What did you do yesterday?
When asked some of us will say, oh, nothing much. Some will talk about the restaurant they visited or the movie they saw, or that coveted business deal.
It's not every day when you hear an answer like “I rescued a man from being eaten alive by a tiger.” Such a jaw dropping statement, is reality for Goni, known in the Sundarbans area as ‘Tiger Goni’ and our tiger hero.
Beautiful and mysterious as the Sundarbans is, in many ways it is like the deep forests fairytales warned us about. Thousands of people enter this tiger territory every day to scratch a living and on average 30 people lose their lives inside the forest each year. For years families sent off their men into the Sundarbans knowing that they may never see them again (dead or alive) if they came face to face with a tiger. Thanks to Tiger Goni, and his fellow Forest Tiger Response Team (FTRT) members that scenario has changed to a great extent. They are the ones who rescue people who sustain injury or lose their lives inside the forest from tiger attacks.
Goni was once a forest resource collector himself. In 2007, as he watched the FTRT boat sail on bravely to recover the body of a man of his village, his life found a new direction. Since joining the FTRT, he has been a part of situations that would leave most of us with our knees shaking. He is one of the finest storytellers you would come across, transporting you inside is world - you can almost hear the splash as a tiger leaps onto the water or feel the anticipation of entering the deepest depths of the forest. You could feel the pride in his voice as he talks about the fishermen he saved by scaring away a tiger, or the pain of collecting body parts of tiger victims piece by piece. The danger, says Goni, is more than offset by the satisfaction of knowing that he is doing noble work. He says nothing compares to the expression on the family’s faces as they receive their loved one, knowing they can say goodbye to them with dignity. Since 2007, Goni has carried the bodies of 38 tiger victims, and brought back to safety almost 30 injured people.
The people in the Sundarbans lovingly call him ‘Osman’ or ‘trustworthy’. That unique trust comes from knowing that this man would brave much danger for their sake when needed - for many in the Sundarbans periphery, Goni has become a part of their family. Standing tall with strong shoulders and a humble smile, his presence gives people reassurance. When he talks about protecting the home range of tigers, people listen.
What gives him this strength then?
According to Goni, the forest itself is the source. Full of emotion he says that the Sundarbans has taught him his ABC’s, just as a mother teaches her children. He has found his true calling in working for the Sundarbans – it is as if the forest tells him to keep saving tigers, so that it can also thrive. Goni says he is not fearless, but that he is brave enough to lay down his life serving the Sundarbans.
Sometimes heroism lies in staring what you fear in the face to save something you love and value. Looking at the figure of Goni waving from a green and orange boat, full of determination and belief for a better tomorrow for tigers – suddenly one has a rare glimpse of what heroism truly looks like.