Kolkata, India – In 2009, after Cyclone Aila devastated the village of Bijoynagar, Arun Mondal went fishing in an attempt to provide for his family.
But deep in the vast Sundarbans mangrove forest, which spans about 20,000km between India and Bangladesh and is a UN world heritage site, he was attacked and killed by a Bengal tiger.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
His wife, 43-year-old Namita Mondal, is one of an estimated 3,000 so-called tiger widows in India, most of whom hail from West Bengal.
The big cats attack people for various reasons, but rarely target humans for prey.
After his death, Namita Mondal became the family’s sole breadwinner and ventured to the same dense forest to catch crab and get firewood to provide for her three young daughters, “It was pretty dangerous but I had no alternative because my three daughters were too small, with the youngest one aged just nine,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The thought of being attacked by the tiger haunted my mind, but the desperation to earn bread for my daughters was greater than my fears.”
She continued for the next seven years, until an NGO, the Sundarban Foundation, came to her rescue.
It gave her 18kg of fish and taught her how to catch fish from a local pond. Since then, she has stopped going to the forest and now uses gas, instead of firewood.
Her neighbour, Subola Mondal, 50, is also a tiger widow who has stopped going into the forest. Instead, she is bee-keeping for a living.
“I used to go to the forest for crab and wood but it has now changed. Beekeeping offers a guaranteed income of around Rs 6,000 to Rs 7,000 (about $100) per month, which is enough to run my family. Before, I used to cut wood from the forest to sell.”
Bijoynagar, in West Bengal, is one of the most dangerous human settlements in the Sundarbans mangrove area that spans across 102 islands, covering more than 4,000 square km in India.
The village is at constant risk of crocodiles and tigers because of its proximity to the forest, which is just a kilometre away.
I am not sure whether the Sundarbans is going to survive after 50 years and the next generation might never know the natural beauty.
On the Sundarban Bali Island, 500 people have been killed in attacks by tigers and crocodiles over the past 15 years.
Government initiatives and NGOs are both credited with supporting self sufficiency.
The West Bengal government claims to have trained more than 100,000 women since 2009 in vocations such as embroidery, tailoring, fishing and beekeeping.
“We have successfully trained … women in the past 10 years. The aim is to reduce their dependency on the forest and also to save the bio-diversity,” said S. Kulandaivel, who co-leads the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve. “We are also creating a market for their products by bringing the buyers to them or building common platforms to sell their produce.”
But according to data he provided, attacks have increased since 2003 because unauthorised fishermen are entering the mangrove forest.
According to Kulandaivel, the forest cover in the Sundarbans has increased significantly over the past decade. In West Bengal as a whole, around 20 percentof the state’s geographical area is forest.
Providing support for women who need to work also benefits the poor in the area, many of whom are at risk of being trafficked.
In 2017, India’s National Crime Records Bureau in its annual report said there were 8,132 cases involving human trafficking in the country, with 3,579 – or 44 percent, recorded in Bengal alone.
The state government had criticised the report as “fabricated and politically motivated”.
While West Bengal’s economy as a whole is fairly strong, girls in impoverished districts such as Murshidabad and Birbhum are vulnerable.
Trishna Gucchait, now 28, believes she was saved from being trafficked. She has been working as a tailor and trainer at a clothes factory run by Joygopalpur Gram Vikash Kendra, an NGO.
“I had heard stories of girls being trafficked from neighbouring islands after Aila struck. Girls even went to other states to earn money as all was lost in the natural disaster,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I managed to get a job here. I have not only become a master in tailoring but have trained over a hundred women in the same profession. Most of them have now started to work from their homes,” she said, adding with pride that the woollen head scarfs her team makes are in high demand in Denmark.
More than four million people live in the Sundarbans area, which is home to – according to a 2014 report by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) – at least 76 tigers.
“The livelihood options are rare in Sundarbans because of the accessibility issue is further compounded by environmental vulnerabilities,” said Chittapriyo Sadhu, Save the Children state manager, adding that the charity is attempting to fight trafficking by offering rural entrepreneurship programmes to people older than 18.
But many say more needs to be done.
“We still hear people killed by tigers and girls getting trafficked,” said Tushar Kanjilal, an 84-year-old academic and activist whose work has centred on the Sundarbans.
“I am not sure whether the Sundarbans is going to survive after 50 years and the next generation might never know the natural beauty. But I am hopeful as youngsters are stepping in to save the world’s most precious natural marvels. The collective efforts both by government and other agencies should be expedited to ensure that people survive there, safely and happily.”