KOLKATA, 27th May: It's not just residents of Kolkata who bore the brunt of Cyclone Aila. Forest wardens fear that as the cyclone tore through the Sunderbans flooding the mangrove forests, it may have killed more than a dozen of the highly endangered Bengal tigers.
As the human toll from Monday's cyclone rose to 64, beat officers and range officials in the Sunderbans feared hundreds of herbivores and at least a dozen tigers might have been swept away by the giant waves that lashed the forests. While a tiger had sneaked into the Jamespur village wading through the flood waters and was tranquillised early on Tuesday morning, 20 crocodiles and two spotted deer were found dead. The full extent of the damage will be known only after an assessment by forest teams.
As per the last census, the Sunderbans had 265 tigers. Pintu Mirdha of Jamespur got the shock of his life when he spotted a male tiger crouching in his waterlogged cowshed. Mirdha managed to shut the cowshed door and informed the forest department. But forest guards had to wait for the water to recede to get close to the animal. Neighbours were asked to evacuate as the animal paced up and down the locked cowshed. At around 1pm, when the water level went down during low tide, the male tiger was tranquillised.
"It swam into the village that was left flooded after the cyclone. Since most villagers weren't present at the submerged huts, no one noticed the animal," said Subrata Mukherjee, field director, Sunderban Tiger Reserve.
"A storm like this has never hit the Sunderbans in the last three decades. Going by the extent of damage to the villages, the state of the forest could be terrible. Forests remained under eight feet of water till late Tuesday afternoon. Immediately after Aila hit, it had gone up to 20 feet," said Mrinal Chattopadhyay of the Institute of Climbers and Nature Lovers. "Even if tigers manage to swim to higher grounds, deer and wild boars must have been swept away," he said. Wardens fear that even if tigers survived the giant waves, the lack of prey will certainly kill them.
But some forest officials were cautious. "We shall study the damage once the water level goes down," said Subhendu Bandopadhyay, divisional forest officer, South 24-Parganas. Beat wardens, however, said no assessment would be possible until the waters recede and that could take weeks. By that time many of the carcasses would have disintegrated to nothing.