The Human Cost of Wildlife Conservation in India
“I HAVE NO INCOME,” he says.
He displays no emotion. He could have been telling me the time of day.
Ananth Bhyaa is our guide in the Sundarbans. The mangrove trees and the rivers that empty into the sea on the border between India and Bangladesh make this place the largest delta and estuarine forest in the world, and the largest tiger reserve in India — it’s famous as a home of the man-eating Bengal tiger.
I can’t let it pass. “But it’s not dangerous?” And illegal, I think.
“Yes, it’s dangerous, but if I go into the restricted areas of the forest where I can get pure honey, then I can sell it and make some money. If I don’t go into the forest, or if I wait until the forest people allow, my children will not have food.”
I nod. I’d heard that the Forest Department had marked certain areas of the Bengal tiger reserve as restricted. This is to protect the endangered animal…and to protect the villagers from being attacked. Each year, the department allows access so that villagers can collect honey. Armed escorts accompany them, keeping watch while they enter the tiger habitat to smoke bees from their combs.
If you stop to talk to a local on any of the inhabited islands in the delta, they’ll surely tell you about how a tiger has killed or mauled a relative or friend. Ironically, their livelihoods are dependent on tourists like my friend Preeti and I who take the ferry from the mainland each year with hopes of sighting one.
Ananth Bhyaa, although not much of a conversationalist, is a very agile boatman. With ease he walks the narrow outer edge of the dinghy, guiding it between the islets that are formed by the criss-crossing of rivers. Most of the islands we pass are uninhabited due to the impenetrable mangrove trees. There’s a silence around us as hundreds of islets are reborn with the receding tide.
He gracefully dips his hand into the water and pulls out two hermit crabs. He holds them in front of us. Amused at our shrieks, he laughs. His thin frame doesn’t move; only his large mustache betrays his action.
We pass by a meander in the river, where a man is pulling in a fishing net. On seeing us, he quickly retreats within the thick mangroves.
“Is he fishing illegally?” Preeti asks the obvious.
Our guide doesn’t answer. Instead, he calls out in Bengali. The man hesitantly steps out from the shadows of the trees.
“The forest people say do not fish here, do not fish there. But there are no fish where they allow us to fish,” Ananth Bhyaa mutters.
In the last couple of days, I’ve had many conversations about the issues facing the Sundarbans people and their land. One of the most controversial focuses on the prawn farms. On one hand, prawn aquaculture has improved the finances of many villagers. There’s minimum investment (the prawns are grown in small rectangular patches of land, dug out and flooded with water) and high return (thanks to high demand).
But the naturalists argue the prawn farms have destroyed the native aquatic life of the reserve. The prawns are harvested in big nets, which invariably catch the eggs of other fish. Since separating the eggs from the prawns means more time and less money, both are shipped to the mainland together. Aquatic life is decreasing at an alarming rate.
A ban on the prawn farms is out of the question. The forest department has battled this in their own way — by banning fishing in certain areas, hoping to check the decline.
Ananth Bhyaa stands and pierces the long makeshift oar into the water, propelling us forward and into a narrow creek. He walks to the rear of the boat, away from the two of us, and squats at the tapered end.
All around us there is stillness. Even the calls of the birds are distant. Every now and then, ripples form when a leaf dances its way down to the water.
The striking of a match as Ananth Bhyya lights his cigarette breaks the calmness. He continues to squat at the end of the boat. He catches my eye, and smiles. It’s a first.
“Is this your own boat?” Preeti asks.
“So you work for the tour company?”
“No. When their clients ask for a ride around the area they call me.”
He puts the cigarette between his lips.
“Do you bring a lot of people here?”
“People care only about the tiger.” He’s completely disinterested in the one thing that puts Sundarbans on the map.
“Have you seen one?”
He nods. Although I don’t believe it, I do my part and widen my eyes and fake fear and respect. That seems to bring down some barriers. He immediately starts talking.
“I don’t care about the tiger. In name of the tigers, the government has taken our land. They have even killed us when we refused to give up our land.”
“Marichjhapi,” I whisper.
The statement unsettles him. He inhales from his cigarette and tilts his head and exhales. The curls of smoke rise, losing shape the higher they climb. Preeti and I exchange glances. We’d asked the locals about the Marichjhapi massacre yesterday. Nobody seemed to know about it.
“I wonder if it really happened,” Preeti had said to me.
I was defensive. “Yes it did! I read about it.”
“Even the guide didn’t know.”
That was true. The forest guide was puzzled when I quizzed him more about the massacre than the tiger. Frankly, I wasn’t too keen on spotting one. Having heard stories of the tiger’s man-eating nature coupled with its ability to swim a mile meant I didn’t exactly feel safe on the boat.
“It was not too long ago for people to forget,” I’d said.
And yet, no one remembered. It was just over 30 years ago when the Communist party had promised the Bangladeshi refugees land in return for their votes. After the elections, when the victorious Communists failed to keep their promise, the refugees settled themselves on an island by name Marichjhapi. The government then decided the island should be designated a tiger reserve. Following failed negotiations, police boats rounded the island, forcefully removing people and firing on those who stood their ground.
How could nobody remember the government evicting an entire island by raining bullets on its people?
The population of Sundarbans seems to have forgotten. Life goes on. When hurdles pop up in the form of rules and laws, they simply find a way around them.
But I can’t let it be. I’m full of questions. I need to know everything about it, and Ananth Bhyaa seems like the last person alive to remember.
“Were you there?”
“My father was there,” he says. He stands up, picks up the oar, and gets ready to turn us back. The discussion is over.
After a moment, I try to reignite it. “You know, smoking isn’t healthy.”
“I am old, I am dying.”
“How old are you?”
“I never asked my mother when I was born.”