Prioritizing the Tiger: A History of Human-Tiger Conflict in the Sundarbans

Human-wildlife conflict is widespread in today’s South Asia and the wider world. Forty-seven elephants, seven leopards and two tigers have been killed in the last twenty months in the forests of northern Bengal. The deaths of elephants were caused in most cases by speeding trains. The problem of human-animal conflict is increasingly featuring in the media and in discussions. Interestingly, the human-animal conflict has a rich history and dates back to pre-historic times. This conflict was an inevitable part of the story of the expansion and development of human civilization and the invention of technology. The structure of the conflict has undergone a qualitative change in the post Second World War era. Modern conservationist ideas have done away with (at least theoretically) subsistence and defence hunting or hunting as sport. Indiscriminate slaughter of animals does not take place in modern times. What bothers us now is not so much the direct killing of animals by humans but the continuous expansion of settlements, industry, new technologies and agriculture by the humans. Elephant-train collision, bird-aircraft collision, and deer-automobile collisions symbolize this fundamental human-wildlife clash. Large carnivores require larger habitats and with the shrinkage of the corridor, their paths cross with humans more frequently. It is against this backdrop that the history of the problem of human-tiger conflict in the Sundarbans has to be understood.

The Beautiful Forests
In the Sundarbans the tiger had always been at the centre of people’s economic, social, cultural and religious life. This was the case in the past and still is today. During the Raj, the colonial drive to maximize revenue forced inhabitants of the Sundarbans to come face to face with tigers. In post-colonial India, the introduction of Project Tiger turned the Sundar-bans into a local theatre of a larger campaign. The tiger became central to the debate on conservation and this local space thus turned into a global one under the universal campaign for tiger protection.

In the 1960’s and 70’s environmentalism began to adopt transboundary approaches drawing recognition to problems, such as species loss, that affected more than one country at the same time. European wildlife biologists made a strong case of the fact that only in the forests of India and the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans were there tigers in sufficient numbers for an effort to save this endangered species to have any likelihood of succeeding. The rhetoric of wildlife conservation fuelled a universal campaign that disregarded local priorities and knowledge systems. This campaign led to the launching, in 1973, of Project Tiger in nine reserve forests of India, including the Sundarbans.

The Sundarbans has a unique history, nature and landscape. It is half water and half land. It is a terrain where land making has not yet come to an end. It is a place that had been alternately inhabited and deserted. It is perhaps the only place on earth that is threatened at once by cyclones, tidal waves, lack of fresh water, tigers, crocodiles and poisonous snakes. It is the largest mangrove forest and the only mangrove tiger habitat in the world.

WW Hunter’s representation of the Sundarbans as a fearful place—‘a sort of drowned land, covered with jungle, smitten by malaria, and infested by wild beasts’—brings to a culmination all the earlier descriptions of the area. In his 60-page seminal essay, published in 1875, Hunter portrayed the Sundarbans as an area ‘intersected by a thousand river channels and maritime backwaters, but gradually dotted, as the traveller recedes from the seaboard, with clearings and patches of rice land’. The area, he noted, was a vast alluvial plain, where the process of land-formation was still ongoing. He described the forest as very dense and commented that the swampy nature of the terrain impeded progress through the jungle. Colonial constructions of the Sundarbans were hybrids that were partly British and partly indigenous, and often neither of the two. The Raj was neither wholly British nor entirely native. Like the British, the indigenous people of the Sundarbans perceived the area as harsh and dangerous, a place full of banda (bushes) and kada (mud), and infested with tigers and crocodiles. Thus, indigenous and foreign perceptions were sometimes in tune. The combination often resulted in new ecological or environmental ideas relating to the management and exploitation of this then little known natural world.

Most descriptions of the Sundarbans, including WW Hunter’s classic account, portray the Sundarbans tigers as dangerous man-eaters. As British power in India expanded, information about the deaths caused by tigers began to pour in. By the second half of the nineteenth century it was estimated that tigers killed 1,600 people every year. It was also estimated that on average each tiger killed between 300 and 600 pounds’ worth of cattle in a single year. Travellers’ accounts and memoirs are packed with tales of the deaths of Europeans seized by tigers while travelling, going out for a picnic, or hunting, as many graves in European cemeteries can testify. The most famous such incident was the death of Sir Hector Munro’s son in the Sundarbans in 1792. We shall see how the British and the Badamiyan seemed in some ways to be locked in a conflict for the control of the Sundarbans.

Taming The Beast
The intrusion of the colonial state, the implementation of Project Tiger in the post-colonial era, and the introduction of the biosphere reserve programme inflicted a new sort of misery on the inhabitants of the Sundarbans. Conservation of nature has often involved the relocation of residents; for example, during the early history of the US and in the former colonial world in Africa. The Sundarbans was declared a Protected Forest in the nineteenth century, not to make it a tourist destination like Yellowstone, but as part of a general policy that led to the reserving of a fifth of the land area of British India as government forest between 1878 and 1900, to the purpose of increasing revenue and upgrading a growing stock of various kinds of timber.

The colonial government was quick to grasp that the Sundar-bans, if reclaimed, could be transformed into a revenue yielding area. As early as 1867, the forest administrators had realized the revenue value of the Sundarbans. In the Forest Department’s report for that year, we read: ‘these woodlands should be a permanent source of revenue of several lakhs to the state, and an unfailing supply of wood at a fair price to the public’. Besides placing the forest under protection, the government gradually introduced user fees, licences and tolls under the pretext of preserving the diminishing natural resources. The customary users of the Sundarbans forests saw these as detested intrusions of the state.

The designation of the Sundarbans as a Protected Forest was especially significant. The cultivable lands and villages in and around the Protected Forest were alluvial lands that had formed after 1793 and were outside the jurisdiction of the Permanent Settlement (1793). Recent research suggests that in the nineteenth century the Sundarbans and the more active part of the deltaic region had high economic potential and social mobility. We shall now look at how their efforts to maximize revenue brought the colonial rulers into an indirect conflict with the tigers of the Sundarbans. References to Sundarban tiger are too many to list here. It is known from the Pala inscriptions that there was a place called Byaghratati-mandal in southern Bengal, facing the sea. The literary meaning of the term, as Niharranjan Roy has pointed out, is ‘a forested seashore infested with tigers’; a characterization that is highly evocative of the Sundarbans as we know them. Ralph Fitch, who visited the area in the 1580s, described southeastern Bengal as a dense forest infested by ferocious wild animals such as tigers and buffaloes. The earliest concrete reference to the notoriety of the tigers of the Sundarbans can be found in the writing of Francois Bernier, who visited the area in 1665.

Land reclamation in the Sundarbans in the 19th century proved extremely difficult. One of the major challenges came from the local tigers, branded as ‘man-eaters’ in the official papers. The tiger often attacked the defenceless forest clearers and wrought such fearful havoc that the authorities had to temporarily postponed the work. The coolies (workers) thus had to be accompanied by shikaris (hunters) who would fire their guns at intervals to frighten away the tigers, which abounded in the forest. On many occasions the work would have to be given up entirely and the reclaimed land would eventually revert to jungle.

The tigers seemed reluctant to distinguish between white and coloured bodies. White people appeared to be equally helpless in the face of the beast. In 1782 the Henckelganj market was established. Mr. Henckell’s native agent named the place after Mr. Henckell in the hope that the local tigers would no longer molest people in the area out of respect and fear of the name of the first English Magistrate of Jessore. However, reports of tiger attacks continued to reach the district headquarters with the usual regularity. Stories about man-eaters developed into myths and legends of startling proportions. Superstitions were rife among Indians and Europeans alike, and the man-eating tiger often approached the status of the werewolf of European lore.

The government was convinced that all or most of the tigers of the Sundarbans were ‘man-eaters’ and the destruction of as many tigers as possible appeared to be the only way of reducing casualties. The encounter with the beast on the ground, however, was mostly left to the indigenous shikaris, who were usually looked down upon as incompetent, unskilled and effeminate. The government adopted a policy of rewards to induce the indigenous shikaris to destroy tigers. A government notification dated 16 November 1883 and published in the Calcutta Gazette authorized the rangers and foresters in charge of the eight chief revenue stations in the Sundarbans reserved forest to pay rewards for the killing of tigers. In 1883 the amount of the reward was Rs. 50 for each full-grown tiger and Rs. 10 for each cub. To receive their reward, the shikaris were required to produce the skin and skull of the animal for the forest official. The reward was gradually raised over time, each increase following fresh depredations of tigers in the jungle. In 1906 the reward was raised to Rs. 100 per full-grown tiger and Rs. 20 per cub. In 1909 the amount for a full-grown animal was further raised to Rs. 200. This last raise was prompted by the loss of 500 lives to tigers between 1906 and 1909.

Thus, a large-scale slaughter of this magnificent animal was undertaken in the Sundarbans under official patronage. Between 1881 and 1912 more than 2,400 full grown tigers were killed in the area. (The Annual Reports of the Forest Department, however, from which I derived this figure, do not take tally of those killings that took place outside the forest area or were not reported to the Department.) The authorities left no stone unturned to suppress the tigers. Efforts were made, for example, to destroy them by setting plain traps or traps with spring-loaded bows and poisoned arrows. Such traps could be successful only in the winter, as tidal waters flooded them at other times of the year.

The Current Scenario
The Sundarbans was one of the nine initial tiger reserves. From the early 1970s it was also included in UNESCO’s global chain of biosphere reserves. The Sundarbans thus became a local theatre for a larger universal campaign informed by the science and politics of international capita-lism. The chain of reactions generated in the Sundarbans propagated in multiple directions, often far beyond the aspirations of the original project. Following the recommend-ations of Project Tiger, some inner core zones of the Sundar-bans were reserved for undisturbed reproduction and buffer zones were established around them, where villagers would be allowed limited access for the collection of forest products. As dictated by ecosystem approaches, the core zones were to be carefully bounded and all roads closed, stock grazing and commercial timbering were to be suspended in them, and silted watercourses and the habitats of depleted tiger prey species (mostly deer) were to be restored. The existing forest landscapes were to be reengineered. The implementation of Project Tiger involved the relocation of many villages from the buffer zone. Thus, the price for setting up the tiger reserve was human displacement. Hundreds of people were relocated for each tiger being protected. Only in a few buffer areas were people allowed to remain. The ideal size of the reserves as suggested by international wildlife biologists would have been 3,000 sq km, but India with its ever-increasing population had no other choice but to opt for less than 15,000 sq km on average. In the case of the Sundarbans the size was even smaller.

The task force predicted that as they increased in number the tigers would eventually start roaming outside the coreand buffer zones. The prediction has come true, in the Sundarbans as well as in other reserves. Clashes between Forest Department staff and local villagers are very common in the Sundarbans today, the main issues being poaching, fishing and human deaths caused by tigers.

The conflict between humans and tigers in the Sundarbans is rooted in the socio-economic condition of the local people and the tigers’ man-eating habits. The per capita income in the Sundarbans is estimated at less than half the state average. In their struggle for survival thousands of people enter the forest braving the crocodiles, sharks and tigers in order to gather honey, cut wood and catch fish. This brings them face to face with the tigers. Sometimes the tigers enter villages near the buffer zones and carry off men, women or cattle. This is an area where tigers kill hundreds of people a year, but since they are a protected species, killing a tiger that has been preying on a village will bring in the government authorities to mete out punishment; a terrifying prospect for the deceased’s near and dear. Thus, the new widow and the victim’s children are forbidden to cry and taught to say their father has died of diarrhoea, because if the actual cause of death is found out the family members will be forced to pay for the dead trespasser and will be treated like criminals.

In his remarkable novel Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh gives a vivid interpretation of this conflict between the indigenous people of the Sundarbans and the tigers. In the novel, a tiger is accidentally trapped in a livestock pen while trying to carry away a calf. An angry mob quickly gathers and attacks the incapacitated animal with sharpened staves. A boy thrusts a sharpened bamboo pole through a window and blinds it. Piya, an American cetologist and the central character in the novel, tries her best to save the animal but is helpless in the face of the hostile crowd. Even her associates Horen and Fokir side with the mob and participate in the killing. Such occurrences are very common in the Sundarbans. The incident portrayed in the novel is illustrative of a fundamental and yet delicate issue that continues to feature prominently in global debates on the management of nature. The setting up of the tiger reserve has given rise to a host of new unknowns, including the human-tiger conflict. The later conversation between Kanai and Piya about the killing of the tiger brings out the essence of the several flashpoints in this complex matter.

The issue of the tiger-human conflict in the Sundarbans, depicted in the above story, has its roots in the policy pursued both by the colonial and the post-colonial state in India. The colonial forest policy, fuelled by global capitalism, led to the dislocation and degradation of the local people. The post-colonial project of tiger conservation has further contributed to their misery. The forest policy of the post-colonial state has excluded the indigenous people from the Sundarbans tiger reserve. It has deprived them of the right to use the forest, which it has preserved only for the animals. To quell the local people’s hostility towards the state conservation policy, global agencies have recommended the involvement of residents in the management of local resources. The biosphere reserve and Sundarbans tiger conservation programmes are based on a highly participative approach of local communities. But the on-ground implementation of tiger conservation has neglected the enormous knowledge of the people of Sundarbans about their ecosystem and the local wildlife. The short-sightedness of official conservation policy in independent India is reflected in its neglect for local communities’ immense knowledge of ecosystem and wildlife management. This indigenous knowledge is tapped by the officials when convenient and then discarded. The relevance of traditional knowledge of biological resources needs to be understood in the full context of the local social and cultural milieu, including the surrounding habitats. But unfortunately the local communities have never been asked to become a part of the decision-making process. The universal rhetoric of conservation and its implementation have given rise to new complexities that have alienated the local communities, and this has made the new unknowns even more unmanageable.

The forces of industrialization of the globalised world have been continuously threatening the reserve in recent times. Ever-expanding human settlements have encroached on large areas in the buffer zone. Intense water transport using up an enormous amount of fossil fuel is disturbing water life through continuous navigation and oil slippage. The decrease of fresh water flow has increased the salinity of the water and seriously perturbed the region’s ecosystem. A large number of water bodies on the outskirts of nearby Kolkata, which had previously acted as natural filters, have been drained and replaced by housing estates to meet growing demand. As a result the city’s effluents now flow directly into the Sundarbans biosphere reserve. All this is causing great harm to the mangrove forest and the natural food chains and multiplying the possibilities of human-wildlife conflict in various forms.
Ranjan Chakrabarti is a Professor of History at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India.
Artwork by Kalyani Ganapathy.

This article is from issue


2010 Dec