Across India, maharajahs who once ruled vast tracts of this country still celebrate tiger hunting of yore. These princes often display stuffed cats and yellowed photographs of successful hunts in their palaces. Villager Joy Kumar Mondal wears his tiger memento: a mark on his neck.
Two months ago, the young man, his father, and two friends were crab fishing when a tiger burst out of the woods, climbed onto their canoe, and attacked Mr. Mondal. His father managed to shove the beast back into the water with a stick before it could sink its fangs into his son's neck, a tiger's classic deathblow.
Mondal received three paw wounds. But he considers himself fortunate: It was a narrow escape from a man-eating tiger in the Sunderbans, the world's largest expanse of mangrove swamps, which span the border of India and Bangladesh at the mouth of the Ganges River.
"I don't feel hatred for the tiger,'' says the still frail young man in a barely audible voice. "The tiger catches prey when it can - boar, deer, monkey, or man.''
Throughout Asia, tigers are gunned down and poisoned by poachers. Tiger skins and bones are smuggled into China, other Asian countries, and even the United States for use in folk medicine. But in the Sunderbans, the endangered Bengal Tiger species has humans on the defensive: It is the only place on earth where tigers consistently prey on people.
Tigers normally attack humans only if provoked, or to defend their food or cubs. In rare instances, if the tigers are injured or too old to chase fast-moving prey, they go after humans. But in the Sunderbans, the beasts stalk fishermen, honey collectors, and woodcutters, just as they hunt other animals.
India is home to most of the world's remaining tigers. About 40,000 great cats prowled its forests at the turn of the century. By 1970, hunting and poaching had reduced the population to about 2,000. Project Tiger, a network of 23 tiger reserves established in the mid-1970s, has helped boost the population to between 3,000 and 4,000, according to estimates by conservationists. They say that, unless more urgent measures are taken to save India's tigers, the animals will vanish from the wild.
But the tigers in the Sunderbans reserve may escape that prediction. The inhospitable territory's dense dark mangroves are impenetrable by vehicle, providing the tigers with vital protection from poachers. Preliminary results from a new tiger census suggest their population here is growing.
"The future of the tiger is very bright here,'' says A.N. Bhattacharya, deputy field director of the reserve in the Sunderbans.
The tigers' presence is felt everywhere, though many people never see the elusive animals. Their paw prints line most muddy riverbanks, attesting to the tigers' daily movement from land to water and back. It is extremely risky to stand on the shore even briefly, let alone enter the dense mangrove bush.
But that's what local villagers have to do for economic survival. They see little alternative to venturing into the tigers' domain. Poor tribespeople, who live in mud huts along the hundreds of tributaries of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers, are the most frequent tiger victims.
Though theories abound, no one is certain why the great cats of the Sunderbans are man-eaters. Some experts say that the salinity of the river water changes them physiologically. Others speculate that sharp tree roots, which jut from the ground everywhere, hurt the soft pads on their paws, turning them into irritable, impatient hunters. The most likely reason is practical: The tigers have learned that it is much easier to pounce on an inattentive man fishing near a riverbank, or chopping wood on the edge of the forest, than to chase wild boar and spotted deer through the thick mangroves. All told, experts agree that man-eating is a behavioral trait passed down to cubs.
"Almost all tigers here are man-eaters,'' says Mr. Bhattacharya, the reserve official. "It's difficult terrain for hunting, so humans make very easy prey.''
Though rarely spotted before attacking, tigers typically single out one member of a group and stalk him for hours before striking from the rear.
Fishermen, who may spend several consecutive weeks on an open boat, are especially vulnerable. Sunderbans tigers are powerful swimmers: Villagers tell of tigers that have sprung onto the deck of a boat and taken a sleeping crewman.
Not long ago, a fisherman named Sardar and his companions were hauling in their nets at sundown when out of nowhere appeared the flame-colored predator. In a flash, the tiger grabbed Sardar by the neck and disappeared into the thick forest.
"If my husband didn't go out on the river, we couldn't survive,'' says Sardar's widow, Laksmi, a frail woman who struggles to feed her three children without him. "I worried about his safety, but I never tried to stop him.''
Conservationists estimate that 500 to 700 tigers roam the Indian and Bangladeshi sides of the Sunderbans.
Officially from 1975 to 1993, about 45 men were slain by tigers each year in the Indian Sunderbans. Casualties have plunged to between three and seven deaths in each of the past four years, mainly thanks to better supervision of villagers' movements by rangers. But it is impossible to know the exact death toll because many cases may go unreported, forest department officials say.
After analyzing human killings by tigers in the 1980s, Kalyan Chakrabarti, who was forest director for nine years at the Sunderbans, concluded that people face the greatest risk of attack in the early mornings, late afternoons, and around 11 p.m.
Authorities pay 20,000 rupees ($520) compensation to next of kin in a tiger death, provided the incident occurred within the area where fishing, honey-gathering, and woodcutting are permitted. Only forest officials can enter a 515-square-mile area reserved for wildlife. Others are allowed in a 560-square-mile area around the off-limits zone, provided they hold a permit.
Since the 1980s, the forest department has tried several measures to protect people from tigers:
Freshwater ponds have been dug in the reserve to give tigers an alternative to the salty river water.
Life-size dummies of human beings, clad in the tattered attire of honey collectors and woodcutters, have been placed in the forest. Each dummy emits an electric shock on contact to train tigers to fear human beings.
Tigers normally attack from behind their victims, so rubber face masks worn on the back of the head have been distributed to villagers who enter the forest.
Officials cannot agree on the effectiveness of these steps. The number of killings dipped in the late 1980s, but began to climb again in the early 1990s. That prompted officials to virtually halt the distribution of masks and dummies. Now, after five years, masks and dummies are being reintroduced on a large scale.
The tales of tiger killings among friends and relatives gradually have encouraged some villagers to seek other ways to earn a living. Fishing for shrimp larvae in shallow waters closer to villages has become a source of income. New shrimp farms upriver toward Calcutta give villagers an outlet to sell the larvae.
Annpur resident Srikanto Barman, for one, is relieved. He still remembers the day his friend, Ali, was snatched by a tiger. "He carried him away like a cat would carry a mouse in his mouth,'' he recalls. Since that day, Mr. Barman has never returned to the forest. He now collects shrimp larvae.
Pressure to find new livelihoods will increase as the tiger population in the Sunderbans grows. Surveyors for the latest census found 821 tiger paw prints, nearly twice as many as were found in the previous census, two years ago. Official results are expected in late March.