Tuesday, August 25, 2009


The Royal Bengal Tigers of Sunderbans

Bhatir Desh, land of tides, Sunderbans is the largest reverine delta and the largest mangrove tiger-land of the world. It is also the largest National Park of India and the only mangrove habitat for the Royal Bengal Tigers. According to 2004 census, tiger population in the Indian side was 274 and their combined population in the whole of Sunderbans, including the areas in Bangladesh, was 400. This largest mangrove forest in the world is one of the most important World Heritage sites. But it got its name from the profusion of Sundari trees. Bon Bibi is the presiding deity of this vast land with 108 islands and overflowing water, comprising of 9630 sq km on the Indian side. UNESCO declared it as a Biosphere Reserve. A bigger part of Sunderbans falls in Bangladesh besides the Sunderbans in India, the subject of our discussion. Of this Indian side 4264 sq km is reserved forest of which 2585 sq km swathe in the south-east makes up the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. Signifying all this in its single name, Sunderbans is a legend to people near and far.
A stretch of three hundred kilometer from the Hooghly river in West Bengal to the shore of Meghna river in Bangladesh (Meghna is actually Brahmaputra flowing from beyond Assam in the north-east) - the forest contains thousands of islands forming an immense archipelago.
Tides high and low are the regular features of this tide country. Not only the mighty Ganga and Brahmaputra but their innumerable tributaries, channels and canals thread the fringe of the land meeting the sea. Sea enters into the rivers, flooding the land throughout the stretch, creating and un-creating islands. Some islands have remained for ages, some were born yesterday and gone soon after. During high tides all become watery; most parts of the islands are lost. Again they rise up. The boundaries between land and water always mutate. Some are the mighty rivers there like Raimangal and Matla and some are of a few kilometers in length. The soil is almost always muddy.
The Tigers of Sunderbans
The 500 pound massive terrestrial beast learnt to swim, walk stealthily to hunt for fish, crab, reptiles and crabs and gradually humans too. With the habit of drinking salty water and varied diet, Sunderban tigers have a distinct advantage over other tiger population elsewhere which continue to amaze ecologists.
Conversion of mangrove land into paddy land, hunting and poaching contributed to the degradation of this natural tiger habitat. Though leopard, wild water buffalo, Javan and one-horned rhinos, swamp and hog deer and several plant species disappeared, the canny Royal Bengal Tiger survived.
It is said that a tiger of Sunderbans will never look at your face or come in front. They always attack from behind. It is said that Royal Bengal Tigers of Sunderbans always watch you, themselves remaining invisible behind the trees and bushes. If by chance one beholds a tiger he does not survive to tell his tale. It is a fact that tigers there are real man-eaters. They love human flesh more than the other types of flesh. Many theories have been put forward for this. The impressive one is that the salinity of the water they drink induces in their blood a preference for human flesh. An English naturalist, J. Frayer gave the Royal name to the tigers of Sunderbans, the Royal Bengal Tiger. Royal Bengal has become a part of folk culture, an essential tradition to live with, a part of the religion of all the humans living around the presiding deity of the forest, Bon Bibi.
Man-Animal Conflict
Many of the Sunderban tigers are man-eaters. They often enter the villages. Every alternate day they killed a human being. Record shows that during the period from 1860 to 1866 they killed 4218 human beings. But the situation has changed drastically. The number of tigers in India has greatly been reduced. Sunderbans may have some 240 to 280 or less tigers now. So the killing rate has been reduced considerably. Still the lives of honey gatherers, wood cutters and fishermen are at risk when they enter the vulnerable areas of the forest. On an average some 16 killings are reported every year while the actual figures are much higher. But why the animals would enter the human habitation and kill them if they get enough to eat within their territories? Based on facts, some explanations have been found, besides the talk of their taste for human flesh and blood, as we have discussed.
To the north and north-west lie 54 reclaimed densely populated islands. Here live about four million economically marginalized people on subsistence farming; cultivating prawns, collecting forest produce and fishing. While the Government permits 15000 people to enter the reserved forest area for catching fish using 960 boats, the numbers of fishermen are 35000. Many of them enter the forest illegally for their livelihood. There is a constant clash between the Government and NGOs on one side, trying to preserve the dwindling tiger population and the ever increasing population on the other side, wishing to earn their livelihood from the forest produce, even at the cost of animal attacks. Sunderbans is a typical example of man- animal clash. For fear of fine they do not disclose many times their injuries or death by tigers inside the Reserve where they enter illegally.
The more potent reason of their straying and killing men is that during April-May mangrove plants are in full bloom. It is the honey collecting season and at the same time it is the littering season of tigresses. 40000 men are given permit to enter the buffer zone to collect honey and exploit forest products in a sustainable manner, as considered. Due to the northern movement of the tigers, man- animal meeting occurs here every year. Once they taste human flesh, man is included in their prey base and the tigresses teach their cubs to be man-eaters. So men intrude in their areas to be killed sometimes.
Within the Tiger Reserve there is a core area to the south-east, of 1330.12 sq km, where most of the tigers used to live. Another 1255 sq km area is called the buffer zone. Scientific research shows that due to global warming the surface water is getting more salty. Consequently fresh water loving sundari trees are getting reduced in the south. Satellite images have shown that during the last 40 years 20 per cent of the mangrove forest has been dwindled there. Though Sunderban tigers drink saline water, it is becoming too salty. For all these tigers are moving from south to the north and north-west where human habitation is dense. Another reason for their straying into human areas is the difficulty of marking territories by urine, which all cats do, due to such markings getting washed away by tides. They move and move, without knowing their boundaries and in spite of some man made nylon net boundaries, they move into villages where they find cattle, children and sometimes men, roaming. One kill allures them for a second visit for after all, they are carnivores and dwindling of forest results in the paucity of their prey. And for their ever reducing habitat tigers enter the human habitation and kill cattle, sometimes men.
The mode of commutation between the islands and the main land is through water by boats. While the men want more roads, more jetties and bridges to improve access to the mainland, the tigers do not want it: More the denseness and inaccessibility more the safety available to the tigers. Poachers are the modern day enemies to wildlife everywhere.
Another man made reason is that here too as elsewhere, number of staff in Forest Departments are inadequate, number of posts remain vacant. So conservation work sufferes.
In spite of all problems men are now learning the lesson of reducing the forest and destroying its wild residents: the Nature. By constant campaign and education people in Sunderbans have recently learnt to honour ecology. They sometimes catch tiger in their nets and boats and with the help of the forest department and other volunteers release the big cat in the forest. Men have learnt that tiger is our national heritage and that all efforts are to be made to live with them, rather than kill them.
The Legend
Amitav Ghose, the novelist, recovered the story of Bon Bibi and bit of history of this wonder land to make the body of his work-The Hungry Tide. The legend goes like this: Once upon a time Ibrahim of Medina, who lived a pious life of a Sufi mendicant, was so blessed by the Archangel Gabriel as to become the father of twins, Bon Bibi and her brother Shah Jongoli. When they came of age, the Archangel appeared before them to remind them their divine ordained mission of freeing the land of eighteen tides in Bengal for human habitation which belonged to non-human beings for ages. Thus from Arabia they reached the mangrove forest in the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Atharo Bhatir Desh or land of eighteen tides was then ruled by a demon king, Dokkhin Rai. They utterly defeated the demon but gave him freedom to rule half of his erstwhile kingdom, thus making the other half ready for human habitation.
Gradually men approached and began to live there. The story fits in the tale of the early settlers. In modern times-1903- Sir David Mackinnon Hamilton, the Scotsman, bought ten thousand acres of the tide country from the British East India Company and started the first cooperative venture in the country in making the new settlements in Gosaba, Rangabelia, Satjela, Lusibari and other places, which had once been inhabited but abandoned due perhaps to natural calamities.
The miracles of Bon Bibi continued to spread in the land of the settlers. She saved many who called her earnestly in utter distress, like Dukhey, as in Abdur Rahim’s work, Bon Bibir Karamoti orthat Bon Bibi Johuranam. Dukhey was abandoned in the jungle by his greedy countrymen, under agreement with Dokkhin Rai, to be devoured by him in exchange for enormous wealth. He was saved at the last moment and taken home by the Queen, the presiding deity of the Forest, Bon Bibi. Shah Jongoli, her brother, again admonished the demon. King to prove that Gods are always there in between the man and the demon. Tiger is the symbol of demon in the Sundarbans. Men are so afraid that they do not bring its name in their mouths. None dares to enter the jungle without worshipping the Bon Bibi: Glory to Bon Bibi.



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