Thursday, March 27, 2014

Man-eaters of the Mangroves

Greetings All,
After our visit to Tadoba National Park, we drove back to Nagpur and flew east to Kolkata.  A bustling metropolis of over 14 million people, Kolkata is the capital of the Indian State of West Bengal and the staging point for our visit to the Sundarbans.  Every since seeing a documentary on the Sundarbans twenty years ago I have been intrigued by this vast mangrove forest along the Bay of Bengal with its legendary man-eating tigers.  Now, here we were on our way to explore the Sundarbans for ourselves.  We drove for about 3 hours from Kolkata to the town of Gadkhali where we boarded our boat for the trip down the Durga-duani River.

Marc on the Upper Deck of Our Boat

About 2 hours downriver we entered Sundarbans National Park.  Declared a National Park in 1984, the area encompasses 2600 sq km. We had to stop at the office to pick up our permits and while there saw an Indian Gray Mongoose chasing a domestic cat. "Oh no, I thought, that mongoose is going to kill that poor cat!"  Surprisingly, the cat did not run away and the two began to play.  What an unlikely friendship!

Unlikely Friendship

Two young Rhesus Macaques were also frolicking under the trees.

Rhesus Macaques

As we were leaving the dock I spotted some curious looking mudskippers on the shore.  They are completely amphibious fish that can use their pictorial fins to walk on land and they have the ability to breath through their skin.


We took a short cruise into the park but other than some shore birds we did not see any of the Sundarbans elusive inhabitants.

Indian Pond Heron

White-collared Kingfisher

We returned to our lodge where some of the local villagers performed a folk dance for us.  The women danced while the men beat drums and played a flute.

Local Village Tribal Dance

After the dance, a "tiger" paid us a visit. The kids in the audience were frightened but their parents urged them to shake the "tiger's" paw for a family photo.

Shaking Hands with a "Tiger"

The next day we spent the whole day plying the waters of the Sundarbans in search of their most infamous inhabitants.  According to last year's census conducted via camera traps, there are 103 tigers roaming the Sundarbans.  Tigers here do hunt and consume humans that venture into their realm. Every year villagers are allowed into the park for two weeks to gather honey.  They wear masks on the back of their heads to trick the tigers into thinking they are being watched.  It is believed that tigers only attack from behind.

Back of the Head Mask

They masks aren't always effective and people are still being killed by tigers.  Last year 45 fatalities were reported.  This year the most recent attack occurred only two weeks ago.   A woman was fishing with her husband and son when she was attacked by a tiger.  She told them not to try and rescue her and put their lives at risk.  She sacrificed herself to save her husband and son.  We were safe in our big motor boat but the fisherman use small rowboats and go down narrow channels where they are vulnerable to tiger attacks.

Local Fishermen

There are several theories why tigers here are man-eaters while in other parts of India tigers do not hunt humans.  The most plausible is the low prey base in the Sundarbans.  The tigers only prey consists of spotted deer, Rhesus Macaques, wild boar and sometimes even fish and crabs.  The tigers are always hungry and people make easy targets.

Rhesus Macaques on River Bank 

Spotted Deer on River Bank

Other theories seem more far-fetched like tigers are in constant pain from drinking saline water which makes them more aggressive or that they developed a taste for human flesh by eating dead bodies washed up from people drowned during cyclones.

So why do people venture into these mangrove forests and put their lives are risk?  The biggest reason is to collect honey.  This time of year the mangrove flowers attract millions of bees.

Mangrove Flowers

Some were flying around our boat and landed on us.  As long as you stayed calm they did us no harm.  I asked if the locals ever considered placing bee hives in the villages so that they didn't have to venture into the forest.  The answer was some did consider village hives but the highest quality honey comes from the forest.

We searched all day for the man-eaters of the mangroves but did not spot any.  We had to settle for some pug marks onshore as proof that the man-eaters are more than just a legend.

Tiger Pug Marks

I felt somewhat guilty for desperately wanting to see a tiger from the safety of our boat when everyday people risk their lives in order to make a meager living.  The last thing they want to encounter is a tiger.  Yet, it's the tigers roaming these mangroves that have saved them from development and protected the local inhabitants' livelihoods.

As the sun set over the Sundarbans I knew the tigers would be on the prowl.  I hope that humans and tigers can somehow learn to coexist in this fragile and unique environment.

Sundarbans Sunset

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

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