On an assignment in the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, TIASA ADHYA spends four days on a dinghy and chances upon the elusive cat on day three
The seven-second meet
I have often been to the Sunderbans islands on assignments. Despite obsessing over seeing a tiger on each trip, I have never really had the opportunity. Imagine my excitement when the forest department of West Bengal, seeking volunteers for the tiger census 2010, wrote to the non-profit I work for.
I offered my services immediately, except for a niggling doubt at the back of my mind: would a woman be allowed on a boat in the core area of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve?
Proving my prejudices wrong, the forest department handed me over to beat officer Biplab Kumar Bhowmik’s team. We, a group of nine, including a cook and two 0.315 rifle bearers, were to go to Panchamukhani, in the core area of the reserve, and spend the next threeand- a-half days on a boat exploring both the core and buffer areas. Life couldn’t get better!
Our journey started on March 4. After a gratifying lunch of fresh bhetki, vegetable curry and rice, we boarded a small, mechanized dinghy. We were to survey the creeks for footprints of deer, hogs, otters, fishing cat and pugmarks of the ever-elusive Royal Bengal Tiger. As volunteers we had to note down the latitude and longitude of the place where these were spotted, along with the nature of vegetation found there. For example, whether the mangrove species were above 10 m or below 4 m in height.
We were also to look out for any signs of human habitation in the core areas—fishing nets, human footprints on mud banks, or signs of trees felled. The purpose behind the survey was to get an idea of density of prey base and tigers and the level of human intervention. We soon came across a fishing boat. This, despite the fact that the forest department had repeatedly instructed the fishers to not venture into the core areas during the census, even if they had a permit.
Our beat officer, Bhowmik, decided against severe action and told the fishers to be off. We found seven pugmarks and numerous footprints of deer and hogs. I also managed to click a monocellate cobra lazing against the mud bank, and more than 30 curlews against the backdrop of a serene wine red sunset.
At night, our boat anchored midriver at Kalichar. Delicious dinner followed and far from the civilized world free of electricity and mobile signals, it was time to call it a day. The next morning, as the sun’s soft, warm rays bathed the forest canopy, we saw a male deer faraway on the mud-bank striding towards the riverside. And, the calls of the different birds soothed us city dwellers.
The plan for day-two was to continue with the census at Sundarkhali Bharani in two phases, one at high tide and the other at low tide. As we ventured into the deep creeks, a previously unknown world unfurled. A world in which mangroves reigned supreme and danger lurked in every nook and corner.
At places the creeks narrowed, branches almost hit us; we had to duck or simply lie flat on our boat. I noticed mudskippers, a kind of fish that lives on the mud banks, and fiddler crabs. Two storks were at a distance. Post lunch— sele fish that tasted like mutton—the men stood at the back of the boat and bathed with the river water. I moved to the forest ranger’s boat, which our beat officer fortunately sighted, to take a bath. The boat had a washroom! We went deeper into the creeks thereafter.
We spotted fresh pugmarks of a tiger disfiguring that of a tigress. Not uncommon, because it was the mating season. And it wasn’t difficult to distinguish: tigers have squarish paws and roundish thumbs; female tigers have rectangular paws with pointed fingers. The moment Bhowmik cautioned us to stay alert our boat got stuck in the mud. It was some struggle to pull the boat out of the mud; and with the men off the boat trying to push it 6-m estuarine crocodiles were on everyone’s mind. After all, more people die because of crocodiles than tiger attacks.
“Be sure it has seen us even though we have not seen it,” said Bhowmik. “You see the hetal leaves? The tiger is neatly camouflaged in the yellow leaves and dark shadows. You could never tell them apart,” he added as we anchored again at Kalichar for the night. Day three was surprisingly chilly.
Not far from where our boat was anchored was a fresh pugmark. The tiger had obviously given us a short visit, presumably contemplated an attack but retreated as our boat was mid-river. The day was spent continuing with the survey, but there was still no sign of a tiger. Not until 4.15 pm when a team member cried out bagh, Bengali for tiger, three times.
A young male tiger resting under the mangroves was gracefully retreating further into the mangroves, its young skin giving a healthy glow. Seven seconds— that was it. By then Bhowmik had given orders for the boat to leave the creek— the tiger could attack any time. Since I could not believe my eyes, I had to look into my Canon D for assurance—I was the only one in the group to have clicked the tiger. Gone was the tiredness of not taking a bath on day three, or, the stock of ORS and oranges getting over. We enthused over the excitement of seeing a tiger and hoped to see one again as the boat made its way to Jhilla forest in the buffer zone. But, we didn’t. More than 40 rhesus monkeys instead bid us goodbye as our assignment came to an end.
Initial figures of the census indicate the number of tigers has increased in the reserve—it could be 290. I hope it is correct.
Tiasa Adhya is a junior research fellow with Nature Environment and Wildlife Society in Kolkata
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