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In The Sundarbans, Solar Power Gives Humans An Edge Over Tigers


In the eastern corner of India, the mangrove islands of the Sundarbans are a place of conflict. This is a Delta with thousands of islands that grow and shrink with the tides every day. Three major rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal. More than 4 million people live here, and so do a few hundred Bengal tigers. They share the land, but not always peacefully.

ARJAN MONDAL: (Through interpreter) I've seen friends caught by the tiger and some of the women in this village have been widowed because their husbands were taken away by the tiger

SHAPIRO: Arjan Mondal has worked as a fisherman here for twenty years. We sit in his dusty courtyard outside of a mudbrick hut, surrounded by tropical fruit trees and a small plot of vegetables. A line of well-trained ducks from his pond waddles by to eat out of a bowl. Mondal tells us, three times when he has been fishing out in the jungle, a tiger has crept up on him, and he's had to fight it off with a poll.

You're standing up to show us how the tiger pounced.

People here depend on the jungle for food and for income. Sometimes, they ply coastline for crabs or go deeper into the forest for honey. Activities like that can make them vulnerable to tigers. Over the years, they've tried different ways of preventing attacks. At one point, they made special backward-facing masks. When you wear them, there's a face on the back of your head. People thought this would confuse the tigers since cats like to sneak up on people from behind. It didn't work, though. Sometimes the animals even venture into this village searching for a meal. Arati Sardar lives in a hut near the river with her young children, where she raises bees for honey and keeps goats and chickens for food. One morning, she woke up to find that a goat was missing.

ARATI SARDAR: (Through interpreter) So when we came out of the house, we see the marks - the paw marks. And we guessed that it was a tiger. Later on, people who were near the river, they found there was blood around. And everybody knew that the tiger had come in to take the goat.

SHAPIRO: As rising seas swallow up the usable land in the Sundarbans, some people fear that conflict with tigers will increase. So the World Wildlife Fund came up with an idea - a plan that would allow people to make a living here in the village instead of foraging deep into the jungle and also scare away tigers from these homes. Ratul Saha runs the Sundarbans program for the World Wildlife Fund.

RATUL SAHA: So actually, we are looking at the power station. And the power station is on the land that was actually donated by the local community here.

SHAPIRO: It's a little incongruous in this very rudimentary village - huts with mud walls, thatched roofs. There's a huge solar panel. Ratul, I think a lot of people listening to this conversation might wonder why the World Wildlife Fund is working on providing solar-powered energy to villages. It doesn't obviously have to do with wildlife.

SAHA: If the people are accessing the clean energy, you have time to spend during the evening and also during the day. Spending less time inside the forest means less exposure to the tiger.

SHAPIRO: This is also an example of leapfrogging technology. Renewable energy experts hope that underdeveloped places like this can skip straight to clean energy without ever relying on fossil fuels, in the same way that they got cell phones without ever depending on landline phones. Solar power arrived in this village about five years ago. Until that time, people lived pretty much the same kinds of lives their grandparents did. Nighttime lighting has changed everything. The fisherman, Arjan Mondal, no longer has to venture far away from the village. The women in his household now make products that they sell at the local market. They don't have to set aside the weaving or the embroidery when the sun goes down.

So your wife is holding up this half-embroidered blanket, and it has a parrot holding a flower in its beak - roses. It looks like it would take hours and hours and hours to do, and I can imagine that having light at night would make it much easier to get this done.

And at Arati Sardar's house, which lost the goat to a tiger, lighting at night means her 17-year-old daughter, Ria, can study after dark.

RIA SARDAR: (Through interpreter) Before, I couldn't study at night because we only had kerosene lamps. They were dim, and there wasn't always enough oil to keep them lit.

SHAPIRO: What do you want to be when you grow up? Why are you studying? What do you hope your life will be?

R. SARDAR: (Through interpreter) I want to serve human beings.

SHAPIRO: Before solar lighting came, people tended to stay in their huts after dark. There was nothing to do outside, and you might get bitten by snake or attacked by a tiger.

The sun is down. The air has cooled. And this little village has completely come to life. All the men are out in the streets, and each of these little shacks has opened up for business, each one with a little light hanging down from the ceiling.

In one shop, people huddle around a television set. In another, 21-year-old Pintu Mondal is making a sale.

PINTU MONDAL: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "I've got cell phones here, printers. It's a cybercafe," he says.

P. MONDAL: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: He says, "this is like a little city now. It's a business hub. If you visit other villages that don't have solar power, you can see this is completely different."

Are you wearing a Fitbit?

P. MONDAL: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Different brand, same concept. It's a little digital bracelet that sends his health statistics to his cell phone - heart rate, number of steps he's walked each day. Mondal says his parents and grandparents don't understand this at all. But they do understand that this shop has made him financially independent without having to go into the jungle and cross paths with a tiger. Tomorrow on this program, meet the forest goddess who teaches people in the Sundarbans to live lightly on the land. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.