Veering southwest, we entered a new network of creeks, cutting diagonally into the interior of Pirkhali, a block of islands measuring roughly a hundred and fifty square kilometres and marked on maps as being “dense mixed jungle.” “There are resident tigers at Pirkhali,” Dr. Sanyal said. “As well as those that visit.” We entered an arm of the Gosaba River, which broadened to open, long views down its straight course.
Ahead, lazing on the mud, was a small crocodile. As the boat ambled on, Dr. Sanyal told of an eyewitness account reported many years ago: Crossing a broad river, like this one, a tiger had been followed by a crocodile. Maneuvering alongside the tiger, the crocodile thrashed its great tail, striking the tiger across his nose. Here Dr. Sanyal straightened his back and raised his head imperiously; unconsciously, he assumed the mien and manner of the hero-beast. “Tiger had blood coming out of his nose,” Dr. Sanyal said, majestically. “But he did not say a thing. He kept on swimming. As soon as he got to the other side, he put one paw on the ground, and he turned with the second paw and came up under the crocodile’s belly, and flipped him”—eighteen hundred pounds of estuarine crocodile, which the tiger then ripped open. There was a pause while we savored this tale of strategy and courage. Dr. Sanyal had regained his own gentle manner. “And this is why we love Tiger,” he said.
Netidhopani Camp stood at the southern limit of the buffer zone and on the edge of the reserve’s most protected core area. Unusually, the site had historic remains: the ruins of a three-hundred-year-old brick temple, built to commemorate a young widow whose prayers to Shiva were said to have brought her dead husband back to life. The interior was rumored to house a lingam of Shiva; two weeks earlier, it had also housed a tiger, which had borrowed its convenient shade.
The quarters of the camp’s officials were domestic and attractive, with paths lined with pots of hibiscus, marigolds, and roses—the whole surrounded by a palisade of wire. The fence bore a large inward dent, which had been made by a tiger charging at chatting forest officials. The warden told us that he had lived here for a year and a half, and had seen a lot of tigers. Just five days earlier, two had strolled in together and rolled around on the ground near the sweet-water pond outside the compound, and only two days ago a man in a small fishing party had been killed by a tiger very nearby. One of his companions, who had witnessed the death, had “lost his senses” from fear. It was the third person killed in the area this year—all victims, it was believed, of a single tiger. As the warden put it, “There was a true man-eater around.”
The warden was about to go on patrol, and agreed to let us follow his boat. It is not known why Sundarbans tigers have a propensity for man-eating, although theories abound: because the salt water makes them irritable, because human bodies floating down from the Ganges have whetted their appetite, and so forth; more plausibly, Sundarbans tigers, in their remote domain, have never learned to fear man. Their taste for humans is not, however, as happens elsewhere, because the tigers are old or infirm and humans make easy prey. A distinction must be made, as Dr. Sanyal pointed out, between the “circumstantial man-eater,” such as a tigress protecting her cub, and man-eaters like the one across the river, the site of whose last kill the boat had now reached.
It was a pretty bay at the entrance to a narrow channel, and it was easy to see why someone might use it as a mooring. Ahead of us, suddenly, the warden’s boat began churning backward; the officials in their khaki park uniforms crowded the starboard rail, pointing into the forest; remembering us, some turned and urgently beckoned. Less than two minutes later, when we pulled up, there was nothing to see but low-growing mangrove trees. The tiger had been resting on the shaded beach afforded by the low tide. Peering deeply into the forest recesses through high-powered binoculars, I could see the natural paths that wound among the mangrove clusters, shelters made of a matting of branches, lairs and dark shadowy areas—a thousand places to hide a tiger.
“After Project Tiger was launched, it was our duty to minimize the man-animal conflict,” Dr. Sanyal said afterward, recalling his years as a forest officer. “Whenever a tiger strays inside a village, one has to go immediately. . . . It’s an emergency.” As field director of the Sundarbans, he had been equipped with two jet speedboats and a marksman with a tranquillizer gun. “I used to take a hand mike with me so that I could guide the people—‘Don’t come very near Tiger, keep a distance.’ ”
In his monthly rounds to the islands and villages, Dr. Sanyal sought to persuade the local people that officialdom was committed to the region, not just to the tigers. Initially, there had been resentment; villagers pointed out, “The tiger is killing us—why is it protected?” “When they saw that we were attending to them, their enmity to Tiger was gradually reduced,” Dr. Sanyal said. “Quite a few tigers were killed before by the villagers.” He continued, “Fortunately for me, all the six years I stayed there as field director, not a single tiger was killed by the local people—not a single one. It was only due to the coöperation I got.”
Sundarbans tiger attacks were documented as early as the sixteen-hundreds, and legend has it that during the British colonial era tigers every year claimed hundreds of lives. Today, the number of reported deaths has averaged around ten a year for the past decade. This reduction involved an aggressive campaign to modify the conduct of both man and tiger, which inspired an arsenal of hopeful and imaginative tiger deterrents: masks with a painted human face worn on the back of the head to trick the tiger, who prefers attacking from behind; Tiger Guard Head Gear, a fibreglass casing for the head, neck, and chest, issued to forest staff, who, like villagers, are highly vulnerable. Hot and awkward in the summer, the outfit was, according to Dr. Sanyal, “very comfortable” in the winter, which is the working season. “I went inside the forest many, many times without attack—you look something like an astronaut,” he said, which alone may have deterred the baffled tigers. Another measure was the creation of life-size electrified clay dummies, dressed in the clothes of honey gatherers and fishermen and left to stand in the forest, administering a two-hundred-and-thirty-volt jolt to any attacking tiger.
But the primary strategy to “minimize man-eating” was to keep as many people as possible out of the forest. “During my entire stay, I did not find a single case where a tiger came inside a village and killed a man,” Dr. Sanyal said. Livestock, not people, were the victims; in 2004, a tiger famously killed sixteen cattle in a single night. “The problem is when the people are going inside the forest,” he went on. “That’s what I tried to convince them. ‘This is what is happening: when Tiger is coming to your territory, he is not killing you; but when you are entering Tiger’s places, then the killing takes place.’ They realized that, but they said, ‘Our living is fishing, honey collecting, and woodcutting, so what to do? We have to venture to Tigerland.’ ”
We had arranged to meet with a group of honey gatherers, who, of all who venture into Tigerland, undertake the most dangerous forest work. Joining us on a small launch that we had acquired for the outing, they gave instructions to the captain, who took us to a place where the gatherers commonly entered the forest.
A spokesman emerged from the honey collectors, a thin man, with gray hair and beard stubble, named Haldar. He had been going into the forest for honey since he was about twenty, some thirty years ago. There was a protocol for his profession, which he outlined with much authority: around the first of April of every year, when the forest was in full bloom, you went to the Forest Department to obtain a honey-collecting permit, and were issued a tiger-tricking mask, for the back of the head. “We leave them in the boat,” he said matter-of-factly, to Dr. Sanyal’s consternation. “The mask gets in the way when you are climbing trees.” A team of men works together; this year, he had gone out with five companions. Before you went, you made a puja and prayed to Banbibi.
To find honey, you followed the bees, climbing a tree and looking up to sight them. The bees must be full bees; an empty bee wags his tail and flies erratically, a full bee flies in a true bee line. You spent all day in the forest, smoking out hives.
Traditionally, honey collectors and wood gatherers entered the forest only with a gunin, a man credited with knowledge of charms to keep tigers at bay; but, as “Tiger Cult of the Sundarvans” notes, in recent times “more than once their tricks have been proved ineffective . . . to check the howling beast,” particularly when gunins themselves have fallen to the tiger’s paw. The book continues, “And it is interesting that, usually, when a tiger attacks a jungle entrant it breaks the neck of the victim and carries away. But while a tiger attacks a spirited gunin . . . it generally puts its paw on the face of the person so that he cannot utter his charm.” In thirty years of honey gathering, Haldar said, he had seen twenty-five tigers, and, like the other collectors on the launch, he had been attacked. His friend Sardar, who was sitting beside him, said that years ago he had been jumped from behind and held down under a tiger’s paw while one of his companions hit the animal with a wood axe until it released him. Here, Sardar turned his back and lifted his shirt to show a large, dark, unmistakably pug-shaped scar.
Following animated directions, the launch turned and nosed into a shallow inlet. A frisson of expectation passed over the boat, as palpable as a cold shadow, while the mangrove foliage closed around the bow. “Well, here we are,” Haldar said with glee every bit as palpable; “Let’s all get out!” Dr. Sanyal frowned and gently shook his head, and, after a face-saving pause, the launch reversed and slunk back downriver. Hugging the mud banks, now at low tide, we passed very close to a large snake, which, even with its head buried in a muddy hole, was at least six feet long. Yelping in unison, Dr. Sanyal and Kushal leaned over the boat’s rail for a better look. “King cobra!” Kushal exclaimed, as the snake withdrew its head with cold dignity. “You have been asking us about the tiger, but there are other dangerous creatures,” Haldar said indignantly. “There are a lot of snakes inside, and in particular the cobra.”
Some minutes later, the launch drew abreast of a small, shaky hut set back from the forest fringe and looped with colorful garlands—one of the numerous small shrines to Banbibi that stand along the rivers. “Our families pray to God when we go into the forest,” Haldar said. “The wives, the parents—everyone cries. Our wives treat us as dead when we are gone. They eat only at night; imagining us in the forest in the day, they don’t eat then. They imagine us in the boat, safe, at night—then they eat.” Throughout the Sundarbans, it is common for wives to live like widows while their husbands are in the forest, forgoing the prerogatives of married women, such as colorful saris and the splash of vermillion in their hair. There are also villages of real “tiger widows,” women whose husbands entered the forest and simply never came out. At the threat posed by tigers, Haldar waved a hand. “There would be no Sundarbans if there were no tiger,” he said, echoing a familiar sentiment. “People will remove the wood.” He added, philosophically, “I would be risking my life anyway, whatever I did.”
In the settlement of Jharkhali, on Namkhana Island, we sought out the companion of the man who had been killed two days earlier by the tiger we had almost seen. His name was Monoranjan Mondol, and we met in an attractive bungalow of vaguely colonial-era style, with tightly closed green shutters. A few years earlier, two tigers had ambled into the building, and it was now little used. Mondol was a tall, athletic-looking man, with handsome, distinguished features; he walked carefully, very erect, and with the reserve of a man who was still visibly stunned.
The sun through the green shutters formed bands of light across Mondol’s face as he described how his party of three men had moored their small boat in the pleasant creek we had seen. At some point, the men noticed pugmarks on the right bank. Someone said, “There’s a tiger here; let’s hurry and finish.” They were looking to the right but the tiger came from the left, and roared. Together, the three men rushed forward, making a noise. “But the tiger was not to be frightened,” Mondol recalled. Leaping toward the victim, it caught him by the throat and simply carried him into the forest. Mondol ran after them for some thirty or forty feet and then stopped. “Such a big animal, but there was not a branch broken,” he said, and even before his words were translated it was possible to catch the wonderment in his voice: Not a branch, not a twig out of place.
Our last hours in the Sundarbans were passed in a narrow creek just beyond the Sundarkati Eco-Conservation Camp, in the western buffer zone. Although not under the jurisdiction of Project Tiger, Sundarkati was known to have a lot of tigers; according to Pradeep Vyas, a joint director of the Biosphere Reserve, over the past several years some twenty-five had strayed across the river into villages in the vicinity, two of which had been trapped or tranquillized recently—one, an old tiger with one hind leg, was transported to the Calcutta zoo.
We had been told of a strategic creek, at the intersection of two channels, and arrived at dawn to find a small boat moored off one of the banks, with a solitary fisherman on board. Fresh pugmarks, made in the night, circled the boat—from right bank to left, from left bank to right. Yes, said the fisherman, looking worried, he had known a tiger was around, but—asking the familiar question—what was he to do?
As the fisherman punted to the river, our boat anchored in the channel. The right bank bore thick stands of phoenix palms, a favorite of the tiger. The sun beat down on the channel. The phoenix palms, striped with dried orangish fronds and dark shadows, were surely tiger territory. As time passed, our talk became idle, and in a low moment I encouraged Kushal to give his tiger roar, as the fishermen and honey gatherers had done in the course of their narratives. Laughing and leaning back against the port rail, Kushal roared—“AAA-uuugh,” a sound that swallowed space rather than projected into it.
There was a brief pause, and then, from the starboard side, an answering roar.
“Something big is moving in there,” someone called from the roof, but by the time I scrambled up there I saw only the briefest tremble of movement in the fronds.
“If it had been a mating call, he would have responded immediately,” Dr. Sanyal said afterward. “Tiger was curious, just testing us.”
On four occasions, Dr. Sanyal had alluded to an incident that had taken place years earlier and obviously still haunted him, and on the last day of our voyage he told the story. In 1989, he had been summoned to a village on Basanti Island into which a tiger had strayed. Arriving at dusk with a marksman and a tranquillizing gun, he found the animal lying low in a bamboo grove. The tiger was darted, and Dr. Sanyal and his colleague loaded it onto the flatbed of a rickshaw van. In the dark, with the tiger lying between them, they began the hour-and-a-half journey across the island to the motor launch that would deliver the tiger safely across the river.
“After about an hour, I found that Tiger was coming to,” Dr. Sanyal said. As the tiger tried to sit up, Dr. Sanyal asked his assistant to administer Valium. “Then he brought out his box and found there is no Valium,” Dr. Sangal recounted. “So I was in a fix.” A second, two-milligram dose of tranquillizer was reluctantly administered to the tiger, and they continued on. At the motor launch, the sleeping tiger began salivating heavily, and then blood came from its mouth. It had been over-tranquillized.
“Ultimately, it died,” Dr. Sanyal said. He paused before continuing, “The great experience was the next day. I found hundreds of people were coming to see this tiger. I was not feeling well, because it had died. I was sitting there in a chair. Everyone who was coming and seeing the tiger was telling me, ‘What is this? Could you not save this animal? It is a beautiful animal! You could have saved it.’
“This thing we say—‘If Tiger is not there, our forest will not be there, we will not get our honey’—that is a secondary thing. But this was the direct impact: they were looking at me—‘You could have saved this beautiful a