Sonamoni, a 60 year old widow, lives in Satkhira Shyamnagar's Jelepara area, a locality adjacent to Sundarbans. A mother of four, Sonamoni lives alone in a dilapidated hut in Jelepara.
One day, in the early 1990s, her husband Charan Sardar, a fisherman, went into the waterways in Sundarbans with others from Jelepara. On that fateful day, a tiger suddenly attacked the group.
As Sundarbans tigers are not water-shy, the man-eater jumped on Charan in the water, sunk its teeth into his neck and dragged him into the jungle.
Charan's body was never found.
After the news reached home, bereaved Sonamoni broke down at the loss of her beloved husband. Life of a widowed marginal woman has always been tough.
But life turned upside down for Sonamoni when her mother-in-law blamed her for the loss of his son. "She said I was a curse for her family; that I was an ill-omened husband killer," Sonamoni told us sitting in the narrow veranda of her tiny hut.
With many such huts attached to each other in a small area, there is no way for fresh air to get in. Despite being adjacent to the world's largest mangrove forest, her place was extremely hot. We were bathing in sweat as Sonamoni went on.
"My in-laws evicted me from my home. I was forced to go back to my parents' place," Sonamoni said. "Back at my parents' place, the wives of my brothers made the same accusations. They said I was a witch, an ill-omened husband killer. I would bring a curse to their families and kids."
Sonamoni was expelled from her parents' home too.
She again returned to her in-laws. This time, Bharan Sardar, the younger brother of her deceased husband, who also was a fisherman, took pity on her. He married Sonamoni.
By early 2000s, Sonamoni had four kids from two of her husbands. Life returned to its normal rhythm.
However, 2002 was a tragic year for Jelepara as a whole. Sundarbans tigers killed several people from Jelepara that year.
Bharan Sardar was one of them. The tiger jumped on Bharan just like it did on Charan, and dragged him deep into the forest.
The body of Bharan, Sonamoni's second husband, was also never found.
Sonamoni's mother-in-law was dead by now. So, she didn't have to take the blame for 'killing' another of her sons.
She instead had other worries – four extra mouths to feed. Sonamoni did any manual labour work she got and raised all her children.
After two of her daughters were married off, Sonamoni started to live alone because the wives of her sons do not accept her into their families. Sonamoni has become a burden to the sons she raised through blood and sweat.
Sonamoni is one of the more than 350 other tiger widows in Satkhira Shyamnagar, whose life has been shaped by the human-tiger conflicts. Most of these women live in social stigma, abject poverty, and some in absolute dirt.
"Human-tiger conflicts in this region are responsible for the misery of these people," said Ranajit Kumar Mandal, a monitoring officer at LEDARS, a local NGO in Satkhira Shyamnagar that, Ranajit said, worked with more than 500 tiger widows of Satkhira Shyamnagar and Khulna's Koyra region for several years.
What causes human-tiger conflicts?
"Sometimes, in a certain area, a tiger becomes ferocious. Traditionally, people call them man eaters. In these instances, the same tiger keeps killing people for weeks," Munirul H Khan, a professor of Zoology at Jahangirnagar University told The Business Standard.
German biologist Hubert Hendrichs conducted research in the Sundarbans in the 1970s. Hendrichs found Sundarbans tigers drinking saline water is a contributing factor to their man killing tendency. According to Hendrichs, when the Sundarban tigers drink saline water, it may cause damage to their livers and trigger the unusual man eating behaviour.
He categorised four types of tigers in the Sundarbans. Some are shy of human presence, some are circumstantial killers, some are opportunist man killers but mostly depend on natural game, and some tigers are compulsive man killers. He said 70% of the tigers are human shy, but the remaining 30% are responsible for human casualties in Sundarbans.
However, ecologist Khasru Chowdhury claimed in an article that, "It is not the rate of salinity in water but forest quality, especially vegetation quantity, that is responsible for making a game killing tiger into a human-killer." He mentioned various other reasons for tigers turning into man-eaters including, scarcity of substantial natural prey, the tiger being gum-infected, limb-injured, one-eyed, or scabies- infected, etc.
A BBC report in 2011 mentioned that "it is thought that around 80 people are killed every year by the tigers on the Bangladeshi side of the Sundarbans forests."
In recent years, however, the government data shows that human-tiger conflicts have reduced in Bangladesh except, in 2020-21. The year witnessed a slight increase in human-tiger conflicts.
According to Bangladesh Forest Department (BFO) Tathya Konika 2020, the last large scale human casualty from tiger attacks was in 2011-12 (22 dead, 8 wounded), 2012-13 (16 dead, 1 wounded) and 2013-14 (5 dead, 1 injured).
In the following three years, only one wounded victim was recorded. In 2019-20, there were no recorded cases of injury or killing by tigers.
Khulna region BFO Forest Conservator Mihir Kumar Doe told The Business Standard that the casualties reduced because of "the government's efforts through various initiatives like the formation of nearly 50 Village Response Team who preach awareness about tiger conservation and push back tiger if it intrudes into a village."
Munirul H Khan said one of the reasons tiger attacks have decreased in recent years is the decrease in tiger population. "Once hundreds of people were killed in tiger attacks but back then, there were hundreds of tigers too."
According to a tiger census in 2018, about 114 tigers remain in the Bangladeshi side of the Sundarbans.
In the 2020-21 financial year, however, 3 people were killed and 1 injured in tiger attacks, Mihir Kumar Doe told TBS.
What does it say about a sustainable solution to end the human-tiger conflicts?
In his response, LEDER's Ranajit Kumar Mandal didn't sound very hopeful.
"As more people are losing their livelihoods, many are increasingly dependent on the forests for living. The indiscriminate shrimp and crab cultivation in the area has reduced the scope of work for the local people.
Since shrimp and crab cultivation require very few people to look after them, more local people are getting unemployed," Ranajit said. "An agricultural land that would require 15 people to work in before requires two people after they are turned into shrimp and crab enclosures," he added.
More people in the forests could mean more casualties in the future, again.
Government aid doesn't benefit the majority of tiger widows. Why?
The government pledged to assist the family of tiger victims with Tk100,000, if a loved one was killed, and Tk50,000, if a loved one was wounded, starting from the 2010-11. According to DFO, from 2011-12 to 2019-20, 46 people died and 16 were wounded in tiger attacks.
In Jelepara, we talked to half a dozen such widows who lost their husbands to Sundarbans' tigers. No one received any aid from the government as most of their husbands died in 2002.
So, aid is not reaching hundreds who lost their loved ones during the tiger killing spree in the previous years.
Recently the aid amount was increased to Tk300,000 for death and Tk100,000 for the wounded, said DFO's Mihir Kumar Doe. The news is useful for future casualties. But it doesn't help the widows of Jelepara.
The far reaching detrimental effects of tiger-human conflicts
Tiger widow Buli Dashi fights a totally different war. After her husband, Arup Mandal, died in a tiger attack in 2002, she raised three of her kids by sustaining on income from fishing and getting wood from the Sundarbans, like her husband.
But a few years ago, local goons raped and murdered her elder daughter. She was only in class eight. Mother Buli Dashi, despite being helpless herself, has been fighting in the court for justice against the goons who are politically influential.
The conflict with the tiger is ripping apart the lives of wounded men as well.
Shuvash Shana, locally known as Takum, survived a tiger attack around five years ago. A tiger damaged his eyesight and its mighty bite on his shoulder made him partially paralyzed. He cannot work.
Following the attack, Takum's wife left with the kids.
Takum now begs for food here and there. His mother Dino Dashi also lost her husband in the tiger attacks in 2002. Dino Dashi lives at the mercy of her daughters' husbands.
Jelepara residents, fully dependent on Sundarbans resources for livelihood, know they risk encounters with man-eaters in their part of Sundarbans. But when it comes to the question of securing the next meal, the risk becomes acceptable.