A tiger swimming in the hazy mist between mangrove islands. Bon Bibi, the goddess of the forest, the only power according to Sunderbans legend that can save a human from a tiger attack. My vision of the unique ecosystem of the Sunderbans was coloured by images in Amitav Ghosh’s evocative “Hungry Tide” --- a novel that I had read several years ago.
So when my aunt mentioned the possibility of a trip to the Sunderbans when I visited her in Kolkata, Ghosh’s images of the Sunderbans quickly appeared in the movie screens of my mind. Not to mention that I had a deep attraction and fascination for forests and wildlife.
As it turned out, we left for the Sunderbans the very day I arrived in Kolkata. It was a bright December afternoon. Our group consisted of a motley bunch – my cousins, close friends of my aunt and uncle from Darjeeling and a recently married young couple from the U.S. who had heard about the spare seats on the boat that had been arranged for our group.
After the hustle-bustle of getting our convoy of three cars on the road, we began a two and a half hour drive to the village of Gadkhali. From here, a boat would take us into the Sunderbans.
We quickly left the noise of Kolkata behind as our drivers drove at a blistering pace on a narrow state highway. Paddy and mustard fields glittered in the afternoon sun. Pink and white lotus flowers floated in wet ponds outside simple homes. Further off in the distance, rising above dry fields we could see quaint, fat chimneys belching smoke. These, I was told were brick kilns.
We drove past several small villages – wire coops crowded with chickens awaiting a cruel fate, fruits and vegetables spread out on burlap cloth by the roadside, tea stalls selling hot chai in earthen matkas, rickshaws plying crowded narrow village streets.
At one village we took a wrong turn and found ourselves on an even narrower road. We struggled to get past a large wooden cart stuck at an odd angle on the road. The proximity of the cart and the car might have raised hackles anywhere else, but here the close encounter only produced mild amusement. The villagers watched lackadaisically as our white car and the brown cart scraped each other but managed squeezing by nevertheless.
Finally when we reached Gadkhali we were glad to stretch our legs and drink some fresh coconut water. Sunset was drawing close as we walked over to the riverbank. We could now see an array of boats moored on the banks of the Bidyadhari.
Most of the boats were large, serving as ferries between the major islands of the Sunderbans. It wasn’t just the tiger after all that lived in this mangrove Venice. Many scattered islands at the periphery of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve had significant populations of humans. Outside the reserve, there are an estimated thousand villages in the larger Sunderbans area.
Moored along the river, awaiting our arrival was the MV Bholanath, a blue-red-white boat, which would be our ride into the Sunderbans. It belonged to the “Project Lifeline Sunderbans”, an ICNL (The Institute of Climbers and Nature Lovers) project, which is engaged in various eco development programs in the fringe villages of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. The group has a seemingly simple but crucial objective – “Save the people to save the Sunderbans tigers”.
Project Lifeline wisely understands that protecting the tiger is difficult to impossible without the interest and cooperation of the humans who actually live next to these endangered wild cats. They understand that highbrow conservation issues focusing solely on the tiger would achieve little at the cost of the villagers living nearby. It’s these villagers after all who bear the brunt of tiger attacks.
Yes, over the centuries some Sunderbans tigers were known to have developed the taste for human flesh. With their main natural prey – spotted deer and wild boar – becoming scarce and their habitat shrinking rapidly, tigers had taken to attacking humans that ventured into the core areas for honey or firewood. In retaliation, villagers would poison tigers or trap them.
It is a confrontation that had perhaps been more equal in ancient times -- man and tiger locked in a battle of force. But now the tiger was cornered – humans are increasingly encroaching the tigers’ territory, poaching not just the tigers themselves but also their prey of deer and wild boar. So now even if the tiger managed killing a villager by brute force -- with each attack it was instead losing the war of survival. The tragic truth was that humans outnumbered the golden, vulnerable cat many times over.
For our group of touristy visitors though, the only tiger in our line of sight was the metal outline of a tiger’s silhouette perched high above the steering cabin of the MV Bholanath. Painted blue on the outside, the boat had a happy, bright red paint splattered on the inside floors. Rising above the steering cabin, standing high on long sticks was an Indian flag accompanied by two striped yellow and black tiger flags. The three flags flapped in the wind, while the metal outline of the tiger’s silhouette remained still, reflecting the light of the setting sun. A small fishing net resembling a basketball hoop also moved gently in the wind. A coconut was perched at the bow of the boat, guiding and blessing the MV Bholanath’s journeys.
We were surprised to see how spacious the boat was – when we walked down from the main deck to the lower level, we found two small cabins with beds, a bathroom and a large kitchen and dining area.
After exploring the heart of the boat, we climbed back up and lounged on the large seating area on the deck. It had the unusual shape and feeling of a large bed, with cushions strewn across it, a perfect viewing spot for passengers that stretched right up to the steering cabin.
The setting sun imparted a golden glow to the banks, the other boats, and the sandy mud. Thus began our journey into the realm of tides -- where fresh river water from tributaries of three main rivers - the Ganges, Brahmaputra and the Meghna - combined with the salty ocean water of the Bay of Bengal.
The estuaries formed by this unique ecological system are what make the mangroves unique. Both the estuaries and the lands surrounding them are areas of transition from land to sea and from fresh to salt water. The beating heart of these estuaries are the tides with their varying low and high rhythms.
We set off slowly through the waters, feeling mellow in the golden orange evening haze. A round of tea was served. Soon after, crunchy pakoras emerged from the kitchen below and we munched happily.
By the time we reached the village of Sajnakhali on the island of Sudhanyakhali, an inky hue had taken over the sunset orange. This is where we registered our boat’s entry into the core area of the reserve.
The registration process didn’t take long. As we drifted through the darkness towards the island that housed the Project Lifeline Sunderbans rest house, we ruminated on the possibility of a large, striped feline roaming the dark banks.
But instead the only animals that greeted us at the village Anpur on Satjelia Island were the village dogs. Friendly and medium sized, these mongrels wagged their tails briskly as we arrived at the ICNL rest house after a brief walk from the riverbank. We walked over a small bridge spanning a lotus pond to reach the rest house. Even at night we could identify the outlines of large, white lotus flowers floating on the fresh water.
The rest house had several floors with many small rooms. The windows in our room on the first level overlooked a dry field. The tiger ruled our imagination. We wondered if we might spot one crossing the field, silently on large, soft paws. After dinner, my cousins and I made a plan to keep watch for some time, to look out for any tiger crossing the field. But instead we slept quickly.
The next morning, we headed deeper into the Sunderbans. We were now in the core reserve area of the Sunderbans that was protected. This section has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site for its fragile, unique ecosystem and incredible biodiversity. Taking turns to use a pair of binoculars, we scanned the shores for signs of large mammals.
The low tides exposed the wet sands that now glistened in the bright morning light. Several species of mangroves hugged the banks but their leaves and branches didn’t reach very high. This was a land of low foliage. Along the banks, we saw several birds, mostly cranes.
We strained our eyes to look beyond the passing shores, scanning the narrower channels of water that ran deeper into the body of the mangrove forest. But in the harsh light of the morning, the tiger remained elusive.
After more than an hour of intense scanning, the rhythmic motion of the boat, the fresh air, the beauty of the Sunderbans lulled us. We stopped staring intently at the banks. We chatted, took photographs and then gradually fell into a reverie of peering at the water, the passing mangroves, and a few boats. At one point, our host, Mrinal Chatterjee of Project Lifeline Sunder bans, pointed towards the distant Bangladesh border. It didn’t appear as a distinct boundary though; man-made lines between nations rarely appear as such. And in the far distance, the mangroves seemed to give away into the vast ocean. The hot sun created a haze. My mind wandered back again to the dream like sequences in “The Hungry Tide”.
We disembarked at the Dobanki Canopy Walk, which had been created to give visitors a deeper glimpse of the mangroves, without causing damage to the mangrove saplings. The canopy mainly consisted of an elevated concrete path with wire mesh on both sides. Beyond the wire mesh and the under the concrete path lay wet mangrove sand where mud crabs had dug little holes. We could also see new mangrove saplings rising from the sand.
The sun had now climbed higher into the sky and beat down on us with increased intensity. Some of the mangroves had been cleared around the walk so as to allow visitors a view of passing deer, if nothing else.
A board at the entrance of Dobanki Canopy Walk listed the various species found in the Sunderbans – deer, wild boar, rhesus monkey, leopard cat, terrapin, the Irrawaddy dolphin, King Cobra, estuarine crocodile. The list was long but visiting humans, especially those on a short visit like us, rarely spotted any of these species.
Soon we were back in the boat again. Here in the Sunderbans, the boat was our bus. Our next stop was a different outlook post, a machan of sorts, with views of tranches of land that had been cleared. They looked like forays into the forest. A fresh water pool close to the machan attracted a small herd of chital. The spotted deer walked tenderly and sipped tentatively in the evening light. It seemed like a good spot to wait for the tiger.
So here at this elevated post we whiled away some time. Groups of noisy tourists came and went. We gave dirty looks to those who were especially noisy. We were irritated that they weren’t quiet in respect for the wildlife, but they ignored our gestures of putting our fingers to our mouths and hissing ssshhhhhh.
Once it was quieter, rhesus monkeys clambered down carefully from surrounding trees and slowly approached the water’s edge. At one point, a mother monkey drew her baby close to her chest and appeared to go on high alert, peering fiercely at the forest edge. We hoped that it was a big cat that had alarmed her.
But the tense moment passed. The monkey relaxed. The deer and monkeys now gathered together at the pond, at ease with each other as they drank the cool liquid calmly.
We talked amidst ourselves about how this seemed like a good spot to look for the elusive cat. We were ready to wait here longer, till dusk and beyond. After all, the tiger too needed a drink of fresh water. Some of us quoted basic lessons gleaned from watching nature programs on the National Geographic channel --- that large cats were always more active during dawn and dusk than during the day.
But the others in our group wanted to head back to the guesthouse and eventually, we had to reluctantly give in and return to the MV Bholanath, bidding adieu to our promising vantage point.
We all agreed that if we really wanted a glimpse of the majestic cat, we would need to return to such fresh water lookouts and maintain a much longer vigil, perhaps during dawn instead. But for now, we returned to the rest house.
That night we sat around a crackling fire on the grounds of the rest house, sharing ghost stories and eating scrumptious Bengali food. The next morning we would leave soon after breakfast, once again carried over the waters in our now familiar boat.
The next morning, as we passed by the mangrove islands again, I mentally went over the list of wildlife we had managed to spot. We had seen rhesus monkeys, chital, two kinds of kingfishers and several species of storks. But more than anything else, I had glimpsed a watery world with a charm entirely different from that of land forests.
My hope and prayer was that this unique ecosystem survives despite the growing population pressure on one hand, and the rising sea levels on the other. I hope that the Sunderbans thrive not just for the majestic tiger, but all the other species that are part of this unique tidal realm. As they rightly say in conservation circles, to save the tiger, you have to save the forest.
The 2011 tiger census revealed that the average number of tigers in this mangrove land was about 70. This report dispelled the myth of another more optimistic number – 276 tigers - that had been bandied about for several years before. That number had come up during the 2003-04 tiger census, a figure that had been criticized in conservation circles as being unrealistic and unscientific.
I decided I must try and return to the Sunderbans one day but this time with more patience and time in hand. And hopefully I would return not just as a frivolous tourist, a mute spectator. Perhaps I would return with a less selfish objective at hand – not merely an obsession to see the tiger, but to do something, however small, so that tigers could continue to roam this beautiful, dream-like tidal sphere.
Natasha Israni is a New York based broadcast journalist. She is Times Now's U.S. correspondent while also freelancing for Reuters TV. She covers a wide range of topics -- from international affairs and Indo-US relations to breaking news, lifestyle and human-interest stories. When she's not on a television deadline, she takes out time for her other passions -- nature, wildlife, travel, conservation and environmental issues.
Also see pictures of Sunderbans by Ritul Mehta http://www.esamskriti.com/photo-detail/Sunderbans.aspx