Tales of tigers

By boat through the Sun­dar­bans

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - CLAIRE MACDONALD

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

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