Michael's Dispatches

Tigers, Crocodiles, Korans and Superstitions


20120208- 10D8189cc-1000-2Tiger eyes of man with fresh scars

“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.

20120208- 10D8184cc-1000Man with tiger eyes removes shirt to show new scars.

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.

20120208- 10D8191cc-1000Mr. Tiger prepares to show wounds.

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.

20120208- 10D8188cc-1000

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.

20120208- 10D8187cc-1000

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.

20120208- 10D8189cc-1000

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.

20120208- 10D8197cc-1000Tigers attack the base of the neck from the back.

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.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    scarface · 10 years ago
    Do you want to be an infidel in a Muslim-dominated country?

    Honor killings are happening — not just in Iran, but in the United States of America! A raped woman is stoned for not being a virgin. A man kills his daughter for dating an infidel. A girl is sold into slavery to her cousin...by her father. A Christian police officer is fired for rejecting training on Muslim faith. A US university professor is forced to quit when Muslim students persecute him for speaking the Koran in his comparative religions class...because he is an infidel. The media is not allowed to tell us when murder and terrorist acts take place "in the name of Allah." Muslims have infiltrated various arms of government. The daughter of the founder of The Muslim Sisterhood is an assistant to our nation's Secretary of State.... The largest growth in America by percentage is those of the Muslim "faith." 18,000 people have been killed worldwide by Islamist terrorists JUST SINCE 9/11. In 1,400 years 240,000,000 have been slaughtered at the command of over 100 verses in the Koran that require conversion to Islam or death.
    Can Christianity and Islam coexist? You decide!
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Paul H. · 10 years ago
      Why don't we just all drop belief in our modern mythology and live in the peace of a world without superstition and religion. Killing and dying in the 21st century from such idiotic and nonsensical belief systems is beyond understanding.
      • This commment is unpublished.
        Chris C · 10 years ago
        What is beyond understanding is that you really -believe- it's even possible to have peace on the terms you mention.
        • This commment is unpublished.
          Paul H. · 10 years ago
          Oh I do indeed believe its possible to have peace without the influence of the inventions of the minds of men called "gods". Why do you suppose these beings were 'created' in the first place? Control. Control of how people think, behave and create. How much faster would the world have recovered from the destruction of the Roman Empire had intelligent men and women been allowed to progress science without the fear of being burned at the stake?

          If the delusions of humankind did no harm I'd be happy to leave such things to those gullible enough to believe them. But such belief systems have and currently cause incredible harm. Burning children because they have demons in them, stoning a woman to death because she was raped by one other than her husband, killing people because a book was burned. How can intelligent educated people support structures and systems that perpetrate these crimes against basic human dignity? These things are done because people are IGNORANT. Ignorant of the simple truth that humans are responsible for the treatment of other humans. I want to see a world where people cannot hide behind a fictional godhead and claim the sick twisted things they do are the will of that god. As long as religions are acceptible the actions of these people will find supporters who will support and condone their actions.

          Everybody on this planet needs to learn to take personal responsibility for what they do.

          All societies would then have no qualms condemming those who perptrate crimes as criminals, not 'believers'.

          Explain why a 'believer' should be given free reign to kill, maim, and destroy merely because he professes a belief in a manufactured entity? It's past time for human society to grow up and disposses itself of it's 'father' figures and stand on its own. Those who believe, many who say morality does not exist without god, I ask you, what are you afraid of?
      • This commment is unpublished.
        Tommy Barrios · 10 years ago
        Of global proportions so you can color in the fantasy belief of your choice!

        Besides this whole thread being OT and not addressing the fact that "superstitious beliefs" are a world wide problem, saying religions are the reason for world unrest is patently false.

        It always those who seek power and wealth through the "use of religions" that are the real problem throughout history!!

        "Religions" that "seek" the purity of man in his context with the power of the universe through "good deeds and actions" will always triumph over evil men!

        "Religions" that "seek" the control of man will always be cults of death, destruction and concurrent mental and physical slavery to those false ideals.

        The Devil may not exist to some of you, but he'll sure have a lot of followers if he ever shows up!
        • This commment is unpublished.
          Paul H. · 10 years ago
          Indeed, religions that seek 'purity' and enlightenment such as Buddhism are beneficial. You are correct, its those who seek power and wealth that cause the problems but they cause the problems by manipulating the ignorant 'believers'. Each of whom believes their particular religion is the right one...worth defending and killing for. You are correct, if the devil showed up, he would have followers but I don't think as many as you might believe.

          As to this thread being OT, I disagree. Religion is just superstition writ large. Nothing more.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Barnett · 10 years ago
    Michael, this is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful articles you have written. I'd like to see everyone from secondary school on up read it, and I'd like to think that many families will read it together and have intelligent discussions about it afterwards. You've tied things together in an extremely poignantly insightful way. Thanks.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    TomC · 10 years ago
    Michael how do you avoid having a fatwah declared on you? Or am I just not up to date and there is one?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Evans · 10 years ago
    Based on how the Koran tells its followers to treat others, every one of them should be burned. Speaking out against its burning is a slap in the face to the families of everyone who has been murdered due to someone reading and believing its message.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jbad04 · 10 years ago
    Damm good, Michael,damm good. Seeing the bomb go off in Jbad and the two officers killed at the MoI fill me with a sense of disappointed resignation. I left Jbad in '05 with a sense of hope that things would improve. That hope is now gone. Thanks for your insight and take care.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jim Delaney · 10 years ago
    I worked in Bangaldesh "72-'75 and hopped the ferry thru the Sundarbans a few times. Intensely interesting place. Definitely felt vulnerable during the passage. They told me that with so many sinkings of overcrowded ferries over the years, that the tigers came to rely on human corpses as their main and most convenient source of food. Which made the trip even creepier. Despite gruesomeness it all, sure hope the tigers are able to survive all the poaching. The Sundarbans offer their last real hope.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    TimJ · 10 years ago
    Fascinating post - you are a great story teller.

    I highly recommend a related book about tigers and a place very different from suburbia - "The Tiger" by John Vaillant. It has a similar theme to this report.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leyla Najma · 10 years ago
    At this point Michael, we should all just hire you to come and give talks and show photos of all your experiences! You are an amazing man with amazing photos and stories! Thanks for sharing!

  • This commment is unpublished.
    rainisfree · 10 years ago
    Thank you for the illumination of logic, you are a valuable force.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    a&n · 10 years ago
    Loved you story Mike. You know...sometimes you don't have to have some political point to prove....you just enjoy the story. This was one of those times. Thanks Mike. Very interesting...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    James L. Owens · 10 years ago
    I have to agree with "Wow". I was thinking what a great parallel you were making and how aptly it described waht we think of as retaliations.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Heywood Jablomi · 10 years ago
    Outstanding storytelling, Mike!

    Really fine. The article flowed nicely, I never felt a need to skip ahead, your descriptions were clean, and not overwrought, and the subject-matter.....well, I had no idea.

    You know that I am fascinated by the topic of superstitions and comparative anthropology. You also know that I am supremely superstitious myself. So this writing of yours really spoke to me.

    Nice work. Thanks for doing it.

    All my best,

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter · 10 years ago
    great, spoken like it should be. Keep it up, even if it seems fruitless. Someday it will be clear.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    James F. McClellan · 10 years ago
    We have friends who are missionaries in the Congo. So far this year, they've killed 72 Cobras in their home. The wife told me; "It's beginning to get a little unnerving."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chieftain · 10 years ago
    Michael, I agree with one of your earlier posters -- this is one of the most powerful articles and photo essays you have ever produced.

    It is brilliant work!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Titan 1 · 10 years ago
    You rode with us in Diyalah back in 05. I still follow your articles. I couldn't agree more with this article. Human sacrifice is centuries old, Allah has replaced Baal and Moloch and is the only change in this centuries old problem in that region.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pat · 10 years ago
    A most fascinating article. You have a great sense of adventure.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tommy Barrios · 10 years ago
    From the wildest corners of the planet to the most terrifying scenes of modern combat, no other modern scribe has come close to communicating the power of the moment like Michael Yon.

    Yet he remains a virtual obscurity to most of the world, and that in some sense is good;-)

    I agree wiht a previous poster about students, that students who are interested in real life investigative reporting follow Michael's work from start to finish.

    While his articles many times are opinionated, they are pure from the heart and truthful in intent and focus!

    The words, the pictures, the message, always outstanding and gripping!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joey Dern · 10 years ago
    Wow that dude just looks cool!

  • This commment is unpublished.
    robin yates · 10 years ago
    I read somewhere one way of stopping tiger attack is to wear a mask but on the back of your head.Tigers only attack from the rear. Worth a try
  • This commment is unpublished.
    scotch7 · 9 years ago
    Gotta pile on. Great Storytelling, great pix. Thanks for sharing your "vacation."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sabuj · 6 years ago
    You seem to be a perfect racist. Visiting the countries and hating them. Shame shame. What is a Tiger Man, Tiger Eyes ?! You should have respect for any human being black or white. And you still have many things to learn, for example loving human being irrespective of colour and race,and respect others religions. We have respect for your "Atheist Religion" . Otherwise it was a good writing. Cheers.
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    carol mcgowan · 3 years ago
    Well, this is one place they don't have to worry about Social Media. Your experiences are far from anything I will attempt in my lifetime, but I consumed the information with much interest. Thank you for the article Out of my curiosity visiting these places where did you sleep at night?

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