ARAMPUR, India — The 10-year-old girl's shriek of terror stilled the villagers' loud chatter about collecting honey in the lush jungle.
The girl, named Laxmi for the Hindu goddess of wealth, was serving food in a tiny village cafe when talk turned to honey, to the fearful jungle where it is found, and then to a man killed by a tiger weeks earlier.
"My father was eaten by a tiger," Laxmi screamed.
As she stood sobbing by the table, her mother stopped washing dishes nearby and gently led the girl away. "Please don't mention tigers in her presence," the mother said.
Villagers Fall Victim
One does not talk idly of tigers in Arampur, known as the "Village of the Tiger Widows" because in the last decade most of the village men have been killed by the graceful but dangerous beasts.
Arampur is on the edge of the Sunderbans, a 1,034-square-mile forest in eastern India, one of 15 areas where the government is trying to save the lordly royal Bengal tiger from extinction.
The $23-million project to save the big cats is succeeding. The latest tiger census three years ago--based on paw marks that are as distinctive as the human fingerprint--showed more than 4,000 tigers roaming India.
That was up from 1,827 in 1973 when Project Tiger was launched with aid from the World Wildlife Fund.
Sunderbans has 264 of the cats, and tiger conservation has sparked a bitter controversy between man and beast in this area where poor villagers depend upon the jungle for their living.
"The government is breeding man-eaters, and under the laws we cannot kill them," said Surya Kanta Roy, the village leader in Arampur.
Fine for Killing Tigers
The government imposes a fine of $7,692 for killing a tiger, but pays compensation of only $384 to the family of a tiger's victim.
"I have survived because I do not go to the jungle," said Roy, who runs the village school. He hopes that his 16-year-old daughter will find a husband outside the village because "I do not want to see her becoming a widow."
In key areas, the government has set up electrified human dummies, powered by car batteries, that give a 230-volt shock to the tiger that touches them. That is to convince tigers that man is dangerous too.
Villagers are told to carry a stick on their right shoulder because the tiger always attacks the right side of the neck.
Honey collectors are given clay face masks to wear on the back of their heads to confuse the tiger as to which side to attack. The royal Bengal tiger never attacks from the front.
The growing tiger population that necessitated these steps comes after years of decline. At the start of the century, there were about 100,000 tigers of eight species in the world.
Now, perhaps 2,000 Indochinese tigers are left in Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia. Sumatran, Siberian and Chinese tigers number in the hundreds.
There are some Caspian tigers, but no one has seen a Javanese tiger in years. The last Balinese tiger was shot in 1937.
Once Numbered 40,000
India once had the highest tiger population in the world, about 40,000 at the beginning of this century.
But an insatiable lust for trophies among India's sporting maharajahs, and later the British rulers, took a heavy toll of the cat.
"The scene is changed now. Man is at the receiving end," said Nimai Das, who sells candy and tells folk tales to passengers from ferries that make brief stops in Arampur.
Arampur is about 45 miles southeast of Calcutta, reachable only by waterways. At the nearest port town of Canning, a boatman insisted that his craft be anchored offshore--not tied to a jetty--as a condition for a trip to the Sunderbans.
"Otherwise we may be eaten by tigers," the boatman, Kanai Debnath, explained.
Arriving in Arampur, he hold his five-man crew, "Be careful when you move." Then he and his men prayed with folded hands to Ma Bon Bibi, the Hindu forest goddess, and sprinkled holy water on the launch to keep evil away.
Arampur, meaning "the resting nest," once was a bustling place where traders came to buy honey and fish. Villagers recall life then as easy and relaxed.
But since Project Tiger began, Arampur has been transformed. About 80% of the village's 300 homes have no man.
"All eaten by tigers," said Roy, the village headman.
"Three years back," he added, "someone said this is no more Arampur, but 'Bidhava Palli,' the Village of the Tiger Widows."
The tigers roam the dark estuarine forest where crisscrossing rivers, lagoons, sticky swamps and an abundance of mangroves make a formidable habitat.
But the forest attracts men too, those who make their living by fishing, collecting honey and felling trees.
Tigers prey mostly on deer, antelope and wild boar. But once a tiger accidentally attacks a man, it discovers that humans run far more slowly than other animals. The tiger is tempted to try again and becomes a man-eater.
Official records show 579 people killed by tigers in the Sunderbans since 1973. Of those, 373 were fishermen, 107 honey-gatherers and the rest woodcutters.