Travelling along the river beside the villages of the Sundarbans, the beauty of the forest is truly amazing. Sunlight glistening over the water, the sound of the waves, the sights and sounds of various birds and the endless green forest brings a sense of serenity. But as the boatmen mention, the area was much more serene, the forest was far more endless. Illegal tree felling and increased venturing into the forest by the villagers for gathering resources has severely impacted and diminished the forest, resulting in more frequent stray tiger attacks on the villages. The objective of our team was to find out firsthand about this destructive phenomenon and why those that depended on the forest the most were participating in its demise and inviting an apex predator to their doorstep. Speaking to villagers, we were able to find out that the land that was used to cultivate crops has become barren. Climate change is a reality in the Sundarbans, with rising sea levels, constant erosion and increasingly salinity in the waters making life in and around the mangrove forests harder for humans and animals. The only way that communities can survive is by going deeper into the forests to collect resources like honey, fish, shrimps and crabs, and wood for their boats and homes," says one villager. They are more vulnerable than they used to be. People now rely far more on the forest for subsistence”. Cyclone Sidr (2007) and Cyclone Aila (2009) decimated the periphery villages of the Sundarbans. They bear a war torn look, trees with no tops, scattered houses and the story of the devastation etched into the land. In some villages, drinking water is not available and has to be collected 10 kilometres away from another village. The net result is less space and prey for the tiger. Working in the mangroves is no doubt dangerous as these workers know that death is lurking nearby, and can strike anytime. Unfortunately, their dire financial constraints leave them with very little choice, and hence they put their lives on the line for their livelihood. This forces them to the tiger’s natural habitat, and it is no secret that when we enter the forest, we are in the tiger’s world. Now here lies the conundrum. The tiger cannot be completely looked upon as the main source of blame. They are after all wild animals. Their natural instinct is to survive. Lack of proper food supply due to poaching and hunting has affected the tiger. In recent times, the tigers often venture out into the villages and hunt for livestock, which is the source of income for most of these villagers. Just like the tiger, man’s instinct is also to survive. Hence when a tiger attacks them or their livestock, the only foreseeable solution is to kill the tiger and they do not hesitate to do so. When such incidents occur, the villagers cannot be blamed as their lives are the most precious to them, and if empathized with, to these villagers, one dead tiger is better than them ending up in the grave. The best term to describe such a situation would be “between a rock and a hard place”. If a villager dies, the lives of their loved ones are over. And at the same time, killing of these tigers will certainly bring about other forms of imminent disasters. To maintain balance and to protect both humans and the tigers, the Sundarbans Tiger Project (STP) took an initiative to form a Village Tiger Response Team (VTRT), a team of trained individuals from within the community that protects the villages from stray tiger attacks. By using scientifically proven methods, the VTRT has been able so far to successfully defend the village against numerous tiger attacks without harming or killing the tiger. The VTRT members join the group voluntarily and receive no remuneration except the respect and gratitude of the village. Currently there are 39 VTRT’s in 39 periphery villages of the Sundarbans. The hostility and conflict caused by the clash of the titans - the world's two top predators, has been based on equal amounts of fear and respect. Fishermen and honey collectors say prayers and perform rituals to the forest god Bon Bibi. The tiger is also a cultural and religious icon, venerated, feared and revered by communities across Asia and around the world. A world without tigers is unimaginable, and the effect it would particularly have on the Sundarbans is catatastrophic. Looking to the future, we are very hopeful of the successes brought about by the VTRT and hope to see an end to stray tiger killing. Our aim for the villagers living in the affected areas is that they may help themselves by stopping the devastation, nurturing love for the Sundarbans and valuing its chosen role as a Tiger sanctuary. If you are interested in tiger conservation or have any queries, please leave a comment or visit the ZSL website or www.wildlifetrustbd.org. Mahsoun N R Choudhury Programme Officer - Communication Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh
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