The Tiger that changed an entire village in India

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A story inspired by the work of WWF-Sundarbans Programme and dedicated to the team and WWF-India

(Names of people and animals have been changed and certain creative liberty has been undertaken to incorporate the collective experiences of different members of the team)


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Sudipto was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of the ringtone on his cellphone.  The bawdy, Bollywood tune of his ringtone felt out of place now in the solemness of this late hour.  Fearing his seven-month old would awake, he stepped outside into his balcony. The oppressive heaviness of the Kolkata monsoon air bore down on him like a ton of bricks.   As he stepped out to take the call he did so with some dread: only bad news travelled in the dead of the night…

It was T-77. She had emerged from the depths of the mangroves of the Sundarbans and had drifted into the destitute communities of the peripheral villages and had killed a man. The villagers, enraged, had gathered in the villagers with clubs, knives and axes.  They were going to hunt T-77 down.

Over the years,  Sudipto had received similar calls from local sources sympathetic to the efforts of WWF–it wasn’t easy to make the case for Tigers: it always sounded as if you were against people.  Sudipto knew that people and Tigers had lived together in these desperate mangroves for centuries.  It was as inhospitable to humans as it was for tigers.

The people who lived here, lived on the margins of society, pushed out by wealthier clans and upper castes and cornered into the salty mangroves. Here, between the ocean and the dense watery forests, people had reclaimed small pockets of land from the mangroves, erected sea walls many meters high to keep the ocean at bay; they had drained the land of sea water, and had also begun cultivating whatever rice they could on the pitiful and salty land.    The Tiger, legend says, wandered into the Sundarbans centuries ago. Just as for the people who lived in their fortified pockets,  the Sundarbans offered slim pickings foodwise to the tiger. Overtime it had adapted to drinking salty sea water, which local villagers say, gave the Tiger a particularly nasty temperament.  Furious storms and frequent floods washed bloated human bodies into the mangroves at a regular rate: the Tiger, with few other sources of food, over time had also grown accustomed to the taste of humans.

Sudipto was concerned.  T-77 had not been previously known to have attacked humans.  Things must have gotten desperate.  Only a few months ago he had waded into the bowels of the Sundarbans, into the restricted zone of the forest, to set up camera traps.  People in the Sundarbans couldn’t tell you what time it was, but what they could tell you is that the tide came in twice a day from 200 km away and washed everything away to the sea twice a day. The tide rose five stories, sometimes 15 meters high, and when it ebbed, it did so with a ferocity that sucked everything in its path with a whooshing sound.  Tides came in suddenly and went as quickly.  Setting a camera trap was tricky.  Sudipto had figured out over the years that 17 minutes was all the time he could spend setting up a camera trap before he would be, either taken by a tiger or carried away by the tide.  When he was out, he could be gone for days.  People back at the office would not know if he would return alive—or so they joked. They could not afford beyond the most rudimentary of GPS equipment, and even if they did, the salt was ruinous to anything electronic.  Sudipto knew what it was like to be truly alone.  He would think of his wife and his baby a lot on those trips.

T-77 was beautiful. It was the first tiger he had seen and he was hooked.  He was just a volunteer back then.  He had met his parent’s ire by turning down an admission to a prestigious engineering school to do this. Now he worked for WWF and his parents still shook their heads. His friends were investment bankers and consultants by now.  Sudipto had chosen to give it all up. He had fallen for T-77.

And now this. T-77 had fled the confines of the forest and in desperation for food had gone into the village in search for it.  She had encountered a drunk villager; the villager hadn’t known better.  He had had no chance.  Sudipto had been working with the villagers for months, setting up solar lights all around the edges of the village, lights that the tiger would avoid.  Sudipto had been so close.  A few more days and the village would be safe.  Or safer.

He arrived after a three-hour bus ride and a three-hour boat trip. The villagers were still there. The sun was climbing and it was already unbearably hot. The villagers were angry.  He knew couldn’t prevent them from killing T-77—after all he had no official role in the village.  But he knew he had to be there with them. They trusted him. He needed to show up. That’s why he had left immediately, at 3am when he heard the news. He hadn’t woken the baby.

He talked to them now. The villagers knew what he knew: both they and the tiger were part of the same struggle for survival. But in the months that he had worked with the villagers, he had given them a sense of empowerment.  They knew they could protect themselves now. The drunkard had just been unlucky , they said. They wanted to complete the work on the solar lights.  They had gathered to discuss how they could hurry, to prevent another attack.  They hadn’t gathered to kill T-77.

All images and text by Pratik Bhatnagar – Director, Network Performance and Evolution, WWF International 


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