On a warm November afternoon, Parul Haldar balanced precariously on the bow of a small wooden dinghy, pulling in a long net flecked with fish from the swirling brown river.
Just behind her loomed the dense forest of the Sundarbans, where some 10,000 square km of tidal mangroves straddle India’s northeastern coastline and western Bangladesh and open into the Bay of Bengal.
Four years ago, her husband disappeared on a fishing trip deep inside the forest. Two fishermen with him saw his body being dragged into the undergrowth – one of a rising number of humans killed by tigers as they venture into the wild.
That Haldar, a single mother of four, is taking such risks is testament to growing economic and ecological pressures on more than 14 million people living on the Indian and Bangladeshi sides of the low-lying Sundarbans.
They have led to a reduced dependence on agriculture, a rising number of migrant workers and, for those like Haldar who can’t leave the delta to work elsewhere, a reliance on the forests and rivers to survive.
“When I enter a dense forest, I feel like I’m holding my life in my hands,” said the 39-year-old, sitting outside her ramshackle three-room home on the Indian island of Satjelia after returning from a fishing expedition.
In the small yard, her father and some friends smoked wood to use it for building a new boat.
Haldar fishes in the river most days. Twice a month, she travels deeper into the forests to catch crabs, rowing six hours on a rickety boat along with her mother and staying in the undergrowth for several days.
Almost all of the Rs 2,000 ($27) she makes each month to run her household and send her youngest daughter, Papri, to school comes from fishing and crabbing. Her elderly father and other relatives look after the girl while she is gone.
“If I don’t go to the jungle, I won’t have enough food to eat,” Haldar told Reuters.
It is 11-year-old Papri who keeps Haldar on the Sundarbans rather than seeking work elsewhere. If she goes, there’s no one to take care of the child, she said.
“No matter how hard it is, I want to educate her.”