JHARKHALI, India – The fishermen were hauling in the first net of the morning when the tiger pounced.
Kumaresh Mondal managed to run a few steps before the 450-pound beast knocked him down with a leap, tore into his throat, and dragged his limp body into the dense mangrove forest.
“I tried to chase the tiger, but I couldn’t find any path,” said Monoranjan Mondal, another of the four men fishing that day in March. “There were no tracks, no broken branches. … He just took him away.”
The Sundarbans, a tangle of unforgiving islands at the mouth of the Ganges River, are home to perhaps the world’s largest population of wild tigers – as well as millions of the poorest people in India and Bangladesh. Despite decades of attempts to keep the tigers at bay, they still kill about two dozen people every year.
Now, experts fear environmental changes and shrinking land could lead to more tiger-human conflicts, with disastrous results for both.
Villagers who can no longer grow enough crops are venturing into the tigers’ domain in search of fish, crabs and honey to sell. And tigers are creeping ever closer to villagers in search of fresh water and food, according to scientists who track their movement.
“There should be no people living here,” said Pranabes Sanyal, former field director of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. “It’s too dangerous.”
In the Sundarbans, whose 3,700-square-mile mangrove forest is the world’s largest, families scrape by as stubborn rice farmers, overmatched fishermen and barefoot honey collectors. Nearly everyone has a friend or a relative who was attacked by a tiger. There are believed to be close to 250 tigers on the Indian side of the Sundarbans, and another 250 on the Bangladesh side.
The predator’s long shadow looms large over village life. Tigers are fixtures in folk songs and mud-roofed shrines, real-life monsters who steal away those who test them.
Madhusudan Mondal saw a tiger kill his father and two other men while they were looking for honey in the forest six years ago. Still, he enters the woods every spring to collect honey, which can earn him thousands of rupees, compared to the 70 rupees ($1.75) a day he makes working the fields.
“I have to go,” shrugged Mondal, a father of seven. “I have to make a living.”
Honey collectors such as Mondal – a common name in the area – walk barefoot into the knotted woods, armed only with a thick branch and a mask worn on the back of the head in hopes of scaring away tigers that folklore says always attack from behind.
To ward off tigers, villagers beat drums and shine floodlights at night. Electrified dummies shock animals that get too close. And recently, officials built a massive nylon fence around the tiger reserve, an ambitious solution that needs constant upkeep.
Most people feel their best defense is the blessing of Bon Bibi, the forest goddess, who controls the tigers, snakes, sharks and crocodiles that roam her kingdom. Before venturing into the fickle woods, which are reshaped constantly by the tides and shifting sands, they visit her shrine and ask for her protection.
But the bright-eyed goddess’ job is getting harder.
Rising sea levels, erosion and increasingly brackish waters have ruined once-dependable crops, forcing farmers into the forest to forage. Scientists say global warming has contributed to the Bay of Bengal rising more than three millimeters a year, causing more floods. One of the largest islands is predicted to shrink by 15 percent by 2020.
As India booms, its many irrigation and hydropower projects have also reduced the flow of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers which feed the Sundarbans. That means less fresh water in the tidal basin.
The changes have made watermelons, once an attractive crop, impossible to grow. Rice paddies, the backbone of both the village diet and its economy, are producing less. Harvest season comes earlier every year.
The tigers are suffering from the changes, too. Once more commonly spotted in the south, where no humans live, they have been increasingly seen in northern woods, closer to the inhabited islands.
“It’s certainly become more inhospitable than it used to be,” said Anurag Danda, senior program coordinator of WWF India Sundarbans. “Of course people are scared, but that sense of fear has always been there.”
Despite the fear, the villagers also prize the tigers because they know the beasts are all that’s keeping the crowded outside world from encroaching on their homes.
“Without the tiger,” said Bish Tarafdar, a fisherman who was mauled last year, “there would be no jungle.”
He’s almost certainly right. As India industrializes, it is facing serious deforestation problems elsewhere.
But it’s also true that without the tiger, Tarafdar’s uncle would still be alive. A tiger killed the fisherman 30 years ago, and his widow still dresses all in white, the color of mourning.
“The tiger is an enemy,” said Dulali Tarafdar, his widow. “If I could, I would curse the tiger. I would tell him, ‘You have ruined me.’
As hard as life is, the villagers can’t leave the Sundarbans because they have nowhere else to go. Many are descended from families that came here generations ago as landless migrants from Bangladesh or rural east India. This menacing forest was the last frontier, and their last chance.
The Sundarbans may be where the tiger also makes its last stand. There are only 1,500 left in India’s reserves and jungles – down from about 3,600 six years ago and an estimated 100,000 a century ago. The tigers have adapted to the harsh environment by learning to eat fish and crabs, swim against powerful currents, and drink salty water – though the water is becoming too brackish even for them, scientists say.
Monoranjan Mondal hasn’t returned to the forest since that March day when a tiger killed his friend. But money is running out, and the forest is calling.
“I am very scared,” Mondal said. “But I have to go back.”