Travel June 2012

In the Forests of the Night

Along the Bay of Bengal’s wild tidal basin, the scorpions and crocs can seem relatively harmless.
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Tim Laman

In a clearing of dense jungle, near the India-Bangladesh border, I step from my thatched bungalow and am transfixed by a spangled cosmos, a sky lit with sparkling sequins. It is not—let’s face it—easy to be awed anymore. This idea was reinforced for me a few days earlier at the Taj Mahal, which was jammed with people setting up point-and-click shots to make someone appear to be holding the mausoleum’s dome. This, before tour guides on autopilot herded them through the architectural wonder.

The night sky, here in the Sunderbans, is something different altogether. I share my wonder with Roy, my guide and caretaker. “It would be better if you didn’t go out at night,” he says, with a polite but reproving smile.

“Tigers?”

“Well … no. Snakes,” he replies. “And scorpions. It’s not really a problem. Well, but you never know.”

I sense maybe Roy harbors some superstition that naming the danger could elevate it. A former insurance agent from Kolkata (né Calcutta), Roy speaks and moves with the slow elegance of a swami. A few years ago, he visited this prelapsarian tide country—a jumble of 100 islands knitted with gnarled mangroves, sitting just above the Bay of Bengal—and felt induced to stay. It is a wild place, populated with fierce animals and dotted with small villages where cattle dung remains the primary source of fuel. Visitors might feel they were stepping into The Jungle Book, except that aside from designated settlements, the mangroves are so thick and dangerous that visitors are forbidden to step here at all. Instead, you move slowly by boat along rivers, canals, and creeks that divide the islands.

I rode three hours from Kolkata by SUV, past bucolic swampland and rice paddies, before an hour-long boat ride deposited me at Sunderbans Jungle Camp, a low-key resort comprising a few bungalows and an open-air dining room and appended to a village of 6,000 people. Founded 10 years ago by local conservationists, the lodge is now managed by a conservation outfit hoping to use the largesse of tourists to protect the fragile ecosystem and provide a few jobs.

When I arrived, the Sunderbans had a lovely calm, making serenity easily mistakable for security. But this place can be perilous, a setting for monsoons and floods, and a home for crocodiles and estuarine sharks. More famously, it is also a reserve of the swamp tiger, a rare feline that subsists on deer but will consume a Sunderbans villager every couple of weeks or so.

Hoping to glimpse one, I hop a boat with Roy for a marine safari. The waterways widen and narrow as we move between dense stands of trees and broad expanses of sea and sky. Roy and I are joined by the guard-cum-guide that the West Bengal Forest Department required me to have along, as well as the pilot and two deckhands who periodically fetch tea as we drift, all peering into impossibly dense foliage for signs of wildlife. I am astonished to remember that more than 4 million people live in the Sunderbans—during eight hours plying the water, we see only a handful of fishermen casting nets from their wooden skiffs. What we do see in abundance is birds: kingfishers, egrets, and herons, their wings pulling colorful chests and heads against the sun-bleached sky. A massive white crocodile suns on a bank, and everyone leaps to attention. The deckhands brandish their cellphones to take photos.

Of course, what we most want to see is a tiger. Tigers grow to nine feet long and rule this jungle like Kipling’s Shere Khan. According to a display at the Forest Department, the local population is down to 70, a 95 percent decline since 2000. (Some people dispute the official numbers, claiming that because no reliable tiger census was taken years ago, the government’s figures for decline are merely a guess.)

Although spotting tigers is very difficult, their presence haunts the forest. Ignoring the risk, and in contravention of the law, locals sometimes venture into the mangrove forests to gather honey, first offering prayers for the protection of Bon Bibi, the forest goddess, whose devotees include not only polytheistic Hindus but otherwise monotheistic Muslims.

For hours, I maintain faith that I will be blessed with a tiger sighting, and when suddenly we spot fresh paw marks pressed into the muddy bank, our hopes soar. The pilot slowly turns the boat and kills the engine. There we sit, bobbing, until I realize that I’ll have to be content seeing only the birds and a few crocs.

Back in the village, I meet a man who, not long ago, hadn’t wanted to locate a tiger. He was collecting crabs, he says, when a cat sprang and clawed out his right eye. Now his eyelid hangs flaccidly over the empty socket. He unbuttons his shirt and pulls up his pant leg to show scars on his chest and calf; he walks as if his joints were displaced. The man can’t get help for his injuries, because explaining how he got them could invite prosecution. “He talks too much,” says the fellow who has introduced us. “He tells too many people. He’s going to get himself into trouble.”

Sometimes, though, bad luck can find you even when you do as you’re told to avoid it. Each night, because power from the camp’s solar panels is limited, the electricity cuts out at midnight. At least it’s supposed to. Later that same night, I am woken by a bright light shining through my window, reflecting off the ceiling and illuminating my room. Convinced I won’t sleep until I’ve turned it off, I get up and go outside. This time I don’t gaze at the stars. I look for snakes, scorpions, and you-never-know. The switch takes a while to find. I go back to bed.

In the morning, I refrain from confessing to Roy. He has a bemused look on his face, like someone who wants to share something important.

“Did you hear?” he asks.

“Hear what?”

“There was a tiger in camp last night!”

Todd Pitock is a writer based in Philadelphia. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writing.
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