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Tiger widows of the Sundarbans: Navigating ecology, beliefs and mental health

Tiger widows of the Sundarbans: Navigating ecology, beliefs and mental health

As the sun beats down on the Indian Sundarbans archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, Gita Mandal recounts her daily ordeal as a fisher.

“There are crocodiles in the river and the tiger lurks on land on the other side,” she says. “Erosion attacks us from the other end.”

The island cluster at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers is home to the world’s largest mangroves forest and lair of the Royal Bengal tiger. It is also increasingly vulnerable to sea-level rise and other impacts of a changing climate, including an uptick in human-animal conflicts.

After 55-year-old Mandal’s husband was dragged away by a tiger a decade ago, she has reluctantly made the most of the fish and crabs the rivers and tidal creeks have to offer.

Putting her faith in Bonobibi, the guardian deity of the Sundarbans forest, Mandal rows up each night to a sediment island deposit known as a char, spreads out her net and waits in the darkness. When morning comes, she steers away to the safety of her home in Satjelia Island with her fresh catch. During her vigil, Mandal says she often encounters tigers.

Her neighbour, 45-year-old Subhadra Sanyal, continues to experience flashbacks of the day five years ago when a tiger took her husband by the neck right in front of her while they were fishing in a tidal creek.

She has since turned her back on the forest for good and picks up work as a domestic helper.

When Sumitra Midha’s husband fell prey to a big cat last May as the couple was crab catching in a restricted area of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, her belief in Bonobibi was shattered. Having abandoned fishing in fear of the tiger, Midha now scrapes by an agricultural labourer but fervently hopes for better work options.

Subject to severe erosion linked to sea-level rise, natural disasters and human-animal conflicts, these “tiger widows” offer an example of the unique relationship between environment, culture and mental health, says U.K.-based researcher Arabinda Chowdhury, who has extensively studied the islanders’ mental health issues through the prism of eco-psychiatry.

Fishing, crab and honey collection are some of the primary occupations in Sundarbans that expose people to conflicts with tigers, crocodiles and sharks. Reductions in fish catch has pushed people to venture into the restricted areas of Sundarbans where the threat is higher / Credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Trauma from animal attacks affects earning capacity

The Sundarbans -- home to 4.5 million people and 86 (photographed) tigers -- are believed to shelter hundreds of such widows, locally called “Bagh-bidhoba.” 

Chowdhury, who conducted mental health clinics several years ago in Satjelia and adjacent Lahiripur villages, a river away from the tiger reserve buffer, underscored how the ecology of the region affects human lives, particularly women, who are used to agriculture and fishery.

His interactions with local community members threw up cases of social stigma faced by the widows of tiger attack victims as well as cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Among the PTSD cases, 72 percent were associated with tiger attacks.

Some of them, like Sumitra and Subhadra, are almost incapacitated because of extreme anxiety and fear. They experience flashbacks of the attacks and exhibit avoidant behaviour. 

“Cases of PTSD associated with crocodile or shark attacks also avoid rivers and are unable to engage in their tiger prawn collection or crab collection activities,” Chowdhury said.

PTSD has a “strong negative impact” on their earnings, he added.

Source: ‘Eco-psychiatry and Environmental Conservation: Study from Sundarban Delta, India’ (2008), Arabinda N. Chowdhury et al. Chart by Kartik Chandramouli.

The loss in earnings is complicated by the fact that government compensation does not cover fatalities that have occurred in the restricted core of the tiger reserve.

Pradip Chatterjee, Secretary of the National Fishworkers’ Forum in Kolkata, told Mongabay-India, that the fishing community enters the tiger reserve area because fish yields are not substantial in the buffer zone.

Even in reserved forest areas outside the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (STR) it is extremely difficult to get a decent yield, he said. Artisanal fishers manage to make their ends meet only because of the high price of fish and crabs.

“All of a sudden you have imposed this tiger reserve and the related restrictions without consulting the people,” Chatterjee explained. “There was enough fish earlier but not much now. The fishers enter the core area as there is no fish outside. Not only their entry is illegal, their deaths are also illegal. They are not reported.”

The Sundarbans are administered by the state of West Bengal in India’s east coast. Of the 104 islands, 54 have human settlements with a generous sprinkling of shrines dedicated to Bonobibi and Manasa, the goddess of snakes.

Official records accessed by Mongabay-India show 52 human deaths attributed to tiger attacks inside the STR from 2010 to 2017.

Source: Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. Chart by Kartik Chandramouli.

In a 2008 study, Chowdhury and co-authors wrote that “during the last 15 years, 111 persons (male 83, female 28) became victims of animal attacks: tiger (82 percent), crocodile (10.8 percent) and shark (7.2 percent) of which 73.9 percent died.”

In 94.5 percent of cases those attacks took place in and around the reserve forest while people were pursuing livelihood activities.

“Fencing around the island has taken care of incidents involving tigers entering human settlements and destroying livestock, but the tiger takes away people when they go deeper inside the forests,” Gita Mandal said.

Sundarbans Tiger Reserve field director Nilanjan Mullick said that management practices are in line to control illegal entry and encroachment by humans and awareness camps have helped in that direction.

“We have joint forest management committees that may include the animal attack widows but more needs to be done in a targeted manner for the widows,” Mullick said.

Chatterjee said his forum is currently conducting a survey among the tiger widows and working to create a network for them.

“They need to be empowered and they need to help themselves,” he said.


The families of people killed by tigers in the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve don’t receive compensation if they entered the area without permits / Credit: Kartik Chandramouli.

The years 1770 to 1773 saw the first efforts to reclaim forestland in the Sundarbans with people clearing dense forest to put up settlements.

A report by the International Collective in Support of Fish workers-Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) notes that forest users, like fishers and honey collectors, have been an integral part of the Sundarbans ecology since pre–colonial times and their rights to fish in the tidal waters of the Sundarbans was officially recognised during the colonial period and thereafter.

Even the first management plan of the STR refers to fishing as a normal “forestry operation,” along with the collection of honey and golpata (Nypa fructicans). It also mentions the freedom of the fishers to fish in tidal waters.

The STR was created in 1973 and constituted as a Reserve Forest in 1978. The current core area was established as a National Park covering 1,330 square kilometers in 1984.

At present, the entire Sundarbans area of India is spread over the districts of North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas in West Bengal and consists of roughly 4,200 square km of reserve forest and 5,400 square km of non-forested area.

In 1989, under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme, the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve (SBR) was declared. This area includes the STR and the reserve forests outside it.

Over the last three decades, the core area has expanded by 28 percent, and redesignation of a part of the buffer area as a wildlife sanctuary shrunk the area available for fishing (both land and water) from 892.38 square km to roughly 523 square km.

Even the reserve forest outside the STR, where fishing is permitted only to boats with licenses, fishing areas are gradually becoming unavailable.

At a public hearing in the Sundarbans in 2016, more than 200 people from the region who depend on the forests raised concerns about unbridled tourism and non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006.

They complained that tourists are allowed to travel to the core areas in motorised boats whereas forest-dependent people are restricted from doing so. Neither the forest department nor the state government is concerned about the increasing tiger attacks in the region or providing compensation for the victims’ families, they said.

It was stressed that the method of demarcating areas as buffer or core areas or extending core areas is done in an unscientific and illegal fashion without following the provisions of the FRA.

Chatterjee acknowledged that there are challenges to implementing the FRA in the Sundarbans. Nevertheless, he said, the state government should have done it.

A Royal Bengal tiger in its habitat in the Sundarbans. The tiger, referred to as "bagh mama," is a crucial part of the region’s folklore / Credit: Soumyajit Nandy/Wikimedia Commons

Young widows show resilience; many migrate for work

Government-facilitated community-based incentives are offered through panchayat (local self-government) and non-governmental organizations have initiated income-generation activities focused on livestock and poultry. But they have not been rolled out on a large scale and do not reach those who illegally entered the forest, which is a big number, Chowdhury points out.

Sumitra Midha was initially roped in to weaving and stitching activities by an NGO. But she opted out as the pay did not match the hours she had invested.

Gita Mandal, who hails from a string of households in Satjelia often referred to as “Bidhoba Para” or the “Widows’ Hamlet,” said many young widows have moved away to pick up work. They go to urban centers such as the state capital Kolkata to take jobs as domestic helpers. That's because there are no other jobs for them in the islands and they no longer want to depend on the forests.

Mandal, who knows only a forest-based subsistence and doesn't work to take up domestic work, chose to stay and bring up her three young children. 

That's consistent with Chowdhury's study, which showed that most of the young widows showed good resilience after a prolong bereavement and carried forward raising their children. Some migrated to local urban areas for work in construction or as helpers in hotels.

On the other hand, "those widows who are aged and disabled showed rapid deterioration of health and continued living on mercy of others,” he said. “There were some reports of suicides also.”

A tiger attack is regarded as a sign that the Bonobibi goddess is displeased, even enraged, with the victim and denied protection from animals.

To Shyamal Karmakar, an authorised honey collector and tiger attack survivor, this seems a likely explanation for what he had to endure. He survived a tiger attack during a honey-collection trip because his companions beat the animal away with sticks.

“A claw pierced my leg. I fainted after the attack and had to spend a week in the hospital,” Karmakar said. “Now I work odd jobs under the 100-days work scheme. I am yet to receive a full compensation despite having a honey collector pass.”

This psychic interconnectedness many people claim with the forest has developed over centuries of human habitation in the region and, in time, has evolved into a forest religion where Bonobibi, the protector, stands as the personification of the forest.

One of the many Bonobibi shrines in Sundarbans. She is considered to be the guardian deity and people worship her before entering the forests. Tiger attacks manifest as signs of her being displeased / Credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Linking tiger conservation with socio-cultural factors

While this belief system remains intact among many tiger-attack survivors and families of victims, Mongabay-India also spoke to those who have shifted away from the ‘protector’ paradigm.

“We were forced to go crab hunting when paddy crops failed after cyclone Aila,” Sumitra said. “My husband used to worship [Bonobibi]. So did I. I don’t do so anymore. I feel hurt because all these years I prayed to her but she never looked after me so what good will it do to pray now?”

Sumitra said she will never let her children venture into the forest.

“We who grew up in the islands know only this [forest and agriculture], and we have never gone outside. We prefer the forest to migrating out. It’s only now because of the tiger and crocodile attacks that people are [leaving],” she said.

Sumitra, Gita and Subhadra said they were aware of tiger conservation efforts but would not want them to come at the cost of human wellbeing.

Given the cultural connectedness of human-animal interactions and conflicts, socio-cultural factors must be brought under the broad umbrella of conservation, says Chowdhury.

“A lasting eco-cultural advocacy, as a part of community mental health activities with active community participation would help not only to address the gender-environment issues to mitigate the cultural stigma against tiger-widows, but also enhance the social acceptability of eco-conservation of the Sundarbans’s biodiversity,” Chowdhury concluded.

Lead image: Subhadra Sanyal (L) and Gita Mandal (R) from Satjelia island in the Sundarbans lost their husbands to tiger attacks. While Gita continues to depend on the forest for her livelihood through fishing, fear has stopped Subhadra from entering the forest / Credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Sahana Ghosh was in the Indian Sundarbans with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network's Bay of Bengal Story Grants. Sanjoy Mandal and his team at Sundarban Safari provided valuable assistance during groundwork and navigating across the difficult landscape.

A version of this story appeared online at Mongabay India on Dec. 28, 2018.