Tue Mar 6, 2007 10:52AM EST
By Bappa Majumdar
SATJELIA, India (Reuters) - Savitri Mondol shivers every time she hears a tiger roaring somewhere in the vast mangrove forests surrounding her mud hut, the world's largest habitat of the wild cat.
It reminds her of the day a man-eater pounced on her husband, dragging him into the undergrowth and mauling him to death.
"I could sense the tiger watching him as he went into the creek to catch fish two years ago," said Savitri, at her home in Satjelia, one of 48 islands dotting the vast marshy forests of the Sunderbans on India's eastern coast.
"Now, the big cat is stalking me," said the 40-year-old widow, who has no choice but to follow in her husband's footsteps to catch fish for her survival.
Over the last five years, at least 50 people have been killed by the 250 to 270 Royal Bengal tigers which stalk India's half of the Sunderbans -- stretching along the coast of West Bengal state and across the border into Bangladesh.
Wildlife officials say the number of deaths is probably double that as many attacks go unreported.
At daybreak, dozens of widows -- all of whom lost their husbands to tiger attacks -- say their prayers and head into the forests to collect honey or catch fish in the rivers and creeks of the Ganges delta, earning up to a dollar a day.
The further they venture, the greater their earnings. And so are the chances of encountering a tiger.
"If we don't go deep into the forest to catch fish or forage wood and honey, we might have to starve as there is too much competition from others here," said widow Kamala Mondol, 53, who promises her children everyday she will return home before dusk.
But some widows have barely managed to keep their promises.
Bijoya Bauri, from the neighboring island of Gosaba, still remembers the day a tiger pounced on her when she had gone to collect firewood in the forest.
"The tiger was probably watching me from a distance because it did not attack me until I went deep inside," said Bauri, 45, showing the deep scratches on her neck and arms where the tiger had sunk its claws five years ago.
Bauri was saved by some villagers who managed to scare off the wild cat and she was back in the same forest days later.
While authorities are now providing medical treatment and compensation of up to 50,000 rupees ($1,130) to victims of tiger attacks, they warn them to keep out of protected forest areas.
But the widows say they have few options.
"The guards say we will die one day if we go inside the forest," said Gita Mondol. "But if we don't, we will starve to death anyway."