WORDS BY agnee ghosh
photographs by noah klein
In the Sundarbans, the tiger is king. In its shadow stands the Sundari tree, an endangered mangrove. The Frontline talks to a group of women whose husbands were killed by tigers and is now conserving these trees to protect the forest where their partners were lost.
Geeta Mridha, a soft-spoken woman, points at the stretch of land beyond the Gosaba River to India’s Sundarbans, the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest. “We gathered the seeds of Sundari trees there,” she said.
“Are there tigers there?” I asked.
“There are tigers everywhere in the Sundarbans,” she laughed.
It’s a windy February day, but at least it’s not summer. Mridha is outside with about 12 other women who have finished their housework of cooking for their family. It’s now time for them to work on the Sundari plants, the most common mangrove tree species in the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh. It’s also a species that makes up an ecosystem that’s endangered and rapidly declining.
This group of women are trying to reverse that. Mridha and I stood on a newly constructed road on Gosaba Island that marks where civilization ends and where the Sundarban jungles begin. On the other side, the women work to clear the grass at the base of the Sundari plants under Mridha’s supervision—labor that is quite tiring in the heat.
These women are tiger widows. Mridha is one of them.
Colloquially known as byagro bidhoba in Bengali, the tiger widows have all lost their husbands in tiger attacks. Many were left without any income after their husbands were killed. These women are now making money protecting the very forests that took away their husbands forever. When a tiger killed Mridha’s husband in 2012, she found herself completely helpless. She was left with two young children and no way to care for them—until she found this job.
“You won’t find a home in the Sundarbans where there isn’t a victim of a tiger attack.”
India holds less than a quarter of the world’s tiger habitat, yet it has 70% of the world’s wild tigers—or almost 3,000 animals, per the latest tiger estimate in 2018. Yet while millions are spent to protect tigers, the Sundari tree perishes in silence, unnoticed and unrecognized.
But tiger conservation comes with its own problems. Tigers often seek food from human settlements, and it is not uncommon for them to kill livestock, as well as humans. Men are often killed when they venture into the forest to catch fish and crabs or gather honey and wood because agriculture and fishing are some of the main occupations in the Sundarbans. From 2015 to 2018, tigers killed an average of 34 people in India.
“You won’t find a home in the Sundarbans where there isn’t a victim of a tiger attack,” said Pushpa Mondal, another tiger widow.
The Sundarbans cuts across Bangladesh and the eastern state of West Bengal, India. The ecosystem is powered by an abundance of mangroves: the Sundari trees. Overharvesting, increase in water salinity, erosion, coastal expansion, and disease are all threatening the Sundari tree’s future. Top-dying disease has been especially devastating, killing 15% of the trees since the 1980s. The disease starts to kill the trees from the top (hence the name) before engorging the tree’s stems as it makes its way down, rotting the plant.
Mangroves are natural ecological barriers that protect coastal settlements from storm surges and slow the deterioration of the intertidal zone. West Bengal’s frequent cyclones could have more severely caused loss of human lives and livelihood if not for the Sundarbans. The species’ complex root systems protect the earthen embankment from the shock of rising waves. The Sundari tree is also widely used in traditional folk medicine.
“The fish workers in Sundarbans were afflicted by three things: the high salinity of water due to water pollution; global warming, which hindered the growth of fishes in the area; and frequent tiger attacks,” said Pradip Chatterjee, the president of Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum (DMF), a collective of small-scale fish workers in West Bengal.
(All interviews for this story were conducted in Bengali.)
Locals and non-governmental organizations estimate at least 3,000 women have been widowed as a result of tiger attacks in the Sundarbans since the 1980s. Oftentimes, their husbands were the sole breadwinners in their families, so their deaths lead to the ruin and poverty of their wives and children. But that shouldn’t be the case. The tiger widows are entitled to compensation from the West Bengal government’s forest and fisheries departments, as well as the state’s insurance. However, the money comes with many conditions, Chatterjee said.
For one, there’s the concern that the government may accuse tiger widows that their husbands were in the reserved core area or that they did not have the proper boat license certificate and permit to enter the area. Only people with these certificates can enter the core area of the park, but the government issues some 1,700 certificates a year when thousands of people depend on the forest for their livelihood activities. Wives are also required to submit many documents to different departments to receive their due compensation.
In 2018, Arjun Mondal, who managed the Sundarban Rural Development Society until he was also killed by a tiger, recruited about 10 widows to help launch a new program dedicated to regenerating Sundari trees. The development society also offers employment through the agricultural sector, as well as sewing or candle-making.
In what can only be described as a case of serendipity, the women who lost their husbands to the forest are now determined to conserve it.
The group of tiger widows begins their day at 8 a.m. along the river banks, scouting for seeds of the Sundari left behind by the ebbing tides. The tiger widows are as young as in their late teens and as old as in their 70s. They earn 1,000 to 2,000 Rupees ($13 to $26) every month for the work they do conserving the Sundari trees. “We are very grateful for this work because, without the money, we would have died,” said Lakshmi Mondal, one of the older tiger widows who has been doing conservation work in the Sundarbans for almost 10 years.
Still, the income isn’t always enough. Some women also work in other people’s fields, some stand for long hours prawn fishing, and some risk their lives to venture into the forest to gather honey and wood. Their hearts, however, are with the Sundari. The trees are becoming even more difficult to preserve as their seeds don’t wash ashore like they used to.
“Weather change could be a reason,” said Alepi Mondal, another tiger widow working on the Sundari plants. “Rain doesn’t come on time here, and the water has become more salty with the years, too.”
The top-dying disease is becoming more common in this mangrove species as salinity rises. Seed germination and growth are slowed by the presence of saline water. As a result, the species’ growth is stunted, making it scarce and eventually possibly even extinct.
“One tree equals one life, and if I can earn some money while conserving the forest, then yes, I will do everything in my power to save the Sundari trees.”
Mridha realized that the high salinity may be harming the plants’ health when she saw that the first lot of seedlings the women planted had died. They were on the outer edge of the embankment, facing the streams. “After some trial and error, we have now recognized that the seeds must be planted along the embankments on the opposite end of the tidal streams,” Mridha said. The nursery is now located in the interior of the nearby village where the water isn’t so salty.
“We make sure to water them from rain-fed ponds in villages that have sweet rather than salty water,” explained Srimoti Majumdar, one of the tiger widows. The nursery now has approximately 1,000 saplings in various phases of development.
The seeds are planted in little brown gunny bags filled with dirt and grown in the nursery until they reach a height of 30 to 35 inches. In order to protect growing Sundari seedlings from grazing animals like goats and cows, bamboo strips wrapped in net fencing are used as barricades. These women also patrol the sites to ensure that the seedlings are properly nurtured. It takes about 90 to 100 days for them to mature into saplings, which require special attention because the clayey soil can harden. Every two weeks, the ground at the base of the saplings must be dug up to let water percolate to its roots.
Right now, Sundari plants cover almost 2.5 miles of the road we walked in Gosaba, an island in the Sundarbans. The road construction damaged several of the Sundari plants, so many plants died as a result. Past cyclones, such as Bulbul in 2019 and Amphan in 2020, destroyed seedlings and the sturdy mangrove forest, too. It’s been left to the tiger widows to care for them.
“One tree equals one life, and if I can earn some money while conserving the forest, then yes, I will do everything in my power to save the Sundari trees,” Mridha said.
For these women, this work is both rewarding—and a means to survive. In the harsh conditions of the Sundarbans, livelihood options are limited. In saving the Sundari trees from extinction, they are also saving themselves.
“These plants are still young to protect us,” tiger widow Lakshmi said. “But just like a child grows and learns to help their parents, these Sundari trees have become our strength, and we are hopeful that in the coming years, these trees will protect us from cyclones and other calamity.”