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The Outcasts: Bangladesh's Tiger Widows Fight Exclusion

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Tigers regularly attack and kill forestry workers in southwestern Bangladesh. Their widows, seen as harbingers of bad luck, are cursed and ostracized. Sick of this social exclusion, the women are now banding together to help each other.

It's a common fear among the women in the villages, the phone call with the person on the other end delivering the ominous message: "Your husband … it got him."

Parveen Nessa, who is only 30 and the mother of three children, drops the telephone and begins to scream. Relatives comfort her for hours, trying to reason with her. But Nessa won't stop crying. She cries when her husband's body is brought home in a boat at dusk, she cries during the early morning funeral and she cries for several days afterwards. She knows that from now on she will be forced to live a life of poverty, excluded from the community, outcast and cursed. She is now a tiger widow.

Her husband Adruzzaman, a 35-year-old forestry worker, was attacked and killed by a tiger in the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest in southwestern Bangladesh. About 50 people from his village had set out in search of Adruzzaman, armed with bamboo sticks, when they heard the news of the attack.

They rowed into the jungle in the Ganges delta in rickety wooden boats, but when they arrived all they found was his dead body. One shoulder was missing and Adruzzaman's face was shattered. The tiger was sitting a few meters away, guarding his prey.

Danger Amid the Mangroves

Parveen's husband knew that working in the mangroves was dangerous. Anyone who can afford it avoids the forest, but Adruzzaman needed the work. Thousands of men go into the jungle every day to cut wood illegally, catch fish or gather honey, despite the pirates who take hostages in the wilderness, and despite the tigers. Up to 20,000 men are thought to work in the forest, but only 3,000 have the necessary permits. And since Cyclone Sidr devastated large swaths of farmland in November 2007, the number of men working in the forests has been constantly on the rise.

Poverty forces people into the forest, into the tigers' natural habitat. And the animals are hungry, with hunting and newly introduced diseases steadily reducing the populations of wild boars, deer and monkeys in the Sundarbans. Hindus and Muslims alike believe that only the Goddess Bon Bibi can offer protection from the big cats. There are several statues of the forest goddess scattered throughout the jungle.

Tiger populations are shrinking worldwide, but they are growing in Bangladesh, according to the country's forest administration. It estimates that some 400 to 750 Bengal tigers now live in the mangroves. "We have found that the wild cats are not just attacking forestry workers in the jungle," says Rafiq ul-Ilsam, forest administrator in the village of Burigoalini. "They are also venturing into the villages more often, searching for prey like cows, goats and dogs."

According to the government forest department, tigers killed 120 men in 2009 alone, or about one every three days. The real death toll is probably much higher, because only the victims among officially registered forestry workers are documented. The authorities have also documented more than 1,000 women who have lost their husbands in tiger attacks in southwestern Bangladesh.

As a result, a new caste is developing in the villages on the edge of the jungle: the tiger widows. Viewed as harbingers of bad luck among the superstitious local population, they are avoided, expelled and, after the dramatic deaths of their husbands, thrown out by their husband's families, with which they have often been living since their weddings. Already poor, they have no choice but to provide for their families themselves.

Tired of Exclusion and Pity

Parveen Nessa is only one of many tiger widows in the village. A tiger killed Rashida's husband in 2002, as he was wading through knee-deep mud in the jungle while gathering wood. Jamena lost her husband in 2003, when he was looking for beehives in the forest and failed to notice a tiger nearby. Johura's husband died two years ago while collecting honey.

The young women, tired of the social exclusion and the pity, have now founded the "Tiger Widow Association," with the help of an aid organization. During their weekly meetings, the women plan sewing courses, learn about growing rice and vegetables and decide to go to market to sell their wares. They plan to apply for microloans soon to buy sewing machines and seeds.

"My in-laws still accuse me of having brought bad luck on the entire family," says one of the women, whose husband died years ago. She has tears in her eyes as she describes how her children were humiliated in school, and how the children told them that the only reason a tiger had eaten their father was that he was a bad man.

To address the problem, a separate school was established a year ago for the children of tiger widows. The pupils, some 30 boys and girls, sit on a bare dirt floor and learn how to read. They spend three hours a day in school, and then they help their mothers in the household or earning money to support the family.

Wild Cats in the Villages

Nessa is lucky, because her mother-in-law, also a widow, has allowed Nessa and her three children to continue living with her. The two women have jobs in road construction, where they work with their bare hands and a shovel. It takes Nessa an hour to walk to the construction site, and she walks the same distance home in the evening, barefoot, for work that pays a daily wage of 150 taka, or about €1.50 ($2). This is very little for a family of five, even in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on earth.

The wild cats, searching for food, are now coming into the villages more and more frequently, as was recently the case in Abadchondipur. "My son went outside to the bathroom at four in the morning," says Rokiya Kathun, pointing to a mud outhouse on her small property. "When he returned, he heard a rustling noise on the roof." The boy, who thought the noise sounded suspicious, got a flashlight -- and suddenly found himself looking into the face of a tiger. The startled animal was about to jump off the house when it fell through the roof and into the kitchen.

The Kathuns got themselves to safety and woke up the neighbors, and together they stretched a fishing net across the house. The news spread quickly. Within three hours, several thousand people from the surrounding area had come to Abadchondipur to see the animal.

A tiger rescue team was called to tranquilize the captured wild cat and take it back to a jungle area five kilometers (3.1 miles) away. But when the team had still not arrived after several hours, the calls within the crowd to kill the animal became louder and louder. Eventually, a few men climbed onto the roof and beat the animal to death with long bamboo sticks, almost like an act of delayed revenge.

Hasmot Sardar, 35, a former fisherman, has heard of many similar cases. And although he has plenty of reason to hate the tigers, he condemns the wanton killing of the animals. "If the tigers become extinct," he says, "no one will be afraid of the jungle anymore, and then more people will go into the forest and destroy it." Without the tigers, says Sardar, the mangrove forest and, with it, the main source of income for people in the region will be seriously in jeopardy.

Man with Half a Face

Sardar himself barely survived a tiger attack, an attack that earned him notoriety even beyond his village, where he is known as the man with half a face. In 1992, he was helping relatives fish in the narrow rivers that permeate the Sundarbans like a finely woven net. At night they would ground their boat on a sandbar and sleep there. Sardar slept outside on the wooden planks, under the open sky.

He woke up several days later at the hospital in Khulna, the nearest larger city. A tiger had crept up to his camp at about 5 a.m. and mauled the left side of his face. His skull was crushed and his nose, left eye and ear were torn off. The tiger ran away when the other fisherman woke up and immediately began shouting.

The doctors performed a makeshift operation on his face, which is still disfigured today. His teeth protrude from his face, there is hardly anything left of his nose, and he has gaping wound where his eye used to be. He is still receiving medical treatment, 18 years after that fateful night. "Many of my wishes have been fulfilled since then," says Sardar, who wears a piece of cloth over the disfigured side of his face.

"Five years after the accident, I found work as a fish seller. Today I have a wife and three children," he says proudly. But he also has pain, he adds, "especially when there is a full moon." But his greatest wish remains unfulfilled. "Some day," he says, "I would like to look half-way normal again."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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