The Strange World
It was 10 am on a mid-January day and the sun , almost above our head, had already driven away the morning chill. Our boat left the jetty as soon as all of us stepped in. While drifting slowly away we could see a few boats trying to jostle into the small over crowded concrete jetty and a tall chimney of a nearby brick kiln billowing out dense cottony smoke like a symptom of civilized pollution on the verge of world’s largest mangrove forest. We were at Sonakhali, around 100 km of from Kolkata. This is one of the gateways to Sunderbans – the largest delta in the world and the original abode of the Royal Bengal Tiger.
4264 sq. km of Indian Sunderbans lie at the southern tip of west Bengal where the land meets the sea. A vast portion (approx. 6000 sq. km) of Sunderbans belongs to Bangladesh.
The non-human residents of Sunderbans never bother for the international boundaries though. When did a tiger need a passport? The whole Sunderbans is their territory. The 2585 sq. km Sunderbans National park is the largest tiger reserve of India and has been announced as UNESCO world heritage site in the year 1997.
The journey to the world’s largest estuarine forest is dangerous as it is the home land of largest no. of wild tigers in the world. 70% of it’s area is under saline water. Hundreds of creeks and tributaries crisscross each other , that’s why most of the time you have to be on a boat while in the Sunderbans. Most important, inside the tiger reserve you are not allowed onshore except in the well protected fenced areas created specially for that purpose. It appears as if you need to be inside a cage in a land where tigers roam free!
After an hour of boat journey we crossed a place called Gosaba – the last rural township of this area. On our way we saw a lot of people fishing in the rivers and creeks with mosquito nets. All the rivers of this area are infested with Gangetic sharks and salt water crocodiles. You often find persons in the nearby villages, maimed by their attacks—some have lost their limbs during catching fish either to the croc or to the small sharks. Yet the poor villagers keep fishing in those dangerous waters , unprotected, because it is their livelihood . They have some other professions also. But those are at least equally dangerous if not more---like going into the tiger infested forests for collecting honey, wax and firewood.
How do they avoid a tiger attack? It is a very innovative method. When they venture deep into the forest , they wear masks fixed on the backside of the head that look like human faces. As the tigers always prefer to attack from behind, a face looking from the backside of a man tricks the tiger into thinking that the target is alert and is facing him. It has been seen that the trick helps a lot.
It is a common belief that continuous drinking of saline water makes the Royal Bengal Tigers very ferocious in character & is to some extent responsible for converting it into a man eater too. These tigers are very good swimmers and they can long jump up to 30 ft. The numerous sky facing, sharp and strong bayonet-like breathing roots of the mangrove trees make good jumpers out of them. The roots cover long stretches of land making it impossible for the soft pawed beast to run steadily. Covering the ground in long bounds from one clear spot to another is the only alternative.
Nearly in each village of Sunderbans you will find some people who has been injured by tigers; tales of man-eaters can be heard from every corner of Sunderbans. There are some locations commonly known as widow-villages where most of the man-folk have been taken by the tigers during their trips to the forests. A tiger making a foray in a village is also not very uncommon. But such cases are decreasing as the tiger reserve has mostly been fenced.
After a 3-hours-long river cruise through the spidery network of two major rivers and their tributaries & branches we reached the Sunderbans Tiger Camp, a resort deep in the heart of the Sunderbans.
After lunch we went to Sajnekhali on the other bank of the river. In Sajnekhali there is a watch tower , tourist lodge and a museum too. We spent a long time in the watch tower, hoping to get a glimpse of the great royal Bengal tiger but the big cats were in no mood to humour us that afternoon.
Next morning our cruise started early. The pulsating sound of our motor boat was melting into the uneven concert of a variety of birds—there were kingfishers , pelicans , swamp partridges , fish eagles , ducks, cranes, gulls all around us, each busy with its daily routine. An incredible variety of reptiles are also found in Sundarbans, which includes King Cobra, Python , Water Monitor and crocodile. The area is also renowned for it’s conservation of sea turtles.
After around 2 hrs. journey, suddenly our pilot pointed towards a spot in the river to our left, “Can you see something?” Our untrained eyes took some time to pick up the clue—there were two eyes and a snout bobbing into the bubbling water!! It was a crocodile!! As soon as our boat went closer, it dived underwater , not to be seen again.
We took another half hour before we could locate another croc sunning itself on a muddy bank. There were monkeys everywhere. They are efficient signalmen for an approaching tiger. When they sense an approaching tiger their frightened behaviour betrays the presence of the predator to a trained eye. They are good friends to the deer though. While foraging inside the canopy of the trees they throw down lots of branches and the deer feed on them. So, wherever there is a group of monkeys having a lunch on the leafy branches of the trees, you will find some deer sauntering below, feeding on the fallen leaves. Now, besides crabs and fishes and boars, the tiger loves deer flesh too. It tries to approach the grazing deer stealthily, but cannot escape the vigil of the monkeys sitting high above the grounds. As soon as the monkeys sight the tiger they start shrieking and jumping out of fright. This alerts the deer and shoo them away.
We could sight a few deer on the river bank. Our guide showed us some prominent pug marks of a tiger family on the shore of the creek. They were quite fresh—the family must have strolled past the area only a little while ago!
“The royal Bengal tiger is one of the most clever and powerful animals. A tiger pouncing from the shore of a narrow river on a passing boat and preying on its occupants is not very uncommon in these forests. It is an artist in camouflaging itself! Who knows it may be watching us at this very moment hiding from that nearby bush !!” our guide said, pointing at a large bush nearby and continued speaking, “Generally these big cats mark their target first and then suddenly pounces on it from a distance.” Scary enough! We involuntarily tried to push inwards from our posts beside the railings of our boat.
“A tiger can be very intelligent , desperate and vindictive if needs be,” continued our guide, “listen to this story and you will know. One day a tiger came into our village and took shelter into a paddy field near the river bank. Its bright yellow coat was prominently visible from a distance. Some of the villagers started pelting stones at the tiger ignoring the advice of the village elders. Now, there was one young boy dressed in blue shirt among the stone pelters. He was very accurate hitter and his stones found the target several times. The tiger appeared to ignore the attacks at first. Nobody could guess that he had already marked his target in his turn. Suddenly the tiger reached the crowd in a few long bounds, pounced upon the blue clad boy, broke the neck and ran away.”
On reaching Sudhanyakhali, some tourists informed us excitedly that they had spotted a tiger from the watch tower. At once we rushed to the watch tower . On the watch tower we met a forest ranger and an experienced forest guard. They were waiting there for last two days with their movie cameras to shoot tigers, but the tiger had eluded them till them. When we enquired about the sighting of a tiger by some tourists a few minutes ago , the forest guard laughed and told. “The mistook a deer seen at a distance to be a tiger. They have come a long way. So why not let them be happy with that?”
That was the last station of our three-days tour. The majestic ruler of the Sunderbans remained elusive. Unlike many other forests of our country the royal Bengal tigers of Sunderbans are the real kings. They do not care to pose in front of our camera here like they do in many other forests. You should feel yourself lucky if they grant you a sighting. We were not lucky in that respect this time. But there’s always a next time and who knows we may be second time lucky!!