Kalpana Raptan describes how often she just sits in despair. A few months ago her partner, Babu Raptan, was killed by a tiger who attacked him out of nowhere.

He had gone fishing in a boat with several other men. “He died saving another man, he never thought about his own life or of his family,” she says, sobbing.

“What will I do now? He was the sole earner in the family.”

Kalpana Raptan is now a bagh bidhoba or tiger widow. Many women are tiger widows here, especially in the islands. They report that men frequently molest them, and that traffickers find it easier to prey on young widows.

Babu Raptan had moved to Bombay some years ago to work as a construction worker. In March when the Union government suddenly imposed a lockdown citing the pandemic, millions of people like him were forced back to their hometowns.

Back home, many had to return to their caste-traditional occupations.

There are not many opportunities to earn a steady livelihood in the Sundarbans, except by fishing, hunting crabs or collecting honey. Many here move to Kerala, Maharashtra or Delhi in search of wage-work, leaving their families back home.

Tapas, an emigrant labourer dismissed from his job after the lockdown, returned to the Sundarbans and is now a social worker who helps the survivors of tiger attacks and the families of victims:

“We have seen a drastic increase in tiger attacks since the lockdown… The government does not have the correct data on tiger attacks. They don’t even help retrieve the body,” he tells The Citizen.

According to press reports there were 12 deaths from tiger attacks in Sundarbans last year – this year, Tapas knows of over 70 tiger attacks and 40 deaths in a span of just three months.

“The situation is so severe that almost every week, we report two to five attacks,” he states.

In September with a group of volunteers he launched a search and body retrieval mission. Rowing small boats they retrieved at least 12 halfeaten bodies from the swamps. “All the bodies were missing limbs, and one was without a head,” he recalls.

He says a large number of the victims were migrant workers forced back home by the lockdown, who had ventured into the forest to collect produce.

Strict laws exist to prevent people entering the forest to hunt or fish, but residents say that with the growing number of people made dependent on forest produce, these laws are hardly enforced.

“When so many people enter the forest, human-animal conflict is inevitable, which we are seeing right now,” says Tapas.

According to Ujjwal Sardar, a geologist with expertise in Sunderbans ecology, tiger attacks are on the upswing here because their hunting grounds are gradually being submerged by rising sea levels caused by agroindustrial global warming.

Their prey too are moving inland to shield themselves from the rising tide, closer to where humans live.

Saline seawater has a destructive effect on agrarian production, forcing people to venture deeper inside the forest to fish or collect honey instead.

The sudden return of many workers after the lockdown, who now have no income opportunities or support from the state, is accelerating the problem.