This page explores why despite high levels of conflict in the Sundarbans between man and tiger, there is not only a tradition of fearful respect and acceptance of these man-killers but also an increasing scientific understanding of why the tigers are needed.
Tigers kill more people in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh than in any other tiger habitat — why? The Sundarbans is the largest area of tidal mangrove forest in the world. The name Sundarban can literally be translated as ‘beautiful forest’. Located in Bangladesh, the Sundarbans borders the Indian State of West Bengal and is one of the largest reserves for the endangered Bengal tiger. Each year more people are killed by the tigers in the Sundarbans than in any other place where tigers are found — an average 50 people and several tigers are killed each year by this gruesome conflict. Some years as many 170 people are killed by tigers.
Despite this conflict there is a surprising twist to this tale: people see the tigers as guardians of the forest. If the tigers were to disappear, the thought is that the forest would soon disappear too. People used to be too scared to even look at the forest but now they go in often. Fishermen are also acutely aware of the importance of the mangroves. They know how tigers protect the people from storms and cyclones and that they provide vital nurseries for the fish that they depend on.
EARTH A New Wild
The Film Crew Gets Stuck in Tiger Territory
Go behind the scenes see the crew get stuck in the mud where there are tigers lurking.
Why Mangroves Are Important
The Tiger Detectives
3 theories of why the tigers in the Sundarbans kill so many people. None are confirmed, as yet.
- Theory 1: Loss of Territorial Markers
- Tigers spray specific trees with their urine. This scent mark is a message for other tigers. For female tigers it can be an advert to a prospective mate that she is willing to mate, or that she isn’t. It can also be a message to another female and between rival males it can mean this is my home so stay out! Unlike in other parts of India these marking trees of the Sundarbans are regularly submerged by the rising tides. (Watch the timelapse video will show how the tide changes affect the mangroves.) One theory is that with tiger’s territorial markers being washed away tigers have to completely dominate their patch, aggressively attacking any potential threat — including people.
- Theory 2: Lack of Hunting Pressure
- During the British colonial rule of India and Nepal thousands of tigers were killed when rich British and India aristocracy went on hunting trips. As many as 100 tigers were killed on single trips. However unlike some of India’s biggest national parks there was relatively less hunting of tigers at the turn of the century in the Sundarbans. In places like the Russian Far East and India where the tigers were heavily hunted it is possible that those that have survived are the ones that have a natural fear of people. However, in the Sundarbans the tigers have not been conditioned to fear humans. So perhaps man-eating is just their natural state.
- Theory 3: A Taste for Human Flesh
- Bangladesh regularly suffers devastating cyclones and savage storms in the Bay of Bengal. Over the years, many bodies have been washed up in the Sundarbans forests. Tigers are scavengers too, and they may have developed a taste for human flesh after feeding on corpses. They then pass on the behavior of hunting humans to their young. This may seem far fetched but the same phenomenon was documented in Vietnam after the war and also with wolves in Poland after World War II.
The WildTeam Village Tiger Response Team
WildTeam is a conservation organization in Bangladesh. Their aim is to reconnect people with forest to help them take action to save their natural resources by switching to more sustainable practices and by protecting their nature from outside threats. The tiger is the natural guardian of the forest – respected by local people who believe that as long as the tiger remains, the forest will remain.
Thus the tiger provides a focus point for much of WildTeam’s Sundarbans conservation action. WildTeam has developed local Village Tiger Response Teams (VTRT) that will get together and scare a tiger away from a village before it has a chance to kill anyone or people have a chance to kill it. These are local volunteers who will respond to human-tiger conflicts in villages. Watch the clip of a re-enactment of the VTRT scaring a tiger.