Elusive stripes

Sanjay Austa, May 21

The last bastion of tigers, Sunderbans is where these creatures prowl fearlessly and stories of survival are aplenty, says sanjay austa

Every forest guide in every tiger sanctuary in the country tries to hard sell his reserve. In Kaziranga, a guide told me how the tigers there were the real ‘wild’ tigers compared to the ‘tamed’ ones in Bandhavgarh. In Sunderbans, the guides need not resort to such hyperbolic tiger marketing. My guide, Niranjan Raptan, is himself a legend. He is variously called a former poacher turned guide to a tiger-attack survivor, depending on which edition of the Lonely Planet you read. One story goes that he was part of a poaching party when a tiger attacked him. According to another story, he was deep in the forest to collect honey when a tiger attacked him. His uncle saved his life but lost his own. Now, Raptan is the most famous guide in Sunderbans with the maximum number of tiger sightings to his name. He never went to school but can rattle off the scientific names of all the plants and animals in Sunderbans.

Rarest of the rare

Such stories of survival is the stuff Sunderbans is made of. The tiger-man conflict is the fiercest here, sometimes reaching a flashpoint. A widow in the Dayapur village whose husband was picked up by a tiger from the village is angry. “If we go into the forest and the tiger kills us, then you can blame us but it’s not fair when a tiger comes and attacks us in our village,” she says. In this incident, the tiger swam across a mile-long river to enter the village where her husband was killed and eaten.

The reputation of Sunderban tigers is fierce due to their man-eating history. Their ability of swimming across rivers and plucking the nodding boatmen at their oars is recounted in folklore all across Bengal. Some say it’s the salty water of the Bay of Bengal that makes the tiger so aggressive towards humans, thereby making them a part of their meal. Others, however, give the known reasons of old age and injury.

To prevent tigers from swimming across to human settlements, the government has erected nylon wire fencing all along the shores of villages. “The tiger can easily jump across them if he wants to. But the nylon wires provided a psychological barrier to the tiger. He tends to stay in,” says Raptan, my guide. Having chased tigers unsuccessfully in tiger reserves across India, Sunderbans is the last place where I expect to see the elusive cat.

Tiger sightings are the rarest in Sunderbans. Even the guides mark it as a special event on their calendar if they happen to sight a tiger. It’s easy to see why. Sunderbans is the biggest delta in the world, shared by India and Bangladesh. It is spread over 9,630 sq km with over 4,262 sq km of area within India. The Sunderbans Tiger Reserve Area at 2,585 sq km is the biggest tiger habitat in India. There are an estimated 274 tigers in the Indian portion of Sunderbans. The numbers increase and decrease during the mating season due to the migration of tigers in and out of the Bangladesh portion of Sunderbans.

As a tourist, you are taken on a large ferry and all you can do is scan the pneumatophore dotted shores of the mangrove forests, trying to spot a tiger, as you sail by. If you are lucky, the guide will show you the pugmarks of a tiger, just out from a long swim. Yet, tourists visit Sunderbans by the boatloads.

Sunderbans has a special energy of its own. It is a land of both, ancient myth and raw nature; of daily survival and death. You feel the energy the moment you enter the boat and see the vast mangrove forests in the distance. It is a unique ecosystem and so remote that it was only in 1987 that it was declared a World Heritage Site. The mangrove forests where the tiger and its prey species live are completely out of bounds for tourists. Local villagers can enter them only after obtaining a permit during the honey-gathering season, which begins in late April. The villagers enter the forests wearing a painted mask at the back of their head as it is believed that a tiger won’t attack if you are watching them. But the tiger has caught on and there have been instances of tiger attacks, regardless of the mask trick.

Jungle safari

The best way to experience the Sunderbans mangrove forests is on a small dinghy. It can be a bit wobbly if you shift your weight around the narrow boat. But this is the best way to get up close and view the beautiful mangrove forest. The dinghy is also the only means of transport that can go deep into the water channels and creeks too narrow for big ferries.

Our boat was rowed by a father-daughter duo on either end. A local singer sat in our midst singing soulful Bengali songs, eulogising the tiger. We sailed for an hour until the sun set in the watery horizon. The singer’s tunes gradually faded into the noises of the forest that started coming alive around us. We knew it was the time for the Sunderban tiger’s nocturnal prowl, and for us to head back to the village.

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