The Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, located at the mouth of the Ganga and Brahmputra Rivers between India and Bangladesh, has the distinction of being the only place in the world where tigers inhabit mangrove forests and the location of the highest concentration of widows in India – that’s not a coincidence.
The Indian government responded last week to a crisis in the region caused by fatal attacks by endangered Bengal tigers on men entering the 625-square-mile reserve to earn a livlihood. Entire villages in West Bengal’s southern region have been left without any men, populated now by “bagh bidhoba” – tiger widows, reported Times of India. The women have been left without the financial support of their husbands, often raising children on as little as $6 a month.
Further, the tiger deaths are seen as signs of the wrath of the forest goddess Bonobibi, and superstitious in-laws blame and shun the widows, calling them “swami-kheko” – husband-eaters. A survey has identified 11 villages of such outcast widows, and a new state program has selected three of those villages for a pilot program to train the women to be self-sufficient.
According to the National Tiger Conservation Authority and Wildlife Institute of India, the nation’s endangered Bengal tiger population is currently around 2,500, with the numbers in the Sunderbans estimated at 70 in 2011, although other estimates that include Bangladesh populations range from 450 to 700. Despite the relatively small number of tigers, over 1,000 men have been killed in the past few years when they ventured inside the dense mangrove forest in the absence of toilets in their homes, and to collect wood and honey or to fish or catch crabs, reported The Hindu. Estimates of the total number of India’s tiger widows in the region is 3,000.
In the 1980s, the practice of wearing a face mask on the back of the head to fool the tigers was introduced. As the predators most often crept up on their prey from behind, it was reasoned that the “face” would deter attacks. According to a 1989 New York Times report, the ruse was successful, with no deaths reported in a three-year period for those wearing the mask and 29 deaths among those without the camouflaging device. Still, deaths continue to occur when man-animal confrontations occur.
A 2001-2006 study of 3,000 households in the region found many of the widows with major depressive disorder and dysthymic disorder due to stigmatization. One woman told the research team she was waiting until her children were grown to kill herself. “The meaning of life has changed completely after his death. The relatives became distant, [the] community looks down on us and excluded us from any social festival.”
The state program will be administered by Sulabh International, a NGO that was already working with Indian widows to provide finaincial assistance and vocational training. In the case of the tiger widows, Sulabh has proposed a campaign encouraging remarriage for younger women, most of whom have been blamed for their husband’s deaths, and who must overcome the belief that a second husband will suffer the same fate. The only option left to them is to beg for a living or migrate to a slum in a city.