Tigers lurk as storms, poverty pushes Indians deep into mangroves By Reuters

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By Devjyot Ghoshal SATJELIA, India (Reuters) – On a warm November afternoon, Parul Haldar balanced precariously on the prow of a small wooden boat, pulling a long net dotted with fish from the swirling brown river. Just behind her rose the dense forest of the Sundarbans, where some 10,000 square kilometers of tidal mangroves stretch along the northeast coast of India and western Bangladesh and open to the Bay of Bengal. Four years ago, her husband disappeared on a fishing trip deep in the forest. Two fishermen accompanying him saw his body being dragged into the brush, one of a growing number of humans killed by tigers while venturing into the wild. The fact that Haldar, a single mother of four, is taking such risks is testament to the growing economic and ecological pressures on more than 14 million people living on the Indian and Bangladeshi sides of the Sundarbans. They have led to less dependence on agriculture, a growing number of migrant workers and, for those like Haldar who cannot leave the delta to work elsewhere, a dependence on forests and rivers for survival. “When I walk into a dense forest, I feel like I have my life in my hands,” said the 39-year-old, sitting outside her ramshackle three-room house on the Indian island of Satjelia after returning from a fishing expedition. . In the small yard, his father and some friends smoked wood to use in building a new ship. Haldar fishes in the river most days. Twice a month, he travels deeper into the woods to catch crabs, paddling for six hours in a rickety boat with his mother and staying in the undergrowth for several days. Almost all of the 2,000 rupees ($ 27) she earns each month to run her household and send her youngest daughter, Papri, to school comes from fishing and crabbing. Her elderly father and other relatives take care of the girl while she is gone. “If I don’t go to the jungle, I won’t have enough food to eat,” Haldar told Reuters. It’s 11-year-old Papri who keeps Haldar in the Sundarbans instead of looking for work elsewhere. If she goes, there is no one to take care of the child, he said. “No matter how difficult it is, I want to educate her.” The fury of the storms Life has become more difficult in the Sundarbans. Many of the islands are below the water level at high tide, which means that houses and farms are often protected by earthen embankments that open frequently. With each break, rivers swallow up more land and flood fields with salty water, withering crops and leaving fields infertile for months. And as climate change raises the sea surface temperature, cyclonic storms arriving from the Bay of Bengal have become more fierce and frequent, particularly in the last decade, the researchers said. An analysis of data from 1891-2010 showed that the Indian Sundarbans experienced a 26% increase in tropical storms, with an increase in frequency over the past decade, according to a 2020 article in the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability by researchers. from Jamia Millia Islamia University. in New Delhi. These more powerful cyclones bring larger storm surges that can pass through or rise over embankments, causing widespread damage, a phenomenon not limited to the Sundarbans. “I think the various environmental attacks that we are seeing in the Sundarbans are also occurring in many coastal wetlands globally,” said William Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University in Australia. “These ecosystems seem to be trapped in a vicious vice: between rising sea levels and intensifying storms on the one hand and rapid change in land use and intensification of human uses on the other.” In May, Cyclone Amphan slammed into the Sundarbans, bringing winds of 133 km (83 miles) per hour, killing dozens of people, crushing thousands of homes and destroying embankments. More damaging weather followed. Walking over broken embankments in a southern corner of Kumirmari Island, Nagin Munda stared at his half-acre rice field that had been flooded by saline water in October. “I have no fish left in my pond, I have no vegetables in my garden and half of my rice harvest is gone,” said the 50-year-old farmer. Across Kumirmari, some 250 acres of farmland were flooded last year, affecting more than 1,500 families, said local government official Debashis Mandal. In recent decades, an estimated 1,000 acres – more than 15% of Kumirmari’s total area – has been eroded, Mandal said, making agricultural land even scarcer. “We can’t stop it,” he said, “the river is devouring our land.” DEATH AT DAWN According to the director of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve, Tapas Das, five people have been killed by tigers in India’s Sundarbans since April. Local media, which closely follows these attacks, have reported as many as 21 deaths last year, up from 13 in both 2018 and 2019. Many attacks go unrecorded as families are reluctant to report them as it is illegal to enter in the woods. “The number of reported cases of human conflict with wildlife and deaths is certainly alarming,” said Anamitra Anurag Danda, visiting senior researcher for the Observer Research Foundation think tank. A new factor behind the increase has been the coronavirus pandemic, which trapped tens of thousands of people like the Mondal family in the Sundarbans when they would normally be making money as workers in other parts of India. In late September, a group of more than 30 men left Kumirmari in the late morning and headed into the forest. Their mission was to collect the body of Haripada Mondal, 31, who had been attacked by a tiger during a fishing expedition. Guided by the fishermen who had accompanied Mondal on his fateful journey, the men first saw a pair of red shorts caught in the mangroves, two members of the group said. Following the drag marks in the soft mud, the group went deeper into the forest, wielding sticks and setting off firecrackers to scare away the tigers, they added. “I found his head first,” Mondal’s older brother Sunil said. The rest of the body lay a few feet away. The youngest of three brothers, Haripada Mondal, like others in his area, dropped out of school early to find work. Most years he would leave the Sundarbans to work as a farm laborer in southern India and on construction sites near the eastern city of Kolkata, his brother-in-law Kamalesh Mondal said. He grew rice on a rented plot behind his small mud house, where he lived with his wife Ashtami and a 9-year-old son. “Life was good,” said Ashtami, 29. “We made it to the end of the month.” Mondal, the family’s sole breadwinner, returned home from a construction job in mid-March, his family said, days before the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The shutdown brought much of the country’s economy to a halt, crippling the informal sector that supports most migrant workers and sending millions back home, including the Sundarbans. For months, Mondal was left at home without a job as savings dwindled until, desperate for money, he decided to go fishing in the rivers surrounding Kumirmari, Ashtami said. “He said he would go fishing nearby and earn Rs 50-100 to help with household expenses,” he said. He left his house before dawn, they rowed into the woods and killed him. “If there was no shutdown or coronavirus, he would have left here to work.”

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