How a poacher turned into a conservationist in the Indian Sundarbans

  • A village in the Sundarbans has adopted an alternate livelihoods approach to promote conservation.
  • In an interview with Mongabay-India, Anil Mistry, the principal field officer for Wildlife Protection Society of India in the Sundarbans, spoke of how Bali island village, an erstwhile tiger poaching hub, transformed into a financially stable, poaching-free area.
  • If communities are protected from tiger intrusions, and they have economic benefit from tourism, it helps reduce human-tiger conflict.

Mangrove ecosystem conservationist Anil Mistry could have tread the path his predecessors and peers had taken. A path that led to chopping off forests and killing animals for fast cash, as floods ravaged his island home in the Indian Sundarbans.

But an encounter with a dying doe changed his heart.

“Since my childhood, I was aware that this area was associated with poaching and illegal cutting of trees. There was no progress [development] in the village. Floods ravaged our village. Automatically we took to poaching. Usually, we went for the deer and if we spotted a tiger then we got it too,” Mistry told Mongabay-India in a candid chat in Bali island village in the Sundarbans.

“Once on a hunt, my friend killed a doe and her fawn was around her. The doe was wounded and was crying (in pain). It died. This encounter left me distraught with grief,” the 52-year-old Mistry recalled the incident from two decades ago.

With a lack of progress in his village, Anil Mistry took to poaching like many others. But a change of heart transpired and Mistry formed an NGO for protection of mangroves that provided an alternative means of livelihood. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

A shaken Mistry went to the then field director (of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve) and owned up to his actions. During his confession, he expressed concern over the disruption of the natural balance in the Sundarbans ecosystem if things continued in this manner.

This exchange eventually inspired Mistry to form the Bali Nature and Wildlife Conservation Society, an NGO that works for the protection of the mangrove ecosystem.

Mistry is now mainly recognised for his work with the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). He is their principal field officer in the Sundarbans, working with veteran conservationist Belinda Wright, the organisation’s founder, to reduce human pressure on forest resources and eliminate poaching.

“Through the provision of alternative livelihoods, we ensure that we use only the resources that we have and not depend on the forest. I can safely say that our village that was once a hub of poaching, and in the last 15 to 20 years not recorded any incidence of poaching. It is the most financially stable village,” Mistry asserted.

There were challenges, Mistry conceded, as he set out to promote conservation. He credits the effectiveness of alternative livelihood solutions, the resulting economic prosperity and co-operation of the forest department for the winds of change.

“It was mainly a change in mindset that was needed. But gradually people started understanding why we should not exploit our natural resources in excess and the forest department played an important role in the enforcement of laws. They took action then and there,” Mistry said.

A conversation with poacher turned conservationist Anil Mistry


“We have occupied their space”

At the heart of the effort is mitigating human-tiger conflict. Earlier, four to five tigers would sneak into settlements every month. Mistry has been associated with the capture and release of 70 tigers. On one such outing, as he regretfully reminisces, the tiger had to be shot to save Mistry as he had fallen and broken his leg during the capture process.

Though the poaching of tigers has stopped and fencing around islands successfully wards off tigers from entering villages and picking up livestock, Mistry is vocal against labelling the big cat as the culprit.

“A lot of people are attacked by tigers in the forests but tigers don’t enter villages and kill humans. We have occupied their space. My forefathers came here, cut jungles and killed animals to establish settlements. We have encroached and now they swim in search of food from island to island. This is not their fault; it is ours,” Mistry remarked.

Mistry disagrees with the conventional definition of a human-tiger conflict. “If someone goes from the village to the jungle this can’t be called as conflict, this is suicide. This is not conflict. Conflict is when a tiger strays into a village and people gather in huge numbers to catch a glimpse and the tiger starts running here and there in a panic… this can be called a conflict,” he elaborated.

He asserts that organisations such as Indian Council For Agricultural Research, the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve and NGOs such as WPSI and others are diligently and honestly doing their work in securing alternative livelihoods but many villagers can’t resist the temptation to enter the forbidden areas of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve.

“Some people do not understand (why we must reduce dependency on forests) and there are some who do understand and obtain help from these organisations yet they still enter the forbidden forest areas,” the conservationist said.

Even faith in the Sundarbans’ guardian deity Bonobibi does not guarantee protection from a tiger in the dense mangroves. “Those who go hunting for crabs reposing faith in Bonobibi may not many come back and that’s why there are so many widows in the villages,” the conservationist said.

With around 86 photographed royal Bengal tigers inside the reserve, Mistry believes they are at a stable number with a strong prey base. These swimming tigers are special from their counterparts elsewhere in India, he said.

“Each one is a Royal Bengal tiger. They are slim and agile because they need to hunt for prey in an island landscape. They have a distinctive colour. They are not friendly, you can’t pet them from a car. These big cats have a gorgeousness about them that you can’t miss. They are very clean because they spend a lot of time swimming,” Mistry explained.

Economic prosperity for the local communities bodes well for tiger conservation too. Photo by Soumyajit Nandy/Wikimedia Commons.

Surrounded by a bunch of tourists clamouring to understand more about the tigers in the Sundarbans, Mistry is supportive of expanding sustainable community-based tourism initiatives.

“It will be very good if tourist numbers increase. The money generated comes back directly to the community. Earlier 25 percent share of revenue generated from tourism used to go to the joint forest management committees (JFMC) constituted by the local community members. Now it is 45 percent,” Mistry said.

Economic prosperity for the local communities bodes well for tiger conservation too.

“There will be people and tigers living side by side. There have been no poaching incidents in the last 10 to 15 years. If we promote tourism in an organised way then money comes to the communities and they are encouraged to opt for conservation and stop entering forests,” signed off Mistry.

Banner image: Sundarbans tiger. Photo by Soumyajit Nandy/Wikimedia Commons.

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