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Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2006

NATURAL SELECTIONS

SURVIVAL IN THE SUNDERBANS

Violent death stalks villagers' daily life


Last month in northeastern India I visited a village where natural selection operates in the harshest of ways.

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Morning mist over the Sunderbans in India's state of West Bengal lends a deceptively tranquil air to the vast and dangerous area of mangrove forest.
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I was on the island of Gosaba, in the Sunderbans, the vast mangrove delta formed as the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers fan out into the Bay of Bengal. The villagers there, just a day's travel from the metropolis of Kolkata in West Bengal, live an agricultural life that would appear prehistoric were it not for the odd solar panel outside the mud-walled huts. A doctor visits once a month; the nearest hospital is a day's journey away by boat.

But that is not the reason why the people are so exposed to natural selection. That's down to the hungry tigers and crocodiles that also live there.

There are 102 islands in the delta, which at over 4,000 sq. km of forest is the largest area of estuarine mangrove in the world. Forty-eight of the islands are uninhabited and form the Sunderbans tiger reserve, home of the Royal Bengal tiger. The reserve is protected, and no fishing or wood-gathering is allowed. But here lies the problem.

More than 5 million people eke out an existence on the other 54 islands. They are poor -- and they are poorly educated. They grow food, living behind dikes they build to keep the salt water from flooding their crops. They venture into the forest to gather firewood and honey. And they are sorely tempted to cross the fences into the tiger reserve, where fish stocks are high. The fences are put up by the forest department. They are designed to stop the tigers getting out of the reserve, but also to stop the villagers straying in.

Prohibited area

I spoke to relatives of a woman killed a few weeks before by a tiger, and the story encapsulates the plight of both the people and the tigers.

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Whose goddess Bonobibi is prayed to by Hindus and Muslims alike.

One day the woman, who was 58, returned home to her village of Satyanarayanpur with a bulging sack containing a valuable 7 kg of crabs. She'd crossed the fences into the reserve, and foraged in the prohibited area. She'd found a great area for crabs, she said, and the next day she returned there with six men of the village to show them the area and to forage again.

The villagers split up, as is the way for crab fishing, and the woman announced that she'd be able to get more than 7 kg that day.

The villagers said they saw the pugmarks of a tiger (the tracks it leaves in the mud) and took special care. However, when the men returned at the end of the day, they found the woman's abandoned fishing gear, pugmarks all around it, and blood. They followed the tracks, and after 1.5 km they found the woman's broken bangles; after 2.5 km they found her blood-stained sari. The body they never found. They brought the bangles and the sari back to the village, and cremated them.

"We don't feel enmity with the tigers," one of the villagers told me. "But for our livelihood we have to go there."

If villagers are caught by forestry department officials, their boat is confiscated and they are fined 1,500 rupees. That's only about 4,000 yen, but it's a gigantic amount for a poor fisherman. Despite this, and the danger from tigers, the potential benefits are too great for many villagers to ignore.

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Tigers often kill villagers who enter their domain in search of food or fuel.

Another villager told me that a few weeks before, a woman had gone missing after fishing for shrimp eggs. Eggs are gathered by dragging nets in the shallow water at the edge of rivers, and are sold to shrimp farmers, who pay a good price to hatch and raise the shrimps in inland pools.

But life expectancy is low for these people. Thirty to 40 are eaten each year by tigers. Women dress in widow's clothes during the day, until their husbands return home safely. For three days there was no sign of the missing woman. And then half of her body washed up in the tide. A crocodile had taken her, and bitten her in two.

Apart from the dangerous animals (there are cobras in the jungle as well), there are dozens of rare bird species, spotted deer, Rhesus monkeys, Ridley sea turtles, sharks and different mangrove tree species. There are also rare river dolphins, the gangetic dolphin, and the Irrawaddy river dolphin. The latter doesn't have the long snout of the dolphins familiar to us, but a round, bulbous head and a little stub of a dorsal fin. I saw one break the water as we cruised along the river in our boat: It looked like a minature whale, and I'm sure its large eye caught mine.

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The author poses on a bank outside the village on the Sunderbans' island of Gosaba, one of 102 islands in the delta formed at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, of which 54 are inhabited by some 5 million people.

Top predators' hunger

Ecologists and conservationists hope that humans and tigers, and the other species that make the Sunderbans the uniquely important ecosystem that it is, can all live together. But can they, given the hunger of both top predators -- one for flesh, the other for a source of income?

In recent years, the cohabitation has not been going well. A century ago, there were about 40,000 tigers in India, and now there are fewer than 4,000. The Indian part of the Sunderbans holds around 400 of them, but until the results of a new census are in, we won't know more accurately.

The forest goddess, Bonobibi, sets a good example. Both Muslims and Hindus pray to Bonobibi, and flowers are left as offerings. There are 100 million Muslims in India, and for the most part (Kashmir excepted) relations are good between them and Hindus. Nevertheless, it is inspiring that people of both religions worship the same goddess. Whether she will protect them -- against floods, storms, disease, hunger and poverty, as well as from tigers -- is debatable. But with only around 400 animals left, it seems that it is the tiger that most needs help.

A book of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese, "Nou to sekkusu no seibutsugaku (Evolution, Sex and the Brain)," is published by Shinchosha. Rowan Hooper is a biologist at Trinity College, Dublin. He welcomes readers' comments and questions at rowan.hooper@tcd.ie
He traveled to the Sunderbans with Help Tourism: www.helptourism.com


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