Brit-Yank journalist & environment consultant.
Fellow @ Center for Climate & Security, TED fellow, Reporting @NatGeo, @NYT, @bbc etc
When Rafikul Mali became a pirate in the Sundarbans, he knew he was in for a rough and uncomfortable ride. He’d braced himself for repeated run-ins with fist-size spiders and some of the two-dozen species of snakes that slither through the mangrove forests skirting much of Bangladesh’s coast and extending into India. He’d even prepped for a relentless cat-and-mouse game with security forces, who have often tried—and just as often failed—to dislodge pirate gangs from their jungle redoubts.
The menace that neither he nor his fellow pirates had accounted for, though, was the one that quickly came to dominate their imaginations: the Bengal tiger. Some nights, the men lay awake, firing their rifles at rustlings in the undergrowth. On others, when the terror overwhelmed them, they’d retreat to their boats and snatch a few restless hours on deck.
After months of increasingly paralyzing fear, some of the more unhinged among them resolved to go after their nemeses once and for all. “They said, ‘It’s us or the tigers—this area isn’t big enough for both of us,’” recounts Mali, a slight man in his late 30s with a small paunch and a neat side-parting.
The Sundarbans region, which is beyond the limit of effective government control, has long been a refuge for rogues and ne’er-do-wells. Over the years, pirate bands have used its densely carpeted islands as bases from which to pillage shipping and kidnap local people.
Mali had turned fugitive to avoid jail time on illegal gun possession charges, but after two years of raiding ships and kidnapping villagers for ransom, he says he began looking for an out. When in 2016 the government offered amnesty—immunity from prosecution for some crimes in exchange for surrendering—Mali leaped at the opportunity and is now back on his family farm.
Wild tiger populations in the Indian subcontinent have collapsed as their habitat has shriveled. Wide-scale deforestation has robbed them of jungle, and surging human numbers have put even more pressure on their remaining hideouts. At the same time, tigers have been poached to supply bones to China for traditional medicine. Globally, wild tiger numbers dropped from around 100,000 in the early 1900s to fewer than 4,000 today, and the cats roam now in only about seven percent of their historic territory. (Learn more about Bengal tigers, also known as royal Bengal tigers, here.)
Until relatively recently, the Sundarbans stood as something of an exception, an internationally vital ecosystem with tigers at its core. The boggy, near-impassable terrain repelled most outsiders, and authorities in Bangladesh and across the border in the Indian segment of the wetland have taken measures to restrict human access. With the tigers helping ward off illicit loggers, and the jungle, in turn, sheltering much of the coastline from horror cyclones and brutal storm surges, the Sundarbans reached an equilibrium that met most dependents’ needs.
But years of worsening conditions for farming have forced thousands of desperate farmers deeper into the Sundarbans to tap bountiful resources of honey, fish, and building materials. With more potential victims, pirate attacks are more frequent than ever. New gangs have formed, and old ones have swollen in size. Many poor families have even taken to setting aside dedicated ransom pots in case a relative gets kidnapped.
For tigers—actively poached and killed in encounters with villagers—the situation has become disastrous: Their numbers fell from 440 in 2004 to just over 100 a decade later, according to Bangladesh’s most recent tiger census, in 2015.
Their decline could threaten the region’s very future, said Anwarul Islam, general secretary of WildTeam, an international conservation NGO, and a professor of zoology at the University of Dhaka. The tigers, he says, have long preserved the mangroves by keeping most people at bay. “But for the tigers, there wouldn’t be a Sundarbans, and yet we’ve put them in a very grave position.”
If the deep-rooted mangrove forests that form an essential coastal defense for Bangladesh, almost all of which is low-lying, are cleared or significantly reduced, tens of millions of people could face catastrophic flooding events.
For as long as Hafizur Rahman, 62, can remember, the jungle interior was to be avoided. Too often had he seen the bloody fallout from tigers fording the river that separates farmers’ rice fields from the forest in his native Munshiganj sub-district, near the Indian border and about 150 miles southwest of Dhaka. And too often had Rahman, a member of the local community tiger patrol group, witnessed the animal’s savage strength close at hand. He even has back-length scars to prove it, from the time in 2011 when a tiger killed three elderly people in his village and then turned on him and others in the relief party.
“There’s every kind of danger in there,” said Rahman, whose family make their living largely by scouring shallow jungle inlets for crabs. “From the second you enter, the tiger can kill you.”
Indeed, tigers kill tens of people a year across the Sundarbans, and WildTeam alone, Islam said, has recovered at least 75 human bodies since 2008. Desperate to protect themselves, villagers have incorporated tigers into local religious ritual—both Hindu and Islamic—sometimes praying to them at jungle-side shrines and making pacts with the creatures. Many Sundarbans natives believe that not eating meat or shellfish will spare them of feline wrath.
Increasingly salty soil and water has degraded farmland and cut crop yields, pushing people deeper into the man-eaters’ domain. Ten years ago, there were some 300 active fishing and crabbing boats in the Satkhira area, the most westerly stretch of Bangladesh’s Sundarbans, according to the Harinagar Fishermen’s Association. Now there are said to be more than 2,000. The number of honey collectors in the region has surged too.
As farmers’ options shrink and the human population in the Sundarbans keeps growing, and given that a single tiger can need up to 20 square miles to survive, conservationists and elders alike fear that villager-tiger clashes will become more serious.
“There are a lot of people in the jungle now,” said Ruhol Amin, a longtime farmer turned honey collector in Harinagar, where the population has doubled to around 10,000 during the past two decades. “I don’t think the area is big enough for all of us and the tigers.” Now, even in distant fields and late at night, once quiet villages trill with voices.
Were these people all to stick to authorized resource use—crabs, fish, golpata leaves, and honey—the impact of increased human infiltration might be more manageable. But driven by desperation or greed or ignorance, a minority of newcomers aren’t heeding the rules. According to a 2012 study, some 11,000 spotted and barking deer were being killed illegally in the Sundarbans every year, depriving tigers of a crucial food source.
The number of deer poached today may be even greater, forest department officers say, and on the increasingly rare occasions when tigers stray into villages, they’re often emaciated bundles of fur and bone. “These days,” said WildTeam’s Islam, “deer poaching is perhaps even more dangerous to the tiger than the threat of direct tiger poaching. No food means no tigers. It’s that serious.”
For the people struggling to get by in the Sundarbans, kidnapping is no less cause for dread than a hungry cat.
“Just 15 days ago, I was kidnapped,” said Khogan Shana, a fisherman in Munshiganj, when I met him this summer. According to Shana, “the pirates asked, ‘Do you have a government pass?’ ‘Yes, I do,’ I replied. Then they asked, ‘Do you have a pirate pass? No? So, give us money.’ This is our nightmare.”
By pirate pass, the bandits mean a pre-arranged fee in exchange for admittance to the rich fishing grounds under their control. Few villagers can afford to pay up. In this instance, Shana was bound with rope, beaten with sticks, then dumped into a deep hole while his four fishing partners were dispatched to raise ransoms for all five of them. Days later, with the necessary funds released through a cellphone payment system, Shana was freed.
Most pirates appear to content themselves with hostage-taking, which at roughly $200 a person (up to a quarter of many rural Bangladeshis’ annual income) is a lucrative business. For a small subset, though, the possibility of supplementing their income by hunting tigers has been impossible to resist, particularly as the competition for hostages intensifies.
Seven tiger skins were recovered from Koyra, to the east of Munshiganj, in 2016, according to WildTeam, and forest rangers found two more near Mongla last year.
“They’re not organized poachers in Bangladesh because locally there isn’t much demand for tiger products,” said Gary Collins, who until recently was head of USAID’s BAGH project with WildTeam, formed to combat wildlife trafficking and minimize human-tiger clashes. But, Collins added, tiger parts are “worth so much money in China that people will give it a go. With only a hundred tigers left, losing even one or two is huge.” A favored tactic is to poison a deer carcass, wait for a tiger to feed on it and die, then bury the body until all but the precious fur and bones have decomposed.
Officials say they’re on top of the pirate problem. “Our law enforcement agencies have caught and killed many of them,” said Habibul Haque Khan, director of the Khulna area’s environment office. “They’re very weak now.”
That isn’t how it seems to residents of the Khulna and Satkhira areas. Doctors in the outlying villages report seeing more pirate-inflicted injuries, usually torture intended to hasten ransom payments. “I see this much more now. Really brutal injuries sometimes, like burns on the arms and amputated fingers,” said Shivapada Mondol, a village doctor in the Munshiganj area. “These pirates have no mercy.”
In some areas, according to residents of several villages, pirates are so dominant that they’re even entrenching their trade, levying smaller ransom payments in advance. As long as the gangs prey only on those who are unlikely to arouse a government response (not tourists or scientists, for example), local people see little hope of any letup.
“The pirate thinking is to make money wherever—from people, from tigers, it doesn’t matter,” said Rafikul Mali, the former pirate. “And no one’s stopping them.”
Government officials declined to comment on anti-piracy operations, but publicly they herald the 2016 amnesty as a success. In exchange for handing over their arms and boats, pirates who were not suspected of rape or murder were integrated back into civilian life. And yet I spoke to villagers and former pirates who said that after a time, many of the outlaws reverted to crime.
The past few years have provided some cheer for big cat advocates. Authorities in Bangladesh appear to have stepped up policing of tiger-related offenses while introducing incentives for villagers to protect the animals. For example, villagers who capture rather than kill a tiger can be rewarded with $600. In addition, the permit system for accessing the Sundarbans—$2.50 to $12 for seven- to 30-day passes—is being more thoroughly enforced, fishermen say.
Perhaps most important, local communities are increasingly taking it upon themselves to safeguard their feline neighbors. Through a WildTeam initiative, every village along the periphery of the Sundarbans has designated a “tiger ambassador”—someone charged with contacting emergency response units when tigers come close to human habitations. After several successful catch and releases, WildTeam’s Islam said, the program looks to be yielding results.
Yet the challenges continue to mount. As resilient as big cats can be, there’s a limit to what they can take. “They’re tough, but still we’re seeing many fewer tigers,” said Azad Kobir, an officer at the Karamanjal forest department post near Mongla. His base has iron bars on the windows to keep out the few remaining tigers in the area, and the bleatings of deer held in cages serve as a tiger early-warning system.
Changing climate conditions, in addition to pushing people into the Sundarbans and thereby fueling piracy, are reducing the availability of vegetation that sustains tiger food—the deer—as rising seas swill more salt water into the Sundarbans. Meanwhile, dam construction upstream on the Ganges and its tributaries is further starving the Sundarbans of fresh water.
Anti-pirate and anti-poaching forces remain underfunded, with forest rangers often short of fuel to patrol the waterways against what one national newspaper has claimed are tiger poaching operations tied to local politicians. And when China acts on its recently stated intention to lift its ban on the use of tiger bone for traditional medicine and in medical research, poaching could intensify.
The Bengal tiger can be brought back from the brink, as Nepal’s recent successwith tigers has shown—a doubling of the population during the past decade.
“When people think of Bangladesh, they think of tigers. It’s part of our identity,” Islam said. “Cambodia lost all its tigers, and now they realize what they lost.” (Cambodia’s last wild tiger was recorded in 2007, and in 2016 its tigers were declared “functionally extinct.”) “If we lose our tigers too,” he said, “we’ll really see that we’ve lost a part of us.”