Tales of tigers
By boat through the Sundarbans
After pre-dawn “bed tea” at our tiger camp digs, we’re perched bleary-eyed on a boat in India’s Ganges Delta searching for swimming tigers. This is Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary in West Bengal on the western edge of the Sundarbans.
The vast mangrove forest, most of it in Bangladesh, is a UNESCO World Heritage area and home to the endangered Royal Bengal tiger. Locals and tourists are allowed only on the park fringes. The core is the domain of this striped beast and intrepid forest rangers. An estimated 270 to 350 tigers live in the Indian Sundarbans. They’ve adapted well, drinking the salty water and swimming across wide channels to stalk their prey, which includes people, mostly fishermen, woodcutters and honey collectors. Strict controls, education and the erection of high nylon safety fencing across creeks near villages have helped reduce the number of victims.
Our boat companions — a forest ranger, an official “boat helper” (according to his badge), a deckhand and captain — are experts in spotting tigers, so it should be our lucky day. We’ve already unsuccessfully scoured many of India’s national parks, crammed into noisy tourist jeeps, hoping in vain for a glimpse of the elusive feline, which had consistently been on their days off. The ranger has seen it all. Tigers and tourists alike.
“Remember, the tiger is watching you, but you may not see it,” he warns. I look for telltale stripes but spot only a water lizard. The ranger points towards unremarkablelooking muddy holes on the riverbank. “Pug marks,” he proclaims. Tiger prints. Now I’m convinced we’re being watched. He alerts us to spotted deer and a monkey to the starboard and a lone crocodile snoozing in the mud to the port side, while we dash back and forth, swapping over to maintain the balance.
The boat helper is determined to rev up the excitement. “Look, look!” he points wide-eyed into the mangroves. We all rush to one side. I have visions of being propelled overboard into the jaws of a lurking crocodile. “An egret!” he shouts.
Our ranger indicates one of those high nylon safety fences stretched across a creek. Surely that’s a bit like trying to keep a cat in at night. Wouldn’t the tiger just swim around the fence and slink into the villages? I’m equally fascinated by the honey gatherers, or Mouli, who venture into the forest fringes during the collection season from April to June. It’s risky work and Hindu and Muslim alike rely on forest goddess Bonbibi for protection. Many gatherers wear rubber face masks on the backs of their heads, which is supposed to confuse the tigers — they apparently prefer to sneak up on prey from the rear rather than attacking from the front.
Some gatherers resist, believing the masks insult Bonbibi. Their pay is low, the risks high and the sweet wild Sunderbans honey has come at a great cost to generations of these gatherers and their families.
I’m keen to meet a honey gatherer and to perhaps buy a mask, but alas it’s out of season and “backside-facing” masks and their owners are nowhere to be found.
Our crew have excelled themselves, but by afternoon, after countless bird sightings, I’m convinced the Sundarbans tiger is suddenly extinct. I settle back to enjoy this hauntingly beautiful part of India, yet still can’t shake the feeling of being watched. Are we sitting ducks? Floating snacks? Or light entertainment?
By now even the boat helper has given up pointing out kingfishers and swallows. We dock on Waxpol Ghat and return deflated to Sunderban Tiger Camp, once again outwitted by a cat. Yet we also welcome the safety of the camp’s high fences. I fall into an exhausted sleep, broken only by distant bird calls, and a fleeting image of a smiling tiger gliding across the river towards me, carrying a jar of honey and wearing a cat mask on the back side of its head.
The Sundarbans are variously spelt as Sunderbans, including Sunderban Tiger Camp and Reserve.
A Sundarbans cruise boat, top; locals wave to tourists, above; elusive Bengal tiger, above right