Amitav Ghosh provides a poetic narration of a little-known folk tale in the opening chapter of The Hungry Tide. Lord Shiva has halted the mighty river Ganga's descent onto the Earth using his thick matted hair. This is not the "little known" part of the tale. I remember this picture vividly from thousands of calendars hanging under thousands of fluorescent tube lights, with geckos occasionally darting across the face of the Lord in pursuit of a meal. The Lords pale blue face sports a beatific smile and half closed eyes, both induced no doubt by a mellow marijuana trip. From the top right corner of the calendar, a somewhat skimpily clad Ganga is flowing straight into his hair.
The little known portion is the sequel to this tale – Ganga washes herself free of Shiva's locks and (forgetting Bhagirath and Kapil Muni's ashram) "the river throws of its bindings and breaks into hundred, maybe thousands, of tangled strands". The map on the left illustrates this tale. The great pleasure I derived from reading this came from being able to close my eyes and visualizing my trip from less than a month ago to this same beautiful place – the Sunderbans.
It started with us boarding a launch from Basanti and making our way over to the Sajnekhali visitor’s center. The visitor center has a crocodile pond, and is teeming with monkeys. Two of our traveling companions parted ways with us here; they were volunteers who were going into training for the tiger census survey that was to begin the next day.
I should first declare that we did not see any tigers despite spending a little amount of time at the watering-hole watchtowers at Sudhanyakhali and Netidhopani. I understand that part of the Project Tiger program has been to provide increased access to sweet water for the local wildlife. However, I have also heard and read that the tigers are used to drinking the saltwater, it's what gives them their taste for human flesh and blood (frankly, I think of this factoid as folklore, akin to Bonbibi, the forest goddess). So what is their incentive for coming to the watering hole? A sweet and sour meal!
The tiger census is a source of great debate. In India, the tragedy of Sariska has brought this issue back to the forefront. The Sunderban tiger census has been criticized as having a lack of transparency and being generally backward compared to standard practices. It is no doubt difficult and dangerous to implement a good process for counting tigers in a hostile environment such as the Sunderbans. Counting and measuring fresh pug marks means probably being on your hands and feet in the immediate vicinity of a tiger – being part of the same sweet and sour meal again. The new method attempts to dart radio collars on tigers to help with the counting and tracking process. Stay tuned for results.
During the 2004 census, the tiger population in the Sundarbans was recorded at 274 as against 271 in 2001 and 284 in 1999. These figures have been labeled as approximate even by official sources. My personal take is this: Statistics/Damn Lies, what's the difference, what matters is how you spin it. Here are a pair of headlines, twenty days apart, from the Deccan Herald and the Hindu (May 2005) :
"Tiger, tiger burning bright in the Sunderbans"
"Royal Bengal tiger faces extinction threat."
Mr. Pradip Vyas is the director of the Sunderban Tiger Project. His sharp professional approach to the problem is impressive. There definitely have been certain improvements in the area – nets and fences help keep tigers from straying into villages, and more stringent guards appear to have reduced the infringement of illegal fisherman, woodcutters and honey-collectors in the "buffer" and "core" zones. This reduces the tiger-human conflict which, perhaps contrary to what you would think, is overall worse for the tiger. Every additional tiger that dies out of the (approximately) 274 is another nail in the coffin. I do not intend to devalue the worth of human life, but note that there are about 4 million people in the Sunderban area.
Additionally, Mr Vyas stated that stricter policing and greater involvement of the local population have helped in reporting cases of tiger sightings, and provided a safeguard against poaching. I have no means of confirming or repudiating this. A Times of India report stated:"A tiger requires 9 sq km area for living. As human intervention is growing in the protected 2,585 sq km area of the Tiger Reserve, space is not enough to sustain 250 plus tigers. Figures are fudged. Poacher Naimuddin is active and is helped by forest officials. Everybody has some kind of interests in tiger poaching. Villagers, who don't have a standard source of income, are the basic killers, for money. They trap tigers and kill by poisoning or shooting at close range, for only Rs 100 per tiger."
The above report is quiet credible. The stick approach will work in the short run, but unless a sustainable alternate income generating scheme is put in place for the locals, cold cash for a dead tiger is going to be impossible to resist for people struggling to eke out a living. The project tiger website cites alternate income generation schemes, but no details are provided, nor are figures showing any degree of success of these schemes. We were accompanied by members of an NGO called NEWS. Their main mission is ecology, but they have been involved with some social schemes in the Sunderbans centered in the village of Pakhirala. I enquired about the results of their alternate income generation schemes, and got the same response. What good are batik clothes unless a marketing process is developed for their distribution and sale?
Getting back to our trip -- we first spent some time at the watchtower in Sudhanyakhali. It was dusk and several deer were drinking. The only incident of note is that someone from our group fell into the river while getting back to the launch. What could have been a bad incident was quickly resolved as the staff on board jumped in and retrieved her. She knew how to swim and during the few minutes she spent in the river, she enquired every once in a while if anyone could see a crocodile.
Luckily, we did not see any crocodiles till the next day – big ugly monsters lazing by the side of the river. One particular 15 feet garden variety slithered quickly into the water on our approach, preventing us from deciphering if the bloated stomach was pregnancy or a fresh meal! The one pictured above did not seem to be too concerned by us watching from 50 feet away.
Fishermen were few and far between – a result of the new protocols or just special precautions during the census. Part of our plans had been to buy and eat some fresh fish and the lack of fishermen was frustrating. We finally met a group of anyaykari (outlaws, as they are called) inside a very large mohona. Out of fear that we would turn them in, they amost gave us free fish, and ulimatly accepted about Rs. 50 for a bucketload. The fish was delicious !
The only other point of interest was Netidhopani, located at the edge of the buffer zone. We did not see any tigers but I was very eager to look inside the Ma Monosha temple. This is where Behula had met the washerwoman who would ultimately guide her to her goal. The temple has been reduced to a pile of rubble and is located on the "wrong" side of the fence, next to the watering hole. I missed being a course on the sweet and sour meal.
One last point - I want to mention an NGO called Mukti. Started by a Sunderban native, this group has undertaken as it's mission the emancipation of the Sunderban natives from their problems of illiteracy, lack of sanitation/hygiene and other ills that plague overpopulated developing areas. They are a young organization and need everybody's help. Please visit them at www.muktiweb.org