Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Human-Tiger Conflict in the Sundarbans

Source: Sundarban National Park
Tigers (Panthera tigris) are the biggest and baddest of the big cats; and the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), the subspecies found in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, experiences the most conflict with humans, specifically in the Sundarbans.

The Location:

The Sundarbans is a huge river delta on the Bay of Bengal, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located on the border of India and Bangladesh. It is home to the world's largest mangrove forest and a treasure trove of species. The entirety of the area is massive (~3850 square miles), and completely surrounded by villages of people that coincide with wildlife on a daily basis. You may be most familiar with the region from recent news of a terrible oil spill that happened in the Bangladesh sector on December 9th. This spill was a tragedy, not only because oil spills are always awful and harmful to the environment, but because the Sundarbans is home to some very endangered species, including its most famous and formidable resident, the Royal Bengal Tiger. Not to mention it's the source of income for many local people, namely honey collectors and fishermen.

map of the Sundarbans

The Tigers: 


The Bengal tigers here aren't like others. They're physically smaller by as much as 50%, have smaller home ranges, are less shiny, and are by all accounts, less afraid of humans and more aggressive than Bengal tigers elsewhere. These are also the only tigers in the world to live in a mangrove forest, and they dominate the landscape with their fantastic swimming ability.

Royal Bengal Tiger
Source: Forum of Social Justice and Development

According to this article, the overall condition of the tigers in the Sundarbans is deteriorating due to their lack of food, so much so that a tiger died in 2009 from eating a cobra, something it would otherwise never eat, for good reason. In light of this, the fact that the Sundarbans may have the highest concentration of tigers in the world is surprising (and also possibly sad). The exact number isn't known, but according to a camera trap study there are at least 103. Other numbers cited are 250, and as many as 500.

The Problem:

Nobody really knows why the Sundarbans' tigers are so aggressive. The most widely adopted theories are: 

1) The saline environment has the tigers in a state of discomfort making them more aggressive. This is cited a lot but appears to have the least scientific evidence backing it up.

2) Their habitat, prey stocks, and fresh water supply are shrinking, forcing them into contact with people.

3) On the Bangladesh side, cyclone Sidr uprooted many tigers, making their behaviour unpredictable.

4) The "man eaters" are old and/or injured tigers that prey on people because their normal prey items are too hard for them to hunt in a weakened state. Though this may not be a solid theory since even healthy tigers are known to attack people in the Sundarbans. 

5) The behaviour is learned. Female man-eaters pass this behaviour onto their cubs when they feed them human flesh.

Regardless of which of these theories is true, when all is said and done, quite a few people end up in the jaws of tigers by the end of every year. Officially, tiger deaths number 30-50 yearly, but this is thought to be an underestimation, in part because many of the people killed aren't reported because they are collecting resources in restricted areas, and their family fears if they file a report their permits will be taken away.

The people most at risk are honey and wood collectors and fishermen, since these jobs require the workers to go deep into the forest, increasing their likelihood of encountering tigers. It is not uncommon for tigers to attack men on fishing boats. Though sometimes, instead of waiting for the people to come to them, the tigers will venture out of the mangroves into surrounding villages. Most often when they do this they snag domestic animals as an easy snack, but occasionally people are their victims. One attack in the past few years even saw a tiger break through the wall of a hut and take an elderly woman. The rest of the family has since moved into a concrete house to avoid further danger.

Honey collectors in the Sundarbans
Source: Mongabay

The other victims of these tiger deaths are the "tiger widows," which are the widows of the men killed by the tigers. There are at least 1000 of them. These women, usually with children, live in poverty once their husband dies, and are outcast from the community, making their situation that much worse. The Tiger Widows organization is working with these women to help them build better lives for themselves.

Self help group members.
Tiger widows who are working with the Tiger Widows
organization. Source: Tiger Widows

You might be wondering why the local people don't just stop going into the forest and start getting their resources elsewhere. The people in this region are incredibly poor, and do these jobs because they have no other choice. The situation is bleak, and the local people know it. They complain to the officials but their voices aren't heard. Earlier this year they took a stand and refused to vote during the elections unless they received government aid to find alternative employment.

On the flip side of this devastating situation, where many families are left broken, poverty stricken, and traumatized, we have an endangered species also fighting to survive. Often the people don't retaliate, they don't have the opportunity since they're in the middle of the forest. But, when tigers come into villages the story is different. Large numbers of villagers have been known to kill tigers by bludgeoning them to death, farmers may also resort to poisoning them or putting explosives in their prey to blow them up, hardly deaths fit for such magnificent creatures, but also somewhat understandable considering the intense fear and loss these people live with daily. Around three tigers a year are killed on the Bangladesh side of the Sundarbans.

The (current) Solutions:


1) Tiger hounds: Watch the video below for an overview of the problems in the Sundarbans, but also, one of the solutions they're trying: training local dogs to band together and bark when they see tigers, as well as chase them off. The results are humorous at first - the dogs are basically street dogs that know no rules, but the end result looks promising. [[UPDATE- all videos and info about tiger hounds are pretty much gone from the internet- Strange. Will have to update this]]

2) Masks: Because tigers are ambush predators they often won't attack prey who sees them. People who work in the woods wear masks on the back of their heads to make it appear that they are facing the tiger even when their backs were turned. Many claim that it works, though there are no numbers backing this up.

Source: The Independent

3) Nylon net fence: Nylon net fences are put up in an attempt to keep tigers in. As of early 2014 it was working well and the number of tigers entering villages dropped greatly in the areas employing the nets. 

4) Capture and release: In the Indian sector, tigers that stray out of the forest are sometimes captured and released deep into the forest. Most tiger releases appear to be into the water, as the image below depicts. I would assume this is to make it harder for the tiger to turn around and attack the people who are releasing it (please email me or comment if you know more about this).

Week in Photos: Tiger Escapes, Embassy Burns, More Pictures
Source: National Geographic

5) Tiger Straying Combat Force: A group of people are trained on how to deal with tigers that stray, to decrease the delay in response time when tigers stray into villages.

6) Praying to Bonbibi: Though not an official mitigation method, the single most common way locals try to ward off tiger attacks is by praying to Bonbibi, the forest diety. She is thought to protect those who work in the forest from the tiger demon Dokkhin Rai.

Source: InfoChange
The one thing missing is a program to help the local people find employment outside the forest. Since most of the problems occur within the forest, these village-oriented programs are great, but the conflict won't truly subside until men no longer need to collect honey and fish in harm's way to make a living.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned. I promise it won't be another 6 months before I post again. 


  1. The most important reason is depletion of normal prey base. 2nd important thing human is safest prey who does not give any resistance or injury ie easy prey. Hunting cheetah or bore is hard word and chances of success is hardly 10% where as human hunting requires no loss of energy and chance of success is 100& Now a days the victims are crab hunters who hardly enters the forest. Tigers even jump on them in their boat; forgetting encroaching their area of habitat-- N C Jana President Sundarban Tiger widows welfare society- 098364 77465

    1. Hi Mr Jana, thank you for taking the time to comment. Yes I've read the sundarban's tigers jump into people's boats, I can't imagine how terrifying that must be and how hard it must be for the families when one of the fishermen is taken by a tiger. Are there fewer people entering the forest now because of fear of tigers?

      I looked up your organization and really respect what you do. I'd like to post a link on my blog for people to donate to the Tiger Widows Welfare Society but can't find one online that works (I found www.tigerwidows.in but the links don't seem to work). Can you send me one? -Crystal (crystal.a.crown@gmail.com)

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