May 5, 2009—In India's Sundarbans region, tiger-human conflicts are on the rise as tiger habitat and prey disappear and as rising seas push humans into tiger territory.
© 2009 National Geographic (AP)
It's a clash of humans versus tigers.
Here, forest guards tranquilize and then rescue a pregnant tigress last year from a date palm tree after she strayed into a village near the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve in eastern India.
The tigress climbed the tree to escape villagers chasing her. Guards nursed her wounds and then took her by boat and released her deep inside the mangrove reserve.
The 2,700-square-mile mangrove forest in the Sundarbans is the world's largest, and the region is one of the few remaining natural tiger habitats in India.
But the predator's long shadow looms large over village life.
Families scrape by as rice farmers, fishermen and honey collectors. And nearly everyone has a story about a friend or a relative attacked by a tiger.
Local government records report that each year about 40 people are attacked by tigers.
There are several tiger widows, thats a local term used to describe women whose husbands have fallen victims to tiger attacks. Five months ago, this womans fisherman husband died from his wounds in a tiger attack.
SOUNDBITE: (Bengali) Jamila Mondal, wife of man killed by a tiger: "I had told him many times that he should not go fishing ...but he said he had no fear. That is what he used to say."
To prevent the recurrence of such incidents, forest officials have constructed cages to trap tigers straying close to villages
SOUNDBITE: (English) Pranabesh Sanyal, National Coastal Zone Management Authority: "Inside the villages, now human habitation has increased a lot and their cattle population has increased, so lot of cattle is available there which is also a food for tiger. And tiger is becoming more and more habituated with this easy prey."
Analysts say both humans and tigers are suffering from effects of global warming.
Once more common in the south, where no humans live, tigers have been increasingly seen in northern woods, closer to inhabited islands.
At the same time, rising sea levels, erosion and increasingly brackish waters have ruined once-dependable crops, forcing farmers to venture into the tigers' domain in search of fish, crabs and honey to sell.
Sundarbans is an established tiger protection zone. And to ward off tigers from creeping into populated villages, officials have built a nylon fence around the tiger reserve.
Patrolling and monitoring of the big cats' movements within the region has been stepped up.
SOUNDBITE: (English) Atanu Raha, Director, Sundarban Biosphere Reserve "We are trying to make the villagers aware - we are trying to increase their awareness that if the tiger enters, it might have entered by mistake. If it has entered by mistake, allow it to go back....don't disturb it , don't surround it. Get protection that you don't get killed, villagers are not injured and keep the river side free so that in the night, in the darkness the tiger can swim back to the forest."
For one man, the advice has come too late.
He still carries the scars of his close encounter with death when he went looking for crabs in the river last year. The tiger tore into his arm and shoulder.
SOUNDBITE: (Bengali) Fatik Haldar, Tiger Victim: "How can I go back to fishing ? My body has lost its strength to go fishing in the river...but who is going to provide food for us if I remain like this? "
The Indian government now wants to recruit retired soldiers to patrol tiger sanctuaries in the hopes of saving the last of the cats.
There are only 1,500 left in India's reserves and jungles - down from about 3,600 six years ago and an estimated 40,000 a century ago.