Forty-year-old fisherman Munna Gazi was no stranger to the risk entailed in venturing into the thick tidal forest of Sundarbans, the home to man-eating Royal Bengal tigers.
The awareness, however, did not prevent him from sneaking into a canal in the Bagna forest range along with five others to catch crabs at the crack of dawn on Friday (September 4).
Gazi was forced to take the risk like most of the 4.5 million inhabitants of Sunderban areas do every day for their sustenance even as in the process, many lose their lives.
This dilemma of choosing between lives and livelihoods intensified in the wake of the nationwide lockdown enforced to curb the spread of COVID-19 and devastation caused to the delta’s agrarian economy by Cyclone Amphan.
“The lockdown and the cyclone have immensely impacted the village economy, forcing people to depend more on natural resources available in the forests. This has led to the rise in man-tiger conflict in the delta,” said Prasenjit Mandal, the chairman of non-profit Sundarban Foundation.
So far this year, 18 persons have been killed by tigers in Sundarbans — seven of them killed within the last one month, Gazi being the latest victim.
A tiger leaped on him when he was busy catching crabs along with his other companion and dragged him into the forest, a forest official said.
The five other fishermen gave the tiger a chase and managed to snatch back Gazi from the jaws of the beast, but it was too late. Gazi had died by then.
The death toll in tiger attacks so far this year has already crossed last year’s figure of 13, with four more months to go.
“Incident of tiger attacks has significantly gone up this year, particularly after the lockdown,” admits Animesh Mandal, a member of the South 24 Parganas Zila Parishad from Sundarbans Gosaba.
Prasenjit Mandal of Sundarban Foundation further said the quiet and calm environment created by the lockdown too is contributing to the rise in the man-animal conflict.
“As no tourist is visiting Sunderbans now due to pandemic, only a few motor launches and ferry services are operating on rivers criss-crossing the delta. Due to this serenity, tigers are coming out to the peripheries from their core habitats,” he said.
Many fishermen also venture into forests during their fishing trip to collect woods to cook food on the boat, risking their lives.
To prevent this, the forest department has started distributing small ovens fitted with mini-LPG cylinders to fishermen who hold boat license certificate (BLC). The licence is needed to fish in the Sunderbans waters.
It typically takes over a week to complete a trip. During the course of the journey, the fishermen enter the forests to collect firewood for cooking on the boat.
Tigers are not natural hunters on water and so a boat on the river is not attacked by the big cats. But once the fishermen anchor their boats near the forest, they become vulnerable to attacks, forest officials said.
Sundarbans affairs minister Manturam Pakhira said a massive awareness drive had been launched in the area and the patrolling by forest guards too had been intensified to deter people from venturing into forests.
He was not willing to buy the theory that the tiger attacks witnessed a spurt this year because people were forced to rely more on natural resources available deep inside forests such as crabs, fish, honey, fire woods as the lockdown dried up livelihood opportunities in the villages.
“We are providing free rations and also jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to as many families as possible. Even after that people are venturing into the prohibited forest areas to make extra income,” the minister claimed, adding there was enough fish, crabs and honey outside the protected forest areas.
Villagers and experts, however, said there were not enough rural jobs under 100-days employment scheme as thousands of migrant labourers, who had returned to the village after the pandemic outbreak, were added to the jobseekers list.
“Villagers now have no alternative but to depend on the forest for their livelihood,” Prasenjit added.