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If the Sundarbans goes under, the tiger episode on earth is over,” says one Indian naturalist. Photo

If the Sundarbans goes under, the tiger episode on earth is over,” says one Indian naturalist. Photograph by Tim Laman.

“If the Sundarbans goes under, the tiger episode on earth is over,” says one Indian naturalist. Photograph by Tim Laman.

by Caroline Alexander

The old man stepped onto our boat out of the utter blackness that falls between the abrupt fall of twilight, at five o’clock, and the rising of the full moon. His name was Phani Gayen, and he was employed at the Saznekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, in the mangrove forest on the northern border of India’s Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, where we were moored. Formerly, he was a crab fisherman, taking his small, pole-punted boat down along the forest’s brackish tidal creeks and narrow channels. On June 23, 1984, at half past noon, he had gone into the forest with companions to collect wood. He turned and found a tiger springing for him, roaring. “I was then forty-five years old and very, very strong,” he said. “I did not allow the tiger’s face to touch my face.” He stroked his Adam’s apple. “The tiger’s throat is very hard, here.” As the tiger gripped him with its paws, its head hung over his shoulder, drenching his shirt with saliva. “I knew I was going to die. So I embraced the tiger. He was soft. The tiger was soft. Like a sponge.” Somehow, this surrender freed him—the tiger released him and turned on one of his companions. Taking the companion by the throat, the tiger headed back into the forest.

The claw wounds on Gayen’s head and face kept him in the hospital for three months. The wounds healed, but his ear was damaged permanently. Over the years, he had told his story many times. “I no longer fear the tiger,” he declared, his scarred face lit by the yellow bulb that our boat’s generator powered. “It is the tiger’s nature.” But he avoids entering the forest.

The bulb’s light did not extend to the shore, and Gayen vanished into darkness on the long, narrow gangplank. The camp where he worked was one of only a few small stations in the 4,263 square kilometres of protected forest. At the mouth of the Ganges Delta, the Sundarbans encompasses the largest single mangrove ecosystem in the world, of which roughly forty per cent lies in India and sixty per cent in Bangladesh. The 9,630 square kilometres of the Indian Sundarbans, designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, are in turn divided into two more or less equal regions. Of the hundred and eight islands lying in the web of tidal rivers, creeks, and channels, fifty-four are inhabited—or “reclaimed”—supporting a rural, poor population of more than four million people. To the southeast lies the tiger reserve, whose swamp forest and intricate waterways are the improbable domain of the uniquely aquatic Royal Bengal tiger.

Washed by powerful, twice-daily tides flowing from the Bay of Bengal, and regularly buffeted by cyclones, the Sundarbans has always been unstable, its low landmasses constantly being eroded, silted, and reconfigured. Upstream pollution, from Calcutta; increasing salinity, caused by naturally occurring displacement of freshwater sources; and depredation of the forest by villagers cutting wood are long-standing threats. Still, the Sundarbans remains “intact,” thanks partly to stringent conservation measures and to its inaccessibility, and partly to the Sundarbans tiger, whose presence insures that the forest is too dangerous to enter casually. “Without the tiger, we would have no forest,” I was told by villagers, fishermen, wood collectors, honey gatherers—by all who cautiously skirt the forest.

I had come to the Sundarbans in late November, after the rainy season, with members of a not-for-profit agency, the Anudip Foundation, which offers livelihood training, and whose members were interested in producing a film about the region. Kushal Mookherjee, a Calcutta-based naturalist and wildlife consultant, who had been coming to the Sundarbans regularly for field study for more than a decade, was also on board. Another companion, Dr. Pranabes Sanyal, an authority on mangrove ecosystems, was the former field director, from 1980 to 1986, of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. The forest reserve can be reached only by boat, and our plan was to travel the rivers and back ways haunted by one of the most viable tiger populations remaining in the wild.

We had joined our launch, the sixty-two-foot M.V. Tanaya, at a small port on a channel off the Matla River, one of the main arteries through the reserve. Little other traffic was going our way as we wended through the waters of the reclaimed Sundarbans. On either side, broad embankments of baked clay fortified the land against the tide, giving each village the appearance of a walled city. Fishing vessels listed in the mud below them; hours later, the same boats would be floating as much as fifteen feet higher, level with the walls. In recent years, the tides have become more menacing, as the sea levels have climbed inexorably. Toward the end of 2006, two islands from the western edge of the Sundarbans archipelago were reported to have vanished beneath the water.

“If the Sundarbans goes under, the tiger episode on earth is over,” Kushal said, a belief shared by many authorities. The plight of tigers worldwide is critical, with the most optimistic estimates positing a population of between thirty-three hundred and forty-three hundred. Some four hundred tigers are cautiously estimated to inhabit the combined Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh.

From time to time, we passed solitary women trudging through the water near the shoreline, pulling nets behind them as they trawled for prawn seed. This practice, introduced in the past twenty years or so, has disastrously reduced prawn and other fish populations, and the constant pacing along the fragile shore by the women and children who drag the nets has contributed to erosion. In their flowing saris, the women presented picturesque silhouettes that belied the danger of their work, up to ten hours a day waist high in the murky water. As many as ten fatal crocodile attacks are documented each year, and, I was told, too many shark attacks to report. The most common are by dog sharks, which take a bite of soft tissue—a leg or buttock—but do not kill. “They are considered minor hazards,” Dr. Sanyal said, with a sympathetic grimace. The Sundarbans’s occupational hazards—crocodiles, sharks, cobras, kraits, swimming tigers, and cyclones—make it one of the most dangerous places in the world.

As we passed from the reclaimed area into the waters of the protected tiger reserve, the villages petered out, the occasional wooden ghat or jetty the only evidence of human presence. On the right bank, there were, suddenly and starkly, no structures at all, but only a barely discernible web of netting draping the forested waterline—a fanciful strategy intended to deter straying tigers.

The boat arrived at the long jetty of the Saznekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, in a buffer zone established around the tiger reserve’s most stringently protected core, which is off-limits to everyone except personnel and vetted researchers. The river was at very low tide, and a compound loomed above the river and fifteen feet of exposed mud banks like a fort bristling with defenses. Stoutly staked at the high-tide mark, a quadruple row of bamboo pylons formed a palisade, patrolled by a troop of rhesus monkeys. Inside the compound stood a shrine to Banbibi, the divine protectress of the forest, and to Dakshin Roi, the tiger god.

“In most of the forest stations, there is a deity statue,” Dr. Sanyal said as we stood before gaudily painted representations of the gods. The inhabitants of the Sundarbans are both Hindu and Muslim, but the wilderness has forged its own idiosyncratic beliefs, honored by people of both faiths. Banbibi is depicted as an attractive, sari-clad woman; she does not accept sacrifices of animals or blood but is propitiated with sweets. She is serene and kind, and is often shown riding unconcernedly on a roaring tiger, like Dionysus on his leopard.

“Mother, we are going to your kingdom,” runs a characteristic puja, or prayer, offered to Banbibi by devotees who must enter the forest: “Kindly protect us, please see that we get a safe return, we do not fall prey under your tiger’s paw.” Sometimes Banbibi’s brother, Shajangali, is depicted with her. In “dress and countenance,” as one authority has written, he seems to belong to “Muslim gentry.” The dashing Dakshin Roi, depicted as a mustachioed, gun-carrying, horse-riding, sporting gentleman, is Tiger incarnate. He is deep yellow, with large, compelling eyes. Within this nexus of sometimes contradictory associations, he is, like Vishnu, the Preserver, principally worshipped for his curative powers: “A god can create life and can take it,” as a village woman told me with some energy. An actual tiger might be Dakshin Roi, or the animal on which Banbibi rides, or Vishnu.

“Tiger is the king of the Sundarvans,” writes Tushar Niyogi in his “Tiger Cult of the Sundarvans” (from which the quotations above are also taken). “Any account of the Sundarvans remains incomplete if it does not include elaborate notes on Tiger.”

The boat pulled away from the Saznekhali jetty at dark. Some miles upstream, we dropped anchor at another village. By eight o’clock, the full moon had risen, and sky and river alike became milk white. The sound of the generator chug-chugged pleasantly across the water, and when it was shut off there was nothing to be heard at all. The few dhows also at anchor appeared as half-moon silhouettes. When dawn broke the next day, they had already departed.

We continued generally east, going against the tide in a narrowing of the river, which smoked with dawn mist. A small fishing boat appeared ahead, and as we drew abreast our captain hailed it. A man dressed in a ragged blue-and-white-striped shirt and a checked longi waved uncertainly. He was joined by his wife, who wore a heavy sweater over her sari against the morning cold. His name was Parimal Biswas, and he was a crab fisherman. A swath of tattered awning sheltered their bedding and tiny kitchen, and the bow was filled with a huge basket teeming with crabs, which Biswas uncovered with obvious pride; there were, he estimated, some fifty to sixty kilos. At a hundred rupees, or two dollars and fifty cents, a kilo, he expected to get more than a hundred dollars from this trip—a lot of money. His line was already rebaited, and he was punting along the shoreline, looking for a likely place to make a final drop.

Yes, he said, in answer to Dr. Sanyal’s query, he had often seen tigers. “When we see one, we cross to the opposite bank and lie down low,” his wife explained. “We pretend no one is around.” Biswas knew his work was dangerous. “But I have to eat,” he said with feeling. Digging into a pocket, he drew out a document, reaching across the water to hand it to Dr. Sanyal. “It is a permit to fish here,” Dr. Sanyal said. “He was born a cripple, and is allowed to fish here,” in the reserve. The permit, issued by the Government of West Bengal, Forest Department, was important: among other things, it insured that his family would be recompensed in the event that he was taken by a tiger.

We were still heading east, toward the most remote part of the reserve. Fronds of the great nipa palm and of the phoenix palm burst out of the leafy mangrove greenery. According to folk etymology, “Sundarbans” is Bangla for “the forest of beautiful trees,” and the mangroves shimmered in the low morning light—literally shimmered, as the leaves of some species are covered with a glossy protective wax, which is secreted, along with excess salt, as one of their strategic adaptations to the saline water. The vast majority of the Bengal coast’s marine life begins in the nursery of the Sundarbans; fifty-three species of reptiles are harbored here, more than two hundred species of birds, and at least fifty species of mammals, including the endangered Irrawaddy and Gangetic dolphins, the Smooth Indian otter and the cheetah-spotted fishing cat. A hundred years ago, there were Java rhino, wild buffalo, and swamp deer.

Sitting under the bow breezeway, Dr. Sanyal was watching the forest drift past, noting with pride its many accomplishments: the pneumatophores, or respiratory roots that rise in perpendicular spikes above the mud, like snorkels, carrying oxygen to the mangrove plant; the “derricks,” or elaborate root scaffolding that secures the mangrove in the tugging tides and the region’s many cyclones. “There are twenty-eight true mangrove species in Sundarbans,” Dr. Sanyal said, and he seemed about to embark on a loving recitation of them all. Reed slender, inherently elegant even in bush attire, Dr. Sanyal exuded an aura of gentleness and humility. To meet him in civilian life, in his home city of Calcutta, say, one might have surmised that he belonged to some contemplative priestly order; in reality, of course, he was a renowned authority on the hero-beast Panthera tigris tigris, the Royal Bengal tiger.

The adaptation of the Sundarbans tiger to the mangrove ecosystem is every bit as remarkable as that of the mangrove system to tidal ecology. Tigers, the largest of the world’s big cats, migrated to India twelve thousand years ago from south China and southeast Asia; the time of their arrival in the Sundarbans is not known. In the marshy land and brackish channels caused by encroaching tides, the huge terrestrial animals took to the water. “The Sundarbans tiger is amphibious,” Dr. Sanyal said. The tiger’s diet is not only meat based; it also includes aquatic prey, such as monitor lizards and other reptiles, frogs, and fish. The variety of the tiger’s prey—ranging, as one field manual cheerfully notes, “from fish to human beings”—is another advantage that the Sundarbans tiger has over other tiger populations.

It was only nine o’clock when the boat arrived at a neat compound of concrete-block buildings and gardens, where reserve officials and staff, some with their families, lived, surrounded by high, stout wire fencing. The day before, a tiger had sauntered along a creek outside the compound and left its pugmarks. “This was a female,” Dr. Sanyal said, pointing out that the four pads were slightly rectangular, each measuring about two and three-quarters inches. The pad marks of a male would be squarer and broader.

The prints had been made not far from a “mangrove cage walk”—a two-hundred-metre-long path through the forest under a protective wire tunnel, such as one might find in a maximum-security prison. The path ended at a thirty-foot-high watchtower, level with the tops of the tallest trees and overlooking a broad river that marks both the eastern limit of the Indian Sundarbans and the international border with Bangladesh. Historically, bandits have operated on both sides of the border, but the Bangladesh Sundarbans, which is also under protection, is considered the more lawless. The possibility of closer collaboration between the two Sundarbans is being explored, but for now the little-patrolled seventy-kilometre-long river border remains vulnerable to traffic and to poachers.

“A male tiger on this side who hears a female over there will swim over to her,” Dr. Sanyal said. Tigers can swim five miles, so the two-mile dash to Bangladesh would be a mere jaunt. “Once, I was following a tiger in a motorboat,” Dr. Sanyal said, as we continued looking across the river. “And the tiger was swimming faster.” A tiger is said to have clocked more than eighteen hundred feet at seven minutes and eighteen seconds—against the tide. Put another way, a tiger’s time for a hundred-metre freestyle would be a respectable one minute and twenty seconds. “Tiger is a very silent, very swift swimmer,” Dr. Sanyal said.

The Royal Bengal tiger is solitary and “secretive”—the last attribute regularly appears in the language of even the most sober field manuals. A group of tigers—should one be so fortunate to see one—is called a streak. A male tiger can be as large as ten and a half feet in length and weigh more than five hundred pounds. The tiger’s coat is deep amber, the lines of its characteristic black shadow-stripes abstract and sophisticated. Its claws retract, like those of a domestic cat; it “prusts,” or chuffs, rather than purrs, as well as roars. The iris of the tiger’s eye is amber-yellow. The tiger is one of the few anointed animals commonly referred to as “charismatic”; “Nature’s masterpiece of the creation,” to cite a recent book; or, as Kushal put it, “something to look up to,” both beautiful and powerful. The tiger is also a very clever animal, and a very effective predator. Stories abound of its strategic, chess-player maneuvering of prey and of its extraordinary stealth. Every story told to me by a witness or survivor of a tiger attack included words to the effect of “it came from nowhere.”

Project Tiger was inaugurated by the government of India in 1973, following the first tiger census, which disclosed that, of the estimated forty thousand tigers living in India at the turn of the previous century, fewer than two thousand remained. For decades, the conservation program had the reputation of being one of the most effective in the world, but in recent years tiger populations in India, as elsewhere, have plummeted, with drops in many reserves of as much as fifty to sixty per cent. In 2005, it was learned that every tiger in the Sariska Tiger Reserve—some hundred miles from India’s capital, New Delhi—had been killed by poachers.

A booming Chinese market for traditional medicines, responsible for other wildlife losses, remains the primary incentive for tiger poaching. In the Sundarbans, developments such as building projects and new roads within the reclaimed land are also cause for concern: roads, jetties, even cell-phone towers make remote tigerland more accessible.

“Sundarbans is a very, very difficult place—it’s one of the most difficult places. That is why tigers are surviving in Sundarbans,” Kushal said. “The poachers don’t know exactly how the tiger moves, where it’s living. That is why they could possibly not do what they have done to other places. That is the only reason—the terrain itself is protecting the tiger in Sundarbans.”

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