Mongabay- IndiaJanuary 13, 2020 19:32:18 IST
by Johan Augustin
With the ocean absorbing land in the world's largest mangrove forest, humans and tigers are being pushed into a smaller and smaller space in the Sundarbans of India, with deadly consequences.
Residents of the dozens of islands in the Indian part of the Sundarbans have seen their homes swallowed by the sea and their farmlands poisoned by salt water, forcing many to move. The sea has invaded the hunting grounds of tigers, pushing them to attack humans and livestock alike. At the same time, villagers are venturing deeper into the territory of the tiger, which puts them at an even greater risk of tiger attacks.
The Indian part of the Sundarbans, the vast mangrove forest in the Bay of Bengal, consists of 102 islands, approximately half of them inhabited.
That may not be the case for much longer. Villagers have raised a high barrier of mud and rocks, and further into the sea, the West Bengal state government has erected a white concrete structure to prevent vigorous erosion. But these measures have not prevented the approaching water from forging large areas of land, year after year.
Saktipada Bhuinya looks towards the ocean surrounding the island of Sagar. He told Mongabay that sea level often rises above the barrier at high tide, and water runs over its floors.
"I will give the house another year," he said. After that, Saktipada and his family of six will have to move to a higher part of this mostly flat island, where they will stay under canvas tents with other climatic refugees.
"We have no money to buy new land. We are poor people," Saktipada said.
He is not alone. Tens of thousands have already lost their homes in the Sundarbans. Every year it becomes more difficult for the 160,000 people living in the 43 villages of Sagar Island to resist rising water. Cyclones and storms, which regularly pass through the Bay of Bengal, have become more frequent.
Five years ago, high tide broke through all the barriers on the east side of the island, ruining thousands of houses and leaving farmland unusable through high salinity. Over the centuries, the tides have formed the Sundarbans; The islands fade and reappear, in a natural rhythm. But in the last two decades, the variations have become more extreme, and the rate of erosion here is considered the highest in the world.
The locals have tried to adapt. Those who grow have begun to grow salt-resistant rice strains. For others, overfishing has resulted in more slender catches, and coastal reduction threatens the tradition of sun-drying fish on beaches.
Saktipada has fished all his life, but his son will not continue with the tradition; Like many Sundarbans youth, he moved to Kolkata for work. "They don't want to stay here. There is no future in Sundarbans," says Saktipada.
The situation on the nearby island of Ghoramara is worse. The island had one of the first settlements in the delta, but thousands have been forced to move since more than half of the land area was lost. At a glance, Ghoramara seems to be an immaculate paradise: there is no traffic congestion, as locals ride bicycles on winding roads beside ponds with diving ducks; lush forest around; and goats and cows grazing. However, all this is at risk of disappearing due to climate change.
"Aggressive cyclones have an impact on rice yield, and salinity has increased by 50 percent in our fields," says Shankar Kayal, one of the fewer than 5,000 residents still left. “I have enough land to support my family. But what happens when the sea rises more?
He adds that government assistance for relocation to other islands reaches few residents. "There are too many villagers who need financial support."
Sekh Mogammal is visiting his parents in Ghoramara. Like his older brother before him, he left the island to go to Calcutta, where he works as a tailor. The money the brothers earn goes to keep their parents at home. They need it. A cyclone hit just a few days before Sekh's visit, with winds of 100 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour). A barrier of large rocks joined with thick networks runs along the coast. It is expected to protect the island for another decade or so, but for Sekh's family it is not enough. “Salinity in the soil will soon hinder the cultivation of anything. Everyone will have to move from here, ”he tells Mongabay.
Most frequent tiger attacks
Further east, towards the border with Bangladesh, climate change has exacerbated another deadly threat. In this easternmost part of the Indian Sundarbans, an unknown number of Bengal tigers still roam the mangroves. (A census is being conducted, and it is believed that a few hundred of the big cats live on both sides of the border.)
The former hunting grounds of tigers have vanished with the advance of water, and it has been reported that animals, which are excellent swimmers, cross rivers and canals in greater numbers, attracted to human settlements by cattle. At the same time, villagers are forced to go deeper and deeper into the forest in search of livelihoods while salt water makes their farmland barren. They look for honey and crabs, and in doing so they face an increasing risk of encountering a tiger.
Sunita Mondol lives in the town of Anpur. She is a living story of what tigers' conflicts mean in reality. On the other side of the Gomti River, from his house, is a vast desert that extends as far as the eye can see. The forestry department erected a fence several meters high along the mangroves and covered the riverbanks with nets. These are temporary solutions to prevent tigers swimming through the river and into the village.
Three years ago, Sunita's husband, Paresh, ventured into the forest with two friends to catch crabs. A tiger jumped into the low boat from where the men fished and killed Paresh. Since the incident, the couple's son, Atin, 26, has been the breadwinner; He throws a rickshaw in the village.
The attack not only left Sunita without her husband. She also made her an outcast in a society where being a "tiger widow" carries her own stigma. It is said that a person attacked by a tiger has invoked the wrath of Bonobibi, the guardian spirit of the forest. Widows are sometimes called swami-khego: who eat their own husbands. Sunita used to be popular in the town, where she related to neighbors. Now he has lost his circle of friends, he says. Mongabay.
"When my husband was still alive, people came to have tea. No one is coming anymore," she says. "I am completely empty inside."
It is estimated that there are hundreds of widows of tiger, or yesagh-bidhobas, in the villages of the Sundarbans. Atin wants the family to move to Kolkata. Sunita agrees; Life in the swamps has become too hard.
“Tigers attacks increase. They need more food and have lost all respect for humans, "says Atin.
The relentless sea has also led saltwater crocodiles, poisonous snakes and even sharks closer to human settlements. Atin says his brother-in-law died and his sister was in a coma for several days after being bitten by a cobra.
Living day by day
State life insurance coverage is available for tiger widows, but only applies within regulated fishing areas in buffer zones, and not in the central areas of Sundarbans National Park and the Tiger Reserve. And since fishing is more profitable in the most remote areas of the mangrove forest, most fishermen are not covered. The West Bengal government prohibits fishing in the central areas of the park and the reserve, and allows it in buffer zones, but only with a license, something that most fishermen lack due to cost.
The tourist activities associated with the reserve have further restricted the area in which fishing is allowed. That left the widows of the tiger, already socially excluded from the sea, increasingly dependent on NGOs for financial support, or forced to fish or collect honey in the mangroves, leaving them vulnerable to the same fate as their husbands.
Aparajita Mondol lives in the nearby town of Rajat Jubilee. She became a widow of a tiger a few months ago when her husband, Ravi, and two other fishermen set out for what should be an eight-day fishing trip. Early on the second morning, while Ravi was preparing breakfast, a tiger jumped from a sandbar to the boat. In shock, Ravi and the tiger fell into the river. The other fishermen splashed the water with their oars to scare away the tiger, but by then Ravi had suffered fatal wounds in the throat and the back of the head.
"I found out around 10 o'clock, I went down to the jetty and waited for his body to arrive," Aparajita tells Mongabay.
Aparajita has two daughters, aged 16 and 18, both married and living with their husbands. Aparajita moved with her parents, who support her both financially and mentally. His gaze is empty as he looks at the clay floor of his parents' house.
"She stopped talking," says her mother, Anima Barkandaj. "Traumatized."
Ravi was covered by insurance, so the family is entitled to about $ 1,500. The money will hold them for some time, but not for long.
"I've never fished in the river or in the forest, but now I have to do it," Aparajita tells Mongabay. "I need to earn money."
Anima shakes the head. “Tigers are not afraid of people. People come in boats and jump on them, ”she says.
But the family has no savings or fishing gear, and depends on a small piece of land to grow food.
“We live day by day. It's about making sure the family manages, "says Anima.
"Humans are easy prey"
In an experiment to deter tigers from attacking people, fishermen and honey gatherers have put on facial masks on the back of their heads to fool cats, which often attack their prey from behind. The electric fence has also been used against tigers entering the villages. These measures worked initially, but not anymore, says Niranjan Raptan, a former poacher who now guides tourist groups through the mangroves. He believes that the shortage of fresh water has forced tigers to consume brackish water, whose salt is said to make cats more aggressive.
"What we see are old tigers with worn teeth that become men's eaters," he says. Mongabay. “Humans are easy prey. We don't run or swim fast. "
However, that is only a provisional measure. Satellite images show that the sea level has increased by an average of three centimeters (1.2 inches) a year during the last two decades in the Sundarbans, well above the world average. During that period, four islands have disappeared completely and 6,000 families have become climate refugees.
In the world's largest mangrove forest, tigers and snakes can represent the most immediate danger. But it is the inevitability of a changing climate that threatens the very state of the Sundarbans and their inhabitants, both human and wild.
This article was originally posted at Mongabay.com.
Mongabay-India It is a news service on environmental science and conservation. This article has been republished under the Creative Commons license.
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. (tagsToTranslate) Climate refugees (t) Global warming (t) Sagar Island (t) Saktipada (t) Saktipada Bhuinya (t) sea level rise (t) Sunderbans sunk (t) Sunderbans