The Bengal Tiger: A Survivor’s Story

The Bengal Tiger, the national animal of both India and Bangladesh, is the most majestic beast that prowls over the wetlands of the Sundarban forests in West Bengal, India. The species, however, was marked as endangered in 2008, and estimates show that fewer than 2,500 individuals still roamed around a mere three years later. Currently, the main threats to the tiger’s survival are poaching and the loss of its natural habitat. However, the decimation of the tiger habitats had begun in the colonial period with the practice of big game hunting that depleted the numbers of tigers beyond recovery. This article looks at the historical trajectory of tiger hunting in Bengal, and how the regal beast remains resilient and a survivor in spite of the onslaught of hunters and poachers—who are daily reducing its numbers.

Bengal came into British hands after the Battle of Plassey (1757), when the last independent Nawab of Bengal was defeated and the era of colonial rule began. Most of the European travellers to Bengal had emphasized on the fact that the natives of Bengal were unwilling and unable to kill wild animals. The eighteenth-century French traveller to Bengal, Grandpre pointed out that the labourers clearing the forests in Clive Islands, even when attacked by a tiger which carried away one of them, did not attack the animal in retaliation. The latter would have continued to create havoc among the Indians “if they had not at last been opposed by a few Europeans, who superintended the works and were well armed.” Generally, the boatmen and wood-cutters of lower Bengal who ventured into the Sundarban, the habitat of the Bengal tiger, put themselves under the protection of a favoured deity. In lower Bengal, the worship of Dakshin Ray, Badagazikhan, Kalugazikhan, and Banabibi was prevalent among Muslims as well as Hindus for these were the presiding deity of the tigers.

Yet it would be very incorrect to suppose that large beasts of prey were not hunted by the natives. Taylor, in his survey of Dacca, points out that jagirs were assigned to Bagh Maras, or hunters of tigers, during the Mughal administration. In the early years, British hunters often took the aid of Indian shikaris while going on tiger-hunting. These native hunters became indispensable to the British hunter for a number of reasons. For one, such shikaris were gun carriers “whose constant responsibility it was to reload the multiple guns usually needed in this era of more primitive weaponry.” Secondly, British hunters used shikaris for “tracking tigers and reporting their likely whereabouts,” and “to serve as knowledgeable experts whom British hunters consulted in the hunting of particular tigers.” Skikaris used the poisoned arrow method to kill the tigers. Government rewards given for the extirpation of the tigers must have encouraged shikaris to kill an increasing number of the species. Taylor points out that in 1804, 270 tiger-skins were brought to the city of Dacca for government reward, and that “the reduction of five rupees in the established allowance the average annual number fell to 35.”

From the above discussion it should not come as a surprise that the tiger population of Bengal was largely decimated under the Company administration. The Bengal tiger was most numerous in the Sundarban, the forested tracts of the Bengal delta and named so after the Sundari tree which grew in abundance there. According to the seventeenth-century French traveler Francois Bernier, even the boatmen, while sailing through the southern islands of the Bengal Delta, needed to be careful of tigers— since these creatures were generally believed to have attacked boats and carried “the stoutest and the fattest of the party.”

J.C. Jack in his survey of Bakarganj, a district in southern Bengal, writes:

Tigers at the time of the Permanent Settlement (1793) were so common in Gaurnadi that a special reward had to be offered for their destruction […] In later times tigers have retreated into the forest in the south of the district from which they are gradually being trapped and shot out. They seem to have entirely left the Sahabazpur Island, although forty years ago they were very numerous […]

Tigers could still be found in Malda in 1854. However, it seems likely that the tiger’s habitat reduced to the Sundarban by the early twentieth century—where they are still found to this day. Even after the end of colonialism in India, tiger populations continued to shrink. Today, the most significant threat to the existence of the Bengal tiger are poachers, and illegal trade in poached skins and body parts between India, Nepal, and China. The governments of these countries have failed to implement measures to check illegal hunting of tigers. Farmers also often shoot tigers to protect their cattle. This majestic big cat, also known as the Royal Bengal tiger, has been one of the world’s “charismatic mega-fauna.” These felines need our protection. Governments need to take concrete steps in this direction before this endangered species reaches the verge of extinction.