Someone is killed by a tiger every 10 days in the forests of the Sundarbans. Christina Greenwood reports on efforts to resolve human-tiger conflict.
“Stop the boat!” Montu swings the craft round and rams her prow up the bank. Grabbing my stout stick and pepper spray, I jump down into the knee-deep tidal mud and come to an abrupt halt.
A flurry of red fiddler crabs dart into their holes. I peer ahead through the trees for any sign of movement. Adrenalin surges through my veins as images of outstretched claws and all-too-sharp fangs flash through my mind. My stick suddenly feels more like a twig.
If there was a tiger in there, would I even know before it pounced? Could I pull the safety cap off my pepper spray in time, or would panicked fumblings be the death of me? And would it even work against 120kg of rippling muscle?
A terrible end
After all, this is the fate of about 50 people a year in the Sundarbans region – and I’m no less edible. The difference is that I’ve chosen to enter this mangrove forest, whereas the desperately poor Bangladeshi villagers who risk everything to search for firewood, fish and honey here have no other option.
Tigers have attacked people in this region for as long as the locals can remember. Records over the past 100 years or so show an overall decrease in tiger-related deaths, though the underlying reason for this trend is unclear.
Even so, Bangladesh remains one of the world’s hotspots for human-carnivore conflict, and the issue is at the forefront of tiger conservation here.
My legs pull hard against the sucking sludge as I stagger awkwardly towards my target: a set of what appear to be tiger tracks (‘pugmarks’) leading up the bank and disappearing among the spiky mangrove roots jutting from the forest floor.
I’m with a team from the Bangladesh Forest Department, the Zoological Society of London and the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh, and we’re undertaking our biennial survey of the area’s tigers.
Tigers are almost impossible to see in the dense undergrowth, but they need to swim between the mangrove islands to patrol their territories, and so can’t avoid leaving pugmarks in the muddy canal banks.
We count these to work out tiger densities across the forest and measure how the population is faring.
The tiger hunters
“Tiger tracks!” I yell to Alam, who is sitting in the boat. Beaming broadly, he notes down the precise GPS location. Alam has been with the Sundarbans Tiger Project since its inception in 2005. Though in his early twenties, he looks no older than 16.
But four years ago he lost his older brother to a tiger, and his slight frame now shoulders the responsibility of providing for his sibling’s widow and child, as well as the rest of his family. Nevertheless, he is still determined to help conserve these dangerous cats.
Like most victims, Alam’s brother was killed while working inside the mangroves. The majority of attacks occur when fishermen leave their boats and step onto the canal bank at the forest edge.
This thought lingers as I stand here. On the canal bank. At the forest edge.
Staying out of trouble
I run through the ‘Health and Safety’ guidance for walking in tiger country for what seems like the thousandth time: “If a tiger appears, don’t turn and run – that will just make its pursuit instinct kick in and it will be on you in a millisecond. Always face the tiger. Stand firm. Make lots of noise, then slowly back away. Don’t ever turn your back on the cat.”
If you follow these simple rules, the tiger will hopefully decide that it’s not worth its while to attack. Hopefully.
But why do some tigers hunt people anyway? What makes a big cat become a man-eater?
I comfort myself with the knowledge that several thousand workers are in this huge forest at any one time, so given the number of fatalities each year, the chance of me meeting my maker is slim.
In fact, with unpublished research putting the number of tigers in the Sundarbans at 335–500, you might expect many more attacks. But, like most other animals, the vast majority of tigers have a well-deserved fear of the world’s top predator: us.
Tigers generally melt into the forest when they hear people approaching. If pushed, they will defend themselves (a case in point being when a cornered tigress protects her cubs).
But this is very much the exception, and it is pretty unfair to call a tigress doing her maternal duty a ‘man-eater’.
Yet, in the Sundarbans, there are also cases of unprovoked attacks; instances where fishermen have been noisily chopping wood for 20 minutes when, out of the blue, a tiger turns up and attacks someone.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the cat might then go on to eat the body. This is the nightmare scenario: a tiger actively hunting people.
Nobody knows for sure why this happens, though there is a lot of speculation. Some believe it is due to a shortage of natural prey, but there are enough deer in the forest, and too few people are killed for these cats to be living on human flesh alone.
Others think that the trouble-makers are old or injured individuals that are unable to catch their normal quarry, but young and fit animals can also display this behaviour.
Another, more chilling, idea pervades – that certain rogue tigers acquire a taste for human flesh.
We could spend a lot of time and money attempting to work out what causes a tiger to hunt people, but there’s a high chance that any findings would be inconclusive.
Also, some of the necessary experiments would be unethical, to put it mildly – after all, how do you go about testing whether a tiger prefers human flesh?
Meanwhile, the people of the Sundarbans don’t have the luxury of time: as each week passes, someone else dies. So, to begin with, our project’s aim is simply to alleviate the immediate human misery.
We have established a boat-based tiger response team led by Goni, a small but extremely brave local villager.
One of his unit’s more harrowing tasks is to help relatives to recover the bodies of tiger victims – literally to take food from wild tigers that no longer fear humans.
A dangerous mission
The Bangladeshi religion requires that a burial ritual is held within 24 hours of death, which is what drives mourners to take the serious risk of searching the dense forest for their loved ones. At least Goni’s team can make that task less dangerous.
Members also collect as much information about every incident as possible, to help piece together patterns of tiger behaviour that might produce a solution to the problem.
For instance, if many attacks occur in the same area, they could be the work of a single individual. In such a situation, we might be able to save lives by restricting access to its territory and fitting the cat with a tracking collar to monitor its location.