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“The Sundarbans lies in the massive delta between India and Bangladesh. This is one of the most beautiful but most dangerous places in the world, a place of tigers and crocodiles and dangerous seas and canals. Mamata is just one of about 3,000 ‘tiger widows’ in the Sundarbans.”
28 February 2012
When a man says, “It’s a jungle out there,” he means, “It’s the Sundarbans.” Among the many wild and unforgiving places in the approximately 65 countries I’ve traveled, most are fairly safe when approached with good judgment and aforethought. The Sundarbans is not one of those places. Few jungles are this dangerous.
The natives here rub shoulders with mortality on a daily basis. And so before venturing into the labyrinth waterways, one should acquire a guide, which in my case was a government employee with a powerful FN-FAL rifle to ward off man and beast. Competent, local guides are always your best insurance, and if I had a choice of any rifle in the world to bring here, the FN-FAL would be high on the list. And so those boxes were checked.
Within about a week previous my arrival, eight people had been killed and more than a dozen wounded in personal combat with tigers. Nobody knows why the tigers kill so many people here. None of the eight people recently killed were eaten. The tigers often devour their prey, but sometimes they just murder, and of course there is always a market for tiger parts. It’s a bloody mess.
Add to that the giant saltwater crocodiles, sharks, incredibly venomous snakes, mosquitoes and so on and so forth, and the Sundarbans is a mysterious place that remains off of the backpacker beat. I’ve wanted to come here for years but was rudely interrupted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The vast jungle and mangrove swamps cover about 10,000 square kilometers. Many sights and smells can nearly mirror places in Florida, and so at times it felt like home and could have made me homesick it weren’t so fun and interesting. Anglers who tool around the estuarine river areas of Florida, and who cast for snook near the mangroves, would find reminders in the form of beautiful white egrets, kingfishers and relentless sun. The mostly compliant alligators we see basking in Florida are replaced here by extraordinarily ferocious crocodiles.
Noticeably missing are the turtles. Whereas in Florida it would be normal to see a hundred turtles per day sunning themselves on white-worn branches elbowing out of the waters of the Peace River, it can be rare to see even a single turtle after spending long days on many Asian rivers. This is true ranging from the mighty Mekong, to the Mae Ping, the Salween, over to the Ganges or up at the Bramaputra in Nepal. I rarely if ever see turtles in Asia, though there were land turtles in Afghanistan. There has been a program to introduce thousands of snapping turtles into the Indian Ganges to eat the thousands of human corpses, but apparently the turtles could not keep up. My guess is that the people ate the turtles.
Numerous substantial rivers including the Ganges feed the Sundarbans. About one third of the Sundarbans drains from India and the rest from Bangladesh. Due mostly to Hindu funerary traditions, the Indians dump countless tons of human flesh into “Mother Ganges” (Ganga Ma) each year, which flows and fans to the delta by the crocodiles, the crabs, and the tigers. Some people believe that the Royal Bengal Tigers of the Sundarbans may have gotten their taste for man from the stream of corpses flowing into their abode.
The Ganges is tremendous. I’ve been lucky enough to see many faces of Ganga Ma, and spend many a day and night along her banks, and on boats in India. In a world with many rivers unnamed, Ganga is eclipsed only by the Amazon and Congo rivers in sheer volume. In full flood only the Amazon is larger. Fittingly, headwaters for Ganga Ma include snowmelt from the very distant Mt. Everest. And so water flows from Mt. Everest, through the mysteries of Nepal and India, through the wonders of the Sundarbans finally into the Bay of Bengal where it mixes with the seas.
In the United States, to see people petrified of snakes is almost comical. Practically nobody dies from snakebites in America. The chances are far higher of being hit by lightning. The most deadly snakes in the US are still second-chance serpents, like rattlers or moccasins. If a diamondback hits you, you’ll almost certainly live because you’ll probably get to a hospital and suffer through. But if a cobra or other super-snake hits a villager, he’s likely finished.
There are about 216 types of snakes just in India, of which about 52 are venomous. Nearly all the deaths are caused by “The Big Four”: Indian Cobra; Common Krait (the bed snake); Russell’s Viper (which Indians call “Daboia”—the lurker); and the Saw Scaled Viper, a vicious little snake that some people consider the most deadly in the world.
There are many lists for the “most dangerous” or “most venomous” snakes in the world. The snakes that count most are not the ones with the most toxic juices, or the most dangerous bites, but the ones who actually fill the most graves.
The deadly Krait likes to come inside homes where it often slithers in bed with people. Its bite is so painless that many victims do not realize they have been envenomated. Some Indians believe the Krait just licks people. Victims are found dead in their beds, or wake up and die.
Cobras are not much better; they also like to move into people’s homes to chase rats. Getting bitten by a cobra is like being blasted by a shotgun. There was once a practice of putting cobra venom inside musket balls and arrowheads, though I have no idea if this still occurs.
In India alone, it is believed that snakes kill up to 50,000 people per year.
The lure of the Sundarbans is strong. Moreover, this general area of the world is increasingly important to the United States and so it’s good to understand something of the neighborhood. Bangladesh was formerly known as East Pakistan. It’s about 90% Muslim and the balance mostly Hindu. Bangladesh is a young country in the old world with history as complex as the mangroves. In 1971, East Pakistan split from West Pakistan (our current headache for Afghanistan, etc.), and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The divorce was bloody and Bangladeshis have little love for current-day Pakistan.
We have military cooperation with Bangladesh. As an American I was well received and felt welcome. Our Special Forces have worked with the Bangladeshi military. Though Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries on Earth—and is ravaged every year with floods that would be significant historical events in the United States—the people seem remarkably happy and were extraordinarily friendly without the commensurate rip-offs that one finds in north and central India, and to a lesser degree in Sri Lanka, and far lesser still in nearby Nepal.
Some people believe that radical elements wish to impose a Taliban-esque state onto Bangladesh, making it an even more interesting place to become familiar with, though compared with places like Afghanistan, terrorism is negligible and the greater threats for a man on journey are from common sources, such as mosquitoes, bad water, and the same sort of crime that can be found in Mexico or Los Angeles.
Bangladesh is the most crowded country on Earth. The lowland bordering the Bay of Bengal makes it acutely vulnerable to tsunami. Much of the country is so low that a minor sloshing from the sea can be catastrophic. The earthquake threat is of cataclysmic proportion. Powerful shifting can change the course of the major rivers and erase huge numbers of people in a single moonless night, sweeping them wholesale through the darkness toward the Bay of Bengal.
And so there we were. Deep, deep in the Sundarbans on a boat. We got out occasionally and found in dried mud the tracks of a tiger cub and momma. For every tiger print there were hundreds of deer prints. Monkeys and spotted deer were a common sight. Monkeys more so than the deer. Locals say the monkeys and deer cooperate and warn each other of tigers.
The crocodiles can be huge, and I’ve heard stories from the India side of people sacrificing babies to crocodiles, though I doubt the Indian authorities would permit that these days. Various human sacrifice is still a problem in India but authorities seem to be making progress tamping it down. There are frequent credible stories, such as that in Bangladesh of the bricklayer whose head was burned in a kiln after a fortune teller said the sacrifice would redden the bricks, and therefore fetch a higher price. Some Bangladeshis believe that sacrificing human heads will strengthen bridges. It is unlikely that the vast majority of these events are reported.
This week yet another report of a cannibal monkey man in India:
“The Mumbai police have rubbished rumors doing rounds at several suburban pockets in the city where people are living in fear of a gang or a ‘monkey man’ that is kidnapping children and raping women before consuming them.”
Some Indians believe the monkey men smear themselves with grease, such as the “grease devils” in nearby Sri Lanka, who slippery themselves up to avoid being caught. Grease devils and rumors of grease devils have led to considerable violence when the gossip causes panic. Strange social panic attacks based on fact, fiction, or both, unfold so frequently in South Asia that I cannot keep track.
Along for security was the man with the clean rifle. The FN-FAL was smooth from wear and he kept it at my feet. I asked if it was loaded, and he pulled out the magazine and ejected a cartridge and handed it to me, saying he had twenty. He handled the rifle safely at all times. He wasn’t just some guy to whom they issued a brown uniform and powerful military weapon. He was accustomed to holding the rifle. Maybe he had been a soldier.
He didn’t need 20 bullets for a tiger. One or two from that powerful rifle would take care of anything a cat could do. He said that if you fire one shot into the air, the tiger bolts.
But there are pirates and poachers. There are even boats with prostitutes in some areas. Human smugglers are said to kidnap or buy children from various countries, and they live in the wilds and on boats in the Sundarbans. Global human trafficking is immense and complex. My grandmother used to warn that gypsies would kidnap children. Interestingly, up near Dhaka, the capital, I went to a river gypsy village. The men had no problem with my photographing everyone, including the children, but there was one young girl they did not want photographed, which during the melee of gypsy kids, I photographed anyway.
I don’t know what the going price for kids is, but some tigers are said to go for up to $70,000. A tiger might as well be on the FBI’s Top Ten to command such a bounty. Every villager from here to Chitwan knows that one tiger is worth more than his entire family will ever make in a lifetime, but children are far easier to find and market.
During honey-collecting season, villagers leave the boats and push deeper onto land, and the tigers hang out by the bees and kill the honey collectors. The Royal Bengal Tigers attack the neck from behind, so the honey collectors wear masks facing backwards to confuse the tigers. They say the tigers have caught onto that trick. Tigers will swim out to small boats to take fishermen at night.
On the second day, I asked Mr. Rifle to take us to a village where a man had recently been attacked.
The villagers were Hindus and had never met an American. My photographs did not always catch them smiling despite that the people seemed very happy for the guest.
Mr. Tiger never smiled. He was stiff from the attack and had difficulty turning his head. Sometimes the tigers come into the huts at night but if a tiger holes up in a hut, the villagers are apt to surround the hut with fishing nets and trap it.
When the cyclones come, villagers must escape to cyclone shelters or risk being washed away. It’s nothing for a cyclone to sweep up from the Bay of Bengal and kill thousands of people.
Powerful storms in the Bay of Bengal can gather quickly. With little warning, unfavorable geography and weak preparations, the people are smashed with world-class hurricanes. The 1970 Bhola cyclone killed up to 500,000 people and was one of the worst natural disasters known to man. For every human lost in Hurricane Katrina, approximately 250 were lost in Bhola.
The only things this place is missing are man-eating plants and an angry volcano. If a man can live here and not pray to God, he’s a true atheist. The Sundarbans is a perfect breeding ground for extreme superstition.
Tiger Man had been out in the nearby jungle collecting wood and other materials to make these huts. He had no warning before the cat hit him.
His eyes never changed expression. Some troops get this look when they’ve seen too much combat. He was friendly but never laughed when the others laughed, nor did he crack any hint of a smile.
Superstition is king of many deserts and jungles. If you come into a village, and someone falls from a tree and dies, it might be best for you to move out. Many a traveler no doubt has met his tragic end for some superstitious therapy, to set villagers’ minds at ease that the rip in the universal fabric has been mended.