Into tiger territory
Beastly business in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh
MYSTERIOUS things happen in the Sundarbans and most have something to do with tigers.
While the endangered royal bengal tiger is famously elusive, its presence is everywhere — a central character in history and mythology; a powerful inspiration in art; indeed, the national symbol of Bangladesh.
There is nothing symbolic about tigers here in the Sundarbans, however, surrounded by water and mud in the world’s largest mangrove wilderness. Three rivers empty into this vast delta gatekeeping the Bay of Bengal; most of it is within the borders of Bangladesh, onethird in the Indian state of West Bengal.
The presence of an armed forestry officer is required when we step into an open boat to explore, though the risk for us is tiny compared with the everyday danger faced by two million people who live near the borders of the Sundarbans reserved forest. Most people catch fish and crabs for a living, and collect honey in season and firewood every day. Not all attacks are reported, but there are hundreds of ‘‘tiger widows’’ living in the region.
Last year 34 people died in 56 tiger ‘‘incidents’’; in the first six weeks of this year, there was a spike of 23 incidents. No, there is nothing symbolic about tigers here.
To get to tiger territory, I take a 45-minute flight in an elderly United Airlines of Bangladesh aircraft from the megacity of Dhaka south to Jessore, then a two-hour drive to the forgettable though fabulously named town of Mongla. Here, beyond a steep muddy bank, is the ML Bawali, a brightly painted and spacious 20m boat built in 2011 for up to 12 guests, with six comfortable cabins of single bunks, airconditioning and a cheerfully retro fitout. From its shaded top deck it has the feel of a vessel on expedition and it’s a favourite of research teams and film production crews.
Our expert guide, and boat captain, is Nazrul Islam Bachchu, owner of ML Bawali and Pugmark Tours & Travel. He grew up in the Sundarbans, the son of a forestry department boatman, and his lifetime in the wilderness and passion for its conservation is matched by his ability to spin a ripping yarn. Many of his stories, told over fresh and carefully prepared Bangladeshi dishes, are tiger-striped, and we just can’t get enough.
Next morning we drift along the muddy banks of a tributary in an open boat, and I think about Bachchu’s story of a man who meets a tiger in the forest while walking with his young son; he looks into its eyes and ‘‘falls in love’’, speechless, bewitched.
The Sundarbans is full of life, much of it threatened: spotted deer, wild boar, estuarine crocodiles, otters, rare Gangetic river dolphins, 260 species of birds. Nypa palms lining the shore rustle in the breeze like petticoats, but that’s the only move
ment on this over- cast morning. Our closest encounter with wildlife comes later that day, on a boardwalk over the mangroves at a rangers’ station. The pugmarks of a tiger appear in the mud beside us, a handspan across. The cat’s presence is palpable, and we hurry on.
Nothing stays the same in the tide country. All around us in this archipelago of hundreds of shapechanging islands are mangroves. (The Sundarbans is thought to take its name from a common species, the sundri.)
‘‘A mangrove forest is a universe unto itself, utterly unlike other woodlands or jungles,’’ Amitav Ghosh writes in The Hungry Tide, his 2004 novel set in the tide country. ‘‘At no moment can human beings have any doubt of the terrain’s utter hostility to their presence.’’
Between 350 and 420 royal bengal tigers live in the Bangladesh Sundarbans, possibly the largest remaining wild population. They’re strong swimmers and swift, silent, precise hunters.
They attack humans from behind by biting the spinal cord at the neck; one of several tiger-deterrent experiments had people wearing face masks on the back of their heads to confuse the cats. Each tiger requires about 12sq kmof territory and they frequently cross paths with people, with tragic consequences for both species.
There are many theories about why Sundarbans tigers kill humans and why their territorial conflicts are intensifying. Bachchu primarily blames rising salinity — as damming increases upstream, hundreds of kilometres away, the volume of fresh water entering the Sundarbans diminishes and salt water encroaches. This has life-threatening consequences for everything that lives in the tide country, and sends tigers and humans into new territory.
One afternoon we visit a village of 355 families on the marshy edge of the Sundarbans. While they’re praying for rain (the monsoon is late), the villagers are doing their best to preserve the forest and adapt to a harsh environment in flux.
A big crowd of women in jewel-bright saris and their children gather to explain, via their spokeswoman Sharmilla Sarkar, the changes they’ve made with a community development project. They’ve dug ponds and hope to collect drinking water and avoid the 20-minute walk to overused wells.
They’ve cut their use of firewood by employing different stoves. And they’re training and developing markets for embroidery and handicrafts so the women no longer need to rely for a living on honey-collecting and fishing, among the most dangerous pursuits here. When we buy some of their bright embroidered patchwork, Sarkar bursts into happy tears. It takes courage to live here — just how much we learn later that night in another village bordering the forest reserve. In the past it was kill or be killed when a tiger entered a village. These days there are ‘ ‘ tiger response’’ teams in
46 villages, each