Still bright, in the forest of the night

In Jharkhali in the Sunderbans, man has eaten away their habitat, but tigers have found ways to survive. Arghya Manna reports  

By Arghya Manna
  • Published 25.02.18

Cat-astrophe: While locals in the Sunderbans devise methods (above) to keep the tiger away, the big cat learns to see through them over time   

To the southeast corner of the Sunderbans, on the banks of the Vidyadhari river, lies Jharkhali village. In recent times, the mangrove islands that constitute the Sunderbans - most of which lies in Bangladesh and part in Bengal - have be-come a huge hit with tourists and research-ers. Jharkhali's real claim to fame, rather infamy, is its tigers.

And so we set out for Jharkhali to check for ourselves.

The chhoto haati or tempo from Canning takes two hours. By the time we reach, it is afternoon. After checking into a desolate looking lodge, we step out to explore. We know nothing of the place save the name of a contact's contact. Quick to spot an outsider, one of the locals, a middle-aged man, starts chatting, volunteers to accompany us to the jetty - "jettyghat" in local parlance - and in exchange, bums a smoke.

There are trees growing on either side of a raised road. Would those be... Before we complete the sentence, our self-appointed guide replies cheekily, "Yes. Mangroves. The ones to your right are natural. Those to the left are man-made." A closer look reveals a difference in growth pattern. Also, on either side of the road are contiguous nylon nets.

And where do the tigers come from? Between puffs, the man points to a biggish tear in the net. Seeing our incredulity, he explains how wild animals have an aversion to the net. The Royal Bengal tiger is not scared of it, but because it is something that impedes free movement, chances are it might decide to change direction when the net comes in its way. "And then again, it may not - as the hole is proof," he says, points jettywards and walks away.

At the jettyghat we are told to come back later - it is off-season and there are no boats around at the moment. With time on our hands and no big cat in sight, we invoke the contact's contact - Ratan Biswas.

Ratan is well known in the area, even wields some clout. It is from him that we learn about the Dobanki Camp, a watchtower manned by forest department officials. First, they have to prevent indiscriminate felling of mangroves. It is a different matter that the government has cleared miles of it to build a hotel, a park and whatnot. Second, everyone venturing out into the islands to fish or collect honey has to register with the authorities here and procure a licence. The number of licences granted comprises only a fraction of the total applications, a step taken to protect the natural habitat. In the last 5-10 years, construction of mobile towers has led to the destruction of countless hives, but that's different. Finally, should a tiger enter the human habitat, it is the job of the Dobanki officials to monitor its movement.

Thus, chatting, we step into a boat that will take us into the backwaters. Bikram, the chap ferrying us, is no more than 16 and leers fixedly at the packet of cigarettes.

The entire waterway is covered on either side with more nylon net. We are inching close to the ocean, the waves are towering... We ask Bikram if he isn't scared of the rough waves or the maneaters lurking. He shrugs and empties half a packet of gutka into his mouth, and suddenly we realise we can count every rib of his copper body. This is someone who has lived with hunger for so long that he has learnt to be unafraid of all else.

We learn from him that most of his friends catch fish and work as boatmen to support their families. Ratan confirms, in hushed tones, how the girls of the region doggedly pursue higher education. The boys, he says, almost always go astray, some even turn smugglers. In fact, that's what happened with him as well, but that's another story.

There is no tiger in sight yet. We ask Ratan if he has ever seen one. He laughs and starts to tell us about what is apparently one of many such experiences.

"A few of us were at Dobanki when a tiger pounced on us. One swift movement of its foreleg and one of our mates went flying. Then it came to face me." He continues, "I had an axe in my hand but I did not strike."

According to Ratan, he remembered the words of village elders. They always said that when faced with a tiger, striking first was never a wise move. After all, most humans would not have strength enough to wound a tiger fatally. So what would happen is, the creature would gauge from the nature of the blow the strength or lack of strength of its adversary and launch a ferocious attack.

Were they not wearing tiger masks as precautionary measure? Ratan nods. The masks, he says, were once considered a worthy safety measure, but over time and with close human interaction, tigers had learnt to see through them. "They possibly considered it an insult to their intelligence even," he says.

As Bikram rows on, we look outwards at the land, the aerial roots pushing out of the ground like stalagmites. Ratan tells us that the tigers in these parts have very developed leg muscles. Mother Nature created them thus to negotiate the hardy undergrowth of the region.

We have deviated from the Dobanki story. So how did Ratan save his skin that day? "I screamed my lungs out. I had been told it annoys the tiger." Or it could be luck. It could, he agrees.

But had he ever witnessed a tiger kill? Ratan draws a deep breath and starts again.

"One time we were at the local sugar mill when a woman came and told us that her husband had been carried away by a tiger. He had been exploring one particular stretch of the backwaters. It had yielded a good catch of fish the last couple of days and he had gone back for more."

Even when death is certain, in case of licence holders, it is imperative that the body be found. Reason: no body, no compensation. The next of kin have to go back to the site of kill and retrieve either blood-stained clothes or the body or a body part to prove the killing and claim the money.

Continues Ratan, "Typically a search party comprises 30-40 people. This is because after a kill, a tiger becomes particularly excited and ready to rampage. There is no truth in the claim that after a kill it is satiated and is, therefore, relatively harmless. There were only six of us, so we started getting more people on board."

But why would so many people risk their lives knowingly for others? Ratan explains that is how the village set-up functions. Economic interdependence prompts social connectedness.

By the time the search party reached the spot - just opposite the Jharkhali jettyghat - it was twilight. Says Ratan, "We spied half the body, face down in the mud. We had barely taken in the scene when one of us fell to the ground and another yelped in pain as he had one eye gouged out. The tiger had found us. At this point, two others took up sticks and started to hit the tiger. The tiger pounced on both and killed them. The others started retreating but not before the tiger had swooped on one and made away with him. So there we were with three bodies, when we had gone to fetch one."

Boatride over, we headed for Dobanki on Ratan's bike. There is a tiger rehabilitation centre there; nothing scientific, we are told. The state fisheries department is building fishery and agricultural training camps here.

At the camp, we meet junior forest officer Swapan Kumar Mondol. More tiger stories tumble out of his kitty. He points to the spot where we are standing and says, "Last year, Poila Baisakh, a tiger was standing here." Now, forest officials are not allowed to shoot or even tranquillise the animal if it does not strike. Says Mondol, "It kept roaming around and I had to follow it around." Once it was dark, someone turned on the generator and just like that, the tiger fled.

But the best tiger story is from the 2016 Assembly election day. Election means fear of rigging, which means extra vigil. An IPS officer from Delhi, two Election Commission officials, police - Jharkhali was swarming that day. Says Mondol, "We were alert to any kind of political chaos and agitation, but two tigresses stole the show. They chose that very day to amble out. Ballot box was forgotten, rigging was forgotten. All day, all attention was on those two ladies."