation. This discouraged the colonization of these islands by humans until the 18th century. During the British colonial empire, large tracts of mangrove forest were cleared for agriculture. Eventually, 54 out of 102 islands became inhabited by humans.
Governmental sources report around 10 tiger attacks on humans each year. Villagers claim that at least 10 people die due to tiger attacks each month. Reports indicate that between 1985 and 2009, approximately 789 persons were attacked by tigers. Twenty per cent of these attacks occur in the pre-monsoon month of April. This situation gets more dire during flooding or cyclones, when tigers can easily swim up to the villages inundated by water. One of the main reasons behind the under-reporting of tiger attacks is the tiger migration into the forest without the knowledge of forest authorities.
According to Joint Forest Management plans, villagers around the Sundarban reserve forests can apply and get passes to collect nontimber forest products. Even fishing vehicles operating around the reserved forests require passes for their entry. The majority of the local people depend on fishing and honey collection. Both of these trades risk tiger attacks. There are villages dotted across the Sundarbans housing ‘tiger widows.’ They are the women who lost their husbands to tiger attacks.
To prevent tiger migration into the villages, the forests are separated with nylon nets. This acts as a psychological barrier to the tiger, reducing tiger sightings in the nearby villages. In spite of the nets, old tigers or pregnant tigresses do enter villages to access easy prey. Face masks are worn on the back of the head by the villagers entering tiger-occupied forests. These masks confuse the tigers as they are behaviorally tuned to attack unsuspecting prey. Tigers are well known for their camouflaged hunting which makes them almost invisible.
Their padded feet muffle all sounds, their claws stay retracted inside their paws until required for hunting and their black stripes amongst yellow coat colour makes them virtually invisible amidst straw-colored mangrove palms. Conflict scenarios add to the fear surrounding tigers in the Sundarbans. Natural disasters always result in more human-tiger conflicts in this region. After super-cyclone Amphan on 20 May, 2020, eight tiger attacks were reported. ‘Yaas’ has just hit the islands, which may result in similar tiger attacks.
Tiger conservation is impossible without the support of the local population. Authorities must take special care to limit post disaster tigerhuman interaction, minimizing the chances of human-tiger conflicts. Understanding the unique behaviour of the Sunderban tigers is crucial in managing such conflicts.
(The writers are, respectively, Associate Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat)