Into tiger ter­ri­tory

Beastly busi­ness in the Sun­dar­bans of Bangladesh

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - HELEN AN­DER­SON

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

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