By Debmalya Roy Chowdhury & Harshad Sambamurthy
The Sundarbans seems to be one of the few places in India and around the world where the number of tigers is increasing despite the increasing incidence of human-tiger conflict, which in most cases leads to human death. The tiger’s impact, however, also stretches deep into the cultural imagination of the people of Sundarbans. The main folk deities of the Sundarbans are Bonbibi and Dakshin Rai. Bonbibi is considered the guardian deity of the forests and is ubiquitously revered irrespective of caste and religion, while Dakhin Rai is the God of the Tiger. Locals value the tiger’s presence, engendering profound respect and gratitude for the animal; as a protector rather than an enemy. That is why it is beyond their imagination to do any harm to the tiger.
There are about 100 tigers in the forests of the Indian Sundarbans, and about 270,000 people live in the 46 forest fringe mouzas. Sixty-four per cent of this population’s livelihood depends on collecting fish, crabs and honey from the jungle. Therefore, there is always a risk of attack by tigers, crocodiles and poisonous snakes. According to a paper by Chandan Surabhi Das, published in the Sustainable Forestry Journal in 2016, between 1999 and 2014, tigers attacked about 437 people in the Sundarbans forest, of which 368 lost their lives. In addition, in many cases, tigers cross rivers or creeks from the forest and enter the forest-adjacent mouzas. But in each case, the Forest Department can rescue the animal safely with the villagers’ help. In the present situation, the Indian Sundarbans is one of the few examples of the coexistence of tigers and humans. But this is not how it was, and the change was not possible over a day. The success of the coexistence of tigers and humans in the Indian Sundarbans is due to the tireless efforts of the West Bengal Forest Department, some Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and Community Based Organisations (CBOs), and a few selfless individuals.
The Forest Department has erected 168 km of nylon-net fences along the edge of the forest to prevent tigers from entering the village adjacent to the Sundarbans forest. If any person in the Sundarbans loses his life in a tiger attack, the mechanism is in place where Forest Department pays INR four lakhs to his family as compensation. But in this case, it should be kept in mind that no compensation is available if the accident happens in restricted forest areas. Other Government policies that ensure equitable benefit-sharing mechanisms, like disbursing 40% of total tourism revenue generated through the Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) on the development of forest fringe mouzas. The general members of these JFMCs work hand in hand with the Forest Department to protect the forest and wildlife. These committees are also responsible for raising public awareness about forests, nature and wildlife among the forest fringe communities. Through these committees, the Forest Department has paved the way for the people to earn a living by improving their existing skill sets with proper trainings and creating employment opportunities through engagement via 100 days of work and paid daily labour. The Forest Department issues Boat License Certificates (BLCs) for those whose livelihood depends on fishing. Similarly, honey collection permits are issued for traditional honey collectors during the honey collection season.
WWF-India - one of the largest and oldest NGOs for forest and wildlife conservation in India. The mission is to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature. Since the inception of Project Tiger in 1973, WWF India, in collaboration with the West Bengal Forest Department, has been working on tiger conservation in the Indian Sundarbans. In addition, WWF India is working towards sustainable livelihood options and climate change adaptation measures for the forest fringe communities of Sundarbans to enhance their ability to cope with the effects of climate change and reduce their dependence on forests through assured income opportunities. The concerted efforts of the West Bengal Forest Department, WWF-India, other NGOs and CBOs and some selfless individuals are encouraging the forest fringe communities to protect the forest and wildlife. Due to the good relations, trust and mutual understanding between the Forest Department and the communities, no strayed tigers have been harmed in the Indian Sundarbans since 2001.
Positioning the Sundarbans as a carbon sink would also help take advantage of funding opportunities and carbon-financing schemes to enhance biodiversity and preserve forests. The shared Sundarbans Region also presents a strong opportunity for strategic cooperation and joint action between Bangladesh and India. Mangrove restoration is an integral part of the adaptation strategy for the Sundarbans. Mangrove restoration offers expanded livelihood opportunities, increased community involvement in conservation, and ecosystem restoration initiatives. After the recent cyclone Amphan in May 2021, the South 24 Parganas District Administration, in collaboration with West Bengal Forest Department, has planted 100 million mangrove saplings/seeds in the entire Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve, covering an area of 4579 hectares during 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. This may be the largest plantation drive programme in the world. Nature-based Solutions (NbS) that stress the consistent engagement and involvement of local stakeholders, Government and non-government organisations and a few selfless individuals who are committed to the conservation of Sundarbans could steer the Sundarbans into a case study for successful tiger conservation with a thriving local populace.