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Experts Fear Climate Change Will Lead To More Tiger Attacks In The Sundarbans

May 18, 2016
Originally published on May 18, 2016 1:26 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're about to visit the largest mangrove forest in the world. It spans India's border with Bangladesh, where three major rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal. This is a watery landscape of islands that grow and shrink with the tides. It is also home to hundreds of wild Bengal tigers. The men who protect this habitat put their lives at risk every day. Our colleague Ari Shapiro, who hosts All Things Considered, went to hear their story.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This place is called the Sundarbans. It means beautiful forest. Locals kept telling me the tigers here are so stealthy if I see one it will only be as its jaws clamp down on my neck. They didn't smile when they said this. I went to meet some forest guards who know the danger firsthand. It was a long journey. Just a few minutes ago, I was walking along this trail about 5:30 in the morning, and the sun came up over the horizon in this huge orange ball like a harvest moon, but made out of fire. It's probably going to get up close to 100 today, and it's very humid.

And here's our boat waiting at the water's edge. A handmade fishing boat is just motoring by in the dawn light. And this woman at the front in a gold and red sari is being illuminated. It's like she's glowing. We've turned up the small tributary, and now there's wildlife everywhere. There are all kinds of birds along the bank - a tall stork stalking for crabs and other food. There's a little, spotted deer on the riverbank just nibbling some greenery. This is classic tiger food, all brown with white speckles on its sides. Now all we need is to see the tiger eat it. We saw the prey, how about the predator?

After about three hours on the boat, we are deep, deep in the forest. And we have arrived at a forest encampment where we're going to talk with some forest guards, rangers who have had run-ins with tigers.

Hello, I'm Ari.

DEBNATH MONDAL: Debnath Mondal.

SHAPIRO: Very good to meet you.

The men all wear khaki uniforms, long pants, even in the sweltering heat. They lead us is inside Netidhopani Camp.

Oh, this is like the size of a football field. And there are elevated walkways, little concrete benches, a couple of benches. There's the lookout tower. There's a pond and lots of staff. There's a sign that says direct sighting of tigers at Netidopani Camp. So the most recent one was just yesterday, and it was just around high noon.

We sit in the shade of a towering tree with the forest guard Debnath Mondal. His face is not quite right. A long scar runs from his right ear down his jaw. His mouth is pulled to the left near his cheek. I ask how many years ago he was attacked. And his answer is more specific than I expected.

MONDAL: (Through interpreter) It was the 1 of June 2010 at 8:15 in the morning.

SHAPIRO: Two weeks before, a team had gone out to attach a radio collar to a Bengal tiger. Debnath Mondal was the man who put the tracker on the animal. He believes the tiger remembered that and hunted him down. On the morning of June 1, the team left the camp to visit a nearby watering hole.

MONDAL: (Through interpreter) We were about a dozen men. And we were going to take the data card out of the camera trap there.

SHAPIRO: That morning, the radio collar on the tiger was sending GPS signals to a tracking center far away in northern India. If someone had been watching those signals, they would have seen the blip of the tiger on the screen, slowly creeping through the forest to the watering hole where the men were working. The forest guards stood in a circle, facing out, scanning the trees for movement.

MONDAL: (Through interpreter) I saw the tiger coming in. Everyone shouted tiger. But before I could do anything, it pounced on me. It landed on my thighs and chest and bit my face and head. I had 80 stitches in my scalp.

SHAPIRO: You're taking off your hat and showing the line on your scalp where the tiger bit you.

MONDAL: (Through interpreter) I can no longer see out of my left eye or hear out of my left ear.

SHAPIRO: The forest guards fought the tiger with their bamboo poles until it ran away. And they rushed their bleeding friend to a speedboat. They arrived at the hospital hours later. And three months after the attack, Debnath Mondal was back patrolling these jungles. Do you blame the tiger? Are you angry at it?

MONDAL: (Through interpreter) No. We are here to save the tiger. It gives us life. I have to be careful and teach others to be careful. But I don't have any anger towards the animal.

SHAPIRO: There are some people who, if they had been attacked by a tiger, they would say kill them all (laughter). Burn down the forest (laughter). They're terrible creatures. Why do you take a different approach?

MONDAL: (Through interpreter) I believe that if the forest is destroyed, man will not survive. We have to save the forest, the tiger. The trees are our life.

SHAPIRO: Some experts believe that here in the Sundarbans, climate change will lead to more tiger attacks. Bittu Sahgal is an Indian conservationist and editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine. He says consider that with every high tide, a huge amount of land in the Sundarbans disappears. Rising seas mean the land will shrink even more.

BITTU SAHGAL: So tigers, people - everybody gets squeezed into smaller land areas. When fields and farms and residential areas get completely unusable and people try to move into tiger habitats, there is an inevitable clash going to take place. People will die. Tigers will die.

SHAPIRO: Tonight on All Things Considered, we'll hear about an unusual program to try to prevent that from happening. In the Sundarbans of eastern India, I'm Ari Shapiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.