Right at the mouths of the mighty Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers, on the border between India and Bangladesh, lies a jungle like no other in the world. This is the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest swathing one of the most extensive deltas in the world, a foreboding wilderness where it is difficult to point out the division between land and sea. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, these mangroves cover around 10,000 square kilometres and harbour a unique collection of flora and fauna. The name ‘Sundarbans’ itself is derived from that of the Sundari Tree (Heritiera fomes). The ‘Sundar’ in Sundarbans (or Shundorbon, as they are known to the Bengali speakers of West Bengal and Bangladesh) means ‘beautiful’ (the ‘bans’ or ‘bon’ being the forest).

But there is a less appealing side to the delta. It is home to one of the world’s most notorious man-eaters. The Tigers of the Sundarbans are unique in more ways than one. Many of them display a taste for human flesh. They also happen to be greatly adapted to a habitat that is unlike any big cat’s habitat in Asia. Smaller and lighter in build (reflecting the low prey base available in the mangroves), they are happy to swim long distances through crocodile-infested waters (forming a mosaic incombination with the delta’s many islands) and far more flexible in terms of their diet (consuming crabs, fish, snakes, and monitor lizards with the same enthusiasm that they do mammalian prey – wild boar, deer and monkeys).

The inaccessible nature of the Sundarbans (with its unending thickets of mangrove vegetation, serpentine river channels, and flats of knee-deep, sticky mud) and the elusive nature of its resident big cats has made the job of monitoring tiger numbers very difficult. Add to that the cycle of tides, that transforms the forests every twelve hours. Wildlife conservationists had a tough time using traditional census methods when it came to the Sundarbans – pugmarks, scat or camera traps. Only recently has the last method yielded results. And they have come as a pleasant surprise. In 2015, the conservators reported 63 adult tigers on the Indian side. Today, that number (after the latest census exercise) has risen to 87.

Given below is an excerpt from The Hindu newspaper’s report (‘Counting the tigers that roam a water world’) dated November 5, 2017, with regard to the tiger census in the Sundarbans:

It is only after 2014 that camera traps began to give positive results, and the latest results have been encouraging. With years of experience and trial and error methods forest officials and experts found strategic locations to put camera traps in the Sundarbans, in the higher areas of the forests not inundated during high tide. The camera traps are set about 40 cm to 50 cm above the ground here. The photographs reveal 87 ‘adult individuals’ in the Sundarbans, a significant increase from the earlier camera trap exercises. Earlier, camera traps yielded photographs of about 62-63 adult tigers.

“In 2015 we got photographs of 63 adult tigers. Six of them could not be located this year. Fifty-seven of the remaining tigers were located once again using the camera traps. We also got photographs of new 30 adult tigers taking the number to 87,” Ravi Kant Sinha, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests & Chief Wildlife Warden, West Bengal told The Hindu. Mr. Sinha said with a minimum of 87 adult tigers (cubs were not included) the ecosystem with a potential tiger area of 3,200 sq km can host more than a hundred tigers.

The Sundarban tiger’s main prey is the wild pig, said Biswajit Roychowdhury, Secretary, Nature Environment & Wildlife Society, (NEWS). A number of tiger scats were examined and found to contain pig hair. They also eat swamp deer, rhesus monkey, monitor lizards, even crabs and fish. The region is the only forest in India where no cattle or other easy prey is available to tigers which forces them to swim across water channels. Mr. Sinha said to get an estimate of the prey base, even the fish in the region would have to be taken into account. According to Mr. Roychowdhury, if tigers here regularly feed on fish, it would place the tiger atop both the terrestrial and aquatic food chain.

In July 2009, the remains of two cobras, a king cobra and a monocled cobra were found in the stomach of a 12-year-old dead tigress, an anomalous occurrence as the big cats are not known to eat venomous snakes. There were no external injuries on the body of tigress and lungs, liver and spleen of the animal were found to be infected. But forest officials could not confirm that it was snake venom that resulted in its death.

An estimate provided by the Forest Department claims that tigers between 1985 and 2010 attacked 410 people, leaving only 95 survivors. Post-2010, the number of tigers straying and attacks on human decreased. The latest figure of deaths from attacks by Sundarban tigers in 2014-15 is 10. Even in July 2017, a tiger from the forest jumped on a boat carrying a fisherman and took away 62-year-old Sushil Majhi into the deep forests. In another instance this year, a tiger which had had strayed near human habitation was released in South 24 Parganas Forest on October 26. The problem of straying has come down by laying nylon net along the vulnerable areas of interface of forest and human habitation.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and based on a painting (Buffle surpris par un tigre) by the Belgian artist Charles Verlat (dating back to 1853). It is kept in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, France. It was uploaded by Daniel Martin.

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