Humans and animals coexist in the Sunderban delta and the super cyclone Yaas which ripped through it recently highlighted the plight of each.
“Did you get mauled by a tiger or clawed by a crocodile? If so, come to us. We will treat you. We will heal you.”
These words, scribbled in Bengali on handwritten signboards, are often spotted in different areas of the Sunderban, the world’s largest delta. Possibly put out by local dispensaries, health clinics or quacks, these ads and announcements, unusual to visitors from outside, are however, glaring indicators of just how closely humans of this region coexist with wild beasts.
It is no surprise then that when sea waves, as high as two to three storey houses inundated hundreds of kilometres of the Sunderban during cyclone Yaas late last month, merging land with sea and forest with river, man and animal came in closer contact with each other.
“In one of the villages, villagers panicked when they spotted two tigers, which appear to have arrived with the flood waters,” said Ambarish Nag Biswas, president of West Bengal Radio Club (HAM Radio), which is assisting state and Union governments in rescue, relief, rehabilitation and disaster management in the region. “Crocodiles and snakes too have posed dangers and we had to deal with many cases of snake bites,” he says.
WBRC-HR has rescued wild animals including deer, not to mention domesticated animals, namely cattle and livestock (buffalos, cows, ducks, goats, hens, etc). “While the focus of disaster rescue is on humans, animals, both wild and domesticated including pets like dogs and cats are part of our rescue efforts,” he says. As for the rescue and rehabilitation of potentially dangerous (and endangered) wild animals like tigers and crocodiles (an alligator farming factory was reportedly inundated causing many of the reptiles to escape), Biswas says that it is the jurisdiction of the forest department and they can only assist its officials .
“When disaster strikes an area like the Sunderban, those of us who are there on the ground, are struck by the stark reality of the coexistence of man and animal,” says Nag Biswas, whose team of amateur radio operators have been reinforcing rescue and rehabilitation teams of the Union and State governments for decades. . “Each becomes a seeker of refuge from a devastating spiral of wind and water. The look of desperation in the eyes is the same. The struggle for survival is the same.”
Author Amitav Ghosh in his book “Jungle Nama: a story of the Sunderban” describes, poetically, the devastatingly beautiful delta as a tangled and twisted knot of rivers and islands.
“Many great rivers rise in the Himalaya,
the Ganga among them and the Brahmaputra.
Flowing down from west and east, they meet in Bengal,
and branch into numberless streams, some vast, some small.
Still they multiply, courses splitting as they flow,
creating a tangled, green archipelago.
Thousands of islands rise from the rivers’ rich silts,
crowned with forests of mangroves, rising on stilts.
This is the Sunderban, where laden waters give birth,
To a vast jungle that joins Ocean and Earth.”
Inherent in Ghosh’s description of the land that joins ocean and earth is an idea and that this also a land that must join in a common cause, man and animal.
Here humans inhabit pretty little mud huts with thatched roofs of straw. These get blown away and washed out with storms and floods. Here beasts inhabit glossy-green forests and shiny-silver rivers. The sea and the storm wreak havoc with their habitation too from time to time.
Yet, this is their land. They have not left. They will never leave.
“Here tigers roam the land and crocodiles lurk in the water,” says a farmer-cum-fisherman. His livelihood, he says, exposes him to the dangers of attacks from both. “But we don’t want to go anywhere else.”
Here hundreds of people died of tiger attacks or crocodile bites over the years. That is, ever since human settlement first encroached into what was once entirely “the wild”.
Once upon a time, the Sunderban jungles stretched for miles from coastal Bay of Bengal all the way into the interiors of the land of Bengal. Known in Bengali as “sundori bon”, mangrove jungles were the haunt of the fierce tigers on whom British colonizers, who ruled India for two hundred years from 1757 to 1947, had conferred the majestic epithet of “Royal Bengal”. Indeed Royal Bengal Tigers are known for their power, strength and even elegant gait.
There are still temples dedicated to the Jungle Goddess “Bon Bibi” (whom villagers pray to for protection from the dangers of the jungle before venturing into the deep, dark forests), which are found in districts and towns in the outskirts of the city of Kolkata indicating that this was a part of the tigers’ path.
When the British colonized Bengal, they cleared hundreds of acres of forested lands of the Sunderban. They justified the merciless deforestation with claims that it was needed for agriculture. Clearly it was more important for them to increase food production for the armies that they had engaged in wars across the globe than to preserve the environment.
Mangrove forests shrunk in size as human settlements cropped up and dotted the erstwhile wilderness. Those who lived there became forest dwellers, farmers or fisherfolk. Other livelihoods included honey-collectors who travelled into the interiors of the jungles in search of beehives which stored nectars of wild flowers.
Dangers of animal attacks are not unknown to the villagers. Entire hamlets in parts of the delta are known as “tiger widow” villages because the men of almost every household there had been killed by tigers when they had gone to the forests for fishing or honey-collection. “But this is our livelihood,” says a villager of Gosaba. “If we don’t do this work, we will starve.”
According to government officials, the deaths by tiger or crocodile attacks occur when people go into the deep jungles illegally. “Tigers rarely stray out of their own territory, which is in the protected forest,” says a forest department official. “However, humans often trespass into the areas of the forest which is forbidden.”
During the cyclone Yaas, however, the net barriers that fenced off sections of the forest, dividing villages from jungles, fell apart. “The partitions got damaged in the wind and water,” said a villager. “This exposed us to the possibility of wild animals straying into villages.” However, seasoned by years of natural calamities, villagers also know how to pick up the pieces. Men, women and children have joined hands to try to rebuild the fences, their homes and really their lives.
“Part of the challenge of relief and rehabilitation is to ensure that the Sunderban returns to the harmonious coexistence of man and animal,” says Nag Biswas.
In recent years, the Sunderban has been repeatedly ravaged by storms, severe storms, cylones and super cyclones. It either fell directly into the path of, was indirectly impacted by or was ground zero of landfalls of almost every super storm that formed in the Bay of Bengal.
Environmentalists and scientists point out that sea storms are not new or unique to recent years. What has changed considerably over the years to render the Sunderban increasingly vulnerable are two environmental hazards: Global warming, of course and the steady shrinking of mangrove forests.
“Mangroves are known to absorb high winds and waves that crash into the land during severe storms and thereby rebuff the impact of super cyclones. Mangroves are nature’s own protective layers against cyclones and storms. Destruction of mangrove forests is one of the chief causes of the destruction and devastation that occurs during cyclones and storms,” says Joydeep Gupta, environmentalist and South Asia director of digital environmental portal, Third Pole.
When the British partitioned India and Bengal was divided into the Indian state of West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh in 1947, one-third of the Sunderban delta fell into the Indian side and two-thirds of the delta fell into the Bangladesh side. In the Indian side itself, there are two distinct parts – the jungle-covered, canal-streaked region where the tigers and crocodiles are found and the sea-facing, delta-islanded side which has been more battered by the cyclones, including Yaas, than the other side.
Islanders of this region, when they hear of approaching storms and cyclones, prepare themselves to face the onslaught. “Around this time of the hot summer, when cyclones form in the Bay of Bengal, we are on tenterhooks,” says a villager of Ghoramara Island. “We wait for weather reports,” he adds.
Cyclones form when extreme heat creates depressions and low pressure zones in the sea and the hot air rises creating a vacuum at the centre of a vortex of swirling water. Water rushes in to fill the void and the entire cyclonic mass with a massive cloud cover travels around the sea in, twirling and twisting on its own axis until it crashes into a shore. Sunderban, positioned at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal, is particularly vulnerable as a landfall zone.
But when the super cyclone, Yaas, ripped through this part of the Sunderban delta, people did not expect the kind of flooding that took place. “We were expecting winds gusting at speeds as high as 150 kilometres per hour just like the earlier cyclones,” says Dibos Mondal of Sagar Deep (literally Sea Island), one of the several islands of the delta area which has been declared endangered by scientists. Attributed to several factors including global warming, these islands are steadily eroding and submerging into the sea, not just threatening to displace hundreds of thousands of the islands’ inhabitants but also to cause permanent imbalance to the region’s ecosystem.
In Sagar Island itself 27 villages were submerged under water during Yaas. These included, other than, Rudra Nagar, the central part of Sagar Island, Baman Khali, Benu Bonn, Bishnupur, Boat Khali, Chuna Guli, Dhaan Bajaar, Harinbari, Kuchuberia, Krishnapur, Muriganga, Pakhirala, Pathar Pratima, Proshadpur, Shibajipur and Sumitro Nagar.
Yaas coincided with a full moon and though the super cyclone made landfall at the distant coast of Balasore in Odisha, where it crashed through the state, before travelling northwest towards the state of Jharkhand, the Sunderban delta was inundated with sea water from the lunar high tides.
Dibos Mondal of Sagar Island says, “We concentrated on tying our houses and belongings down (with cords and ropes) so that things would not be blown away. We did not expect that things would be swept away by the sea. Most people had been evacuated. Those who had returned to check on their houses found themselves trapped in the flash flood. We saw water rushing in from everywhere. River dykes and banks were breached and within just ten minutes many of the houses in the surrounding villages went from standing in dry ground to being submerged in salt water. It was rising so fast many of us had to wade through what was progressively ankle-deep, knee-deep, waste-deep, neck-deep, nose-deep and head-deep water before reaching safety. People got onto boats clutching loved ones. People carried loved ones (children, the elderly, etc) in their arms. Those who found concrete structures climbed up on the roof. Many clung onto trees and branches before being rescued.”
“We hung like monkeys,” jokes a young boy from Sagar Island.
“Well, we have coexisted with animals long enough,” says an older man laughing, “We should learn something.”
Clearly they’ve learnt to make light of darkness.