Tiger burning brighter in Sundarbans, but villagers are smiling | India News – Times of India

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KOLKATA: From man-eater to a resource option, the tigers in Indian Sundarbans seem to have undergone an image makeover over the past one decade as the big cats now provide alternative livelihood to hundreds of people on the delta in West Bengal.
The forest villages in Sundarbans — a delta formed by the confluence of Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers in the Bay of Bengal — mostly fall under Joynagar Lok Sabha constituency which has over 8 lakh voters.As the Sundarbans is set for elections on Saturday, ecotourism guides and tour operators feel a slew of protourism measures such as opening more routes and entry points post elections will not only lead to a rise in footfall but also prevent incidents such as the killing of a guard inside the forest recently.
A good number of villagers, who used to sneak into the woods on illegal fishing trips, now either steer tourism boats, act as nature guides or cook food on boats during photography tours of the mangroves in the delta.
Four human deaths have been reported so far this year, in addition to over 10 last year, from the swampland due to tiger attacks. The figure was 21 in 2022. In all cases, victims had ventured into the core area where fishing is banned. The stats are official, actual figures may be higher.
A 12km forest stretch under Sundarbans Tiger Reserve where human settlements are located just opposite got a fresh cover of nylon net fencing recently so that straying tigers won’t disrupt the poll process.
In a terrain where humananimal conflict is on the rise, tiger tourism has come as a silver lining.
Satadal Manna (name changed), who used to venture into the woods for crabs a couple of years ago, now cooks delicious food for tourists on boats.
The stories of his family members getting into forest for livelihood never attracted 20-year-old Ananda Mondal (name changed), who got behind the wheels of a boat at just 13 years. He is now a trusted name in the mangroves tourism sector as far as sighting of wildlife is concerned.
Asked if he had ever seen the elusive swamp tiger in the mangroves, he replied: “Can’t keep count.”
A rise in annual tourist footfall — from about 1 lakh until 2012-13 to more than 2 lakhs now — keeps the boatmen and guides busy.
Film crews, both national and international, have set their sights on Sundarbans.
Soumyajit Nandy, a photographer, naturalist, and tour operator, said: “Sundarbans, on the Indian side (other on Bangladesh side), was never known for tiger sightings. Not even one was sighted in a month. Now multiple sightings take place in a month.”
Nandy said opening more routes and multiple entry points would help villagers of more islands reap the benefits of tourism. The department can thus disperse the tourism pressure, which is concentrated now on a single zone in the reserve — the Sajnekhali eco-tourism zone, he said.
“The activity is limited now to villages near the Sajnekhali tourism zone. If multiple entry points are opened in places like Basirhat, Kakdwip or Namkhana, more villagers can be brought under the ambit of tourism which will also result in less depen dency on forest,” he added.
Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve director Nilanjan Mullick said: “The sightings show tiger numbers are stable in the Sundarbans. There are reports of tiger sightings al most every day now.”
He said the situation has gradually changed with the increase in the number of tourists visiting the mangroves in the last few years.
“Initially, the infrastructure wasn’t very good, but it has been developed in the last few years. Besides, management protocols have borne fruit and led to a rise in tiger population,” he said, adding that steps would also be taken in due course keeping an eye on tourist inflow.
“Now, tiger sightings have increased and a pointer towards the fact is sighting of cubs. Steps, including opening of a few more routes that help serious wildlife tourism flourish, are welcome,” said naturalist and tour operator Nityananda Chowkidar.
“With an increase in tourism activities, people have also stopped venturing into the forest to a large extent,” Chowkidar added.
They need not. The returns are attractive. From a three-night, four-day photography tour (with five persons) costing Rs 85,000, an operator can make a profit of at least 15%-20%. If the operator owns a boat and homestay, it can go up to 25% after making payment to naturalists, cooks, boatmen and for forest permits.
Political parties, particularly Trinamool Congress, have highlighted these issues during their poll campaigns. South 24 Parganas Zilla Parishad deputy speaker Animesh Mondal of Trinamool Congress said they have been highlighting the importance of homestays to boost wildlife tourism in the area.
“We had approached the tourism department to open new homestays in the last financial year. We will do it again this year. Also, we are focusing on promoting birding hot spots in the buffer areas and near the villages,” Mondal said.
Another guide said since tourists are considered additional eyes and ears of the forest, the department should take a pro-tourism approach as it can keep incidents such as the killing of the guard inside the forest at bay.



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