When It’s a Good Idea to be Two-Faced

The Bengal tiger, above, is the national animal of both India and Bangladesh. And if you walk around the Sundarbans — a massive forest of more than 500 square miles which straddles the border between India and Bangladesh — you may come across one. The Sundarbans (here’s a map) are home to about 200 of these tigers.

But if you do come across one of these majestic beasts, you may want to get the heck out of there. If hungry enough, these tigers will attack humans. In the Sundarbans alone, tigers kill an estimated 20 or so people a year on average per some reports, and that may be on the low side. Worse, these attacks often come with little to no warning. As some area locals told an NPR reporter, “tigers here are so stealthy that if I see one, it will only be as its jaws clamp down on my neck.”

So, yeah, you probably don’t want to come across one of these tigers.

For the millions of Bengals and Indians who live bordering the Sundarbans or who work in the region, that is easier said than done. So they take whatever precautions are effective before venturing through the forests — even if these preventative measures are seemingly ridiculous. For example, in the 1980s, they came up with a solution pictured below.

Those are women gathering honey — one of the local industries which the Sundarbans powers. But you’re not seeing those women’s faces. You’re seeing the backs of their heads. And they’re wearing masks.

The reason? Typically, but not always, tigers avoid attacking their prey head-on. Therefore, as the New York Times explained in 1989, “workers in the mangrove forests started wearing face masks on the backs of their heads.” And the plan seemed to work. The Times continued:

”For the past three years, no one wearing a mask has been killed,” said Peter Jackson, chairman of the cat specialist group of the World Conservation Union. ”Tigers have been seen following people wearing the mask, but they have not attacked.”

By contrast, 29 people who were not wearing the masks were killed there in the last 18 months, officials reported.

With an apparent solution in hand, the Indian government went into action, issuing more than 2,500 rubber masks to workers in the area. The tiger attacks were few and far between.

For a while.

Some local residents were skeptical, telling the Times that “the clever tigers cannot be fooled for long.” And unfortunately, they were right. The National (a UAE publication) spoke with some honey gatherers in 2012, and the news wasn’t good — the tiger attacks had resumed. “We don’t feel safe any more,” said one woman, “knowing our brothers have been attacked in spite of the tricks we use.”

The tigers, it seems, had adapted — they learned that the masks were just masks. The people who work in the Sundarbans are still in search of a new solution.

Bonus fact: If you’re traveling in the Sundarbans, be careful what cologne you wear. It turns out that cats — tigers included — are attracted to Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men. According to Discover Magazine, “they cuddle against it; they take long sniffs, savoring it longer than they do their meals; they may even track it down from half a mile away.​”

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