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Feared, Loved & Worshipped: Chronicles of Sundarban Tigers

The orange and black striped Bengal tigers often known as the ‘Charismatic megafauna’, are one of the most captivating species on the planet. The species adds to the list of Giant Pandas, Emperor Penguins, Bald Eagles, Humpback lions, African lions, and others that hold a global symbolic value. Sundarbans, often known as the ‘Land of swamp tigers’, is the world’s vast dense mangrove forest area. Every day, hundreds of kilometers are swallowed by the tides. Even in a difficult situation, endangered species are determined to survive. On the other hand, humans are just as spirited. However, there have been several tiger attack survivors in Sundarbans, who are left to tell the tale to the rest of the world. The villagers of Sundarbans brave the floods, forests, predators, and climate change issues. The lives of the villagers are extremely difficult where poverty and hunger follow them like a shadow. While fighting for food every day, the villagers have accepted their fate of living with tigers. 

Also Read: The Uniting Power of Bonbibi: How a Shared Deity Brings Hindus and Muslims Together in the Face of Danger

“I sailed for an hour with my father’s dead body”: Harrowing Account of Raeez 

PayBito, on its mission to end global hunger, reached the hunger-stricken parts of Sundarbans, where the reality was very different. While discovering several problems of the villagers, the team came across Raeez Khatoon, a 40 yr old once a honey collector of Pakhiralay, who witnessed a tiger attack in 2019. He shared his harrowing experience with the team. 

“It was a fine morning, my uncle, my father and I went towards the creeks to enter the jungle. First, we look for the beehive and then plan our attempt to collect the honey. While traveling down the creek, we found the beehive and marked the territory. Then we went in search of heetal leaves to create smoke. Smoke helps to keep the bees away when we break the hive.”
– Raeez Khatoon

Raeez, went to the creeks down the forest to collect honey with his uncle, and his father. It was a fine morning and the weather was great. The honey collectors set out on their journey in search of beehives. Sundarbans villagers commonly have three professions to meet their daily ends, fishing, farming, and honey collection. Raeez and his father were honey collectors. The honey collectors, after searching for the beehives, look for the heetal leaves, which create smoke that keeps the bees away. The three men sat on three corners of the boat when they sailed down the narrow streams of brackish water, amidst the sundari trees. 

Tiger of Sundarbans

“After a while, we found the heetal tree and started taking off its branches. The boat was parked on the banks of the river, near the bush. While I was arranging the leaves, my father and my uncle lit biri (local tobacco). My father was sitting on the boat near the bushes. I was checking the surroundings for beehives when suddenly we heard a noise. I knew it was the tiger, but before we could find it, my father and the tiger were in the water. It was shallow water, but they both were underwater. I immediately took the oar to hit the tiger, but he kept rotating in the water along with my father. When I hit his back, he quickly jumped to the banks of the river. The tiger looked at me, took the entire head of my father in his mouth, and tried to tear it off. However, my uncle started hitting him with another oar, and that’s when he left my father and moved on. But, my father was already gone. I could see half his head torn apart.” 

Raeez was arranging the heetal leaves which they would need to smoke away the bees during their honey collection, when suddenly the tiger ambushed them and jumped out of the bush. His father’s head was grasped by the man-eater, and both were underwater. After several minutes, Raeez finally managed to free his father from the tiger. However, his father was too far gone. With half the head apart, Raeez carried his father’s body back to the village.

“I sailed for an hour with my father’s dead body. We couldn’t save him, but we managed to bring his body to the funeral. That was the last time I went to the forest for honey collection. I still get nightmares of the day. Today, I own a tea shop in my village. Several tourists come here every year, and have breakfast and tea in my stall.”

Raeez was in tears, he couldn’t save his father. He went to collect honey, but came back with his father’s dead body, only to leave his family broken. The fear of the tiger haunts Raeez to this day. After suffering from depression for several months, Raeez quit his profession as a honey collector. Today, he owns a tea shop in Pakhiralay and provides breakfast and snacks to the locals and tourists visiting Sundarbans. His wife helps him run the shop.

Forest Guards: Protecting the Tigers & the Villagers

The PayBito team interviewed forest guards of the Sundarbans to hear their side of the story. Being so close to the jungle, how was their experience with the beast? 

The forest guards favor the tigers. They have been living in the forests since the Late Pleistocene around 12000 to 16500 years ago. It’s their land, their territory, and the humans are invading them. Among 102 islands of Sundarbans, only 54 islands are inhabited by humans. 

“The tigers sometimes enter the villages, but he never attacks the humans. He takes away some cattle such as goats, and cows, and swims back to the jungle. Unless the humans are terrified and chase him, he never attacks. Similarly, when the humans enter the jungle, in their arena, he targets them as moving animals and attacks them. It’s their habitat, their area, and if the villagers intrude on it, their predator instinct kicks in. But, in Sundarbans, the villagers live on fishing and farming, and honey collection. Most of the families live in poverty, and they have nowhere to go. We are making efforts to keep them safe. In 2019, nylon nets were installed by the government, but they were destroyed after a cyclone. Now, the people have accepted their fate of living with the tigers.”
-Sumon Majhi (a Forest Guard in Sundarbans)

The forest guards and villagers of Sundarbans worship tigers. They are feared, revered, and worshipped for their existence and contribution to the ecosystem. Without them, the tropical coastal swamp wouldn’t stretch 140,000 hectares like it does today. Today, hunting and poaching of tigers have made Sundarbans lose 95% of their population. Bangladesh, India, and Nepal are making efforts for Tiger conservation and the numbers are now increasing since the last records. 

“Sundarbans will not be Sundarbans without the world-famous Royal Bengal Tigers. Even though we fear them, the creature will always be loved and worshipped by us,”
says Ruksana Khatoon (a tiger widow, Mother of Raeez)

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