Hubert Burda Media

Into the Jungle Book

Along the Bay of Bengal’s wild tidal basin, the scorpions and crocs can seem relatively harmless. By Todd Pitock

In a clearing of dense jungle near the India-Bangladesh border, I stepped from my thatched bungalow and was transfixed by a spangled cosmos, a sky lit by sequins. It is not, let’s face it, easy to be awed anymore.
This idea had been reinforced for me a few days earlier at the Taj Mahal, which was jammed with people setting up point-and-click shots to make it look as if they were holding the mausoleum’s dome between their fingers. This, before tour guides herded them through the architectural wonder.
The night sky here in the Sundarbans was something different altogether. Sensing my excitement, Roy, my guide (and also my caretaker), offered a polite but reproving smile. “It would be better if you didn’t go out at night,” he said.
“Well…no. Snakes,” he replied. “And scorpions. It’s not really a problem. Well, but you never know.”
I sensed maybe Roy harboured some superstition that naming the danger could elevate it. A former insurance agent from Kolkata, Roy speaks and moves with the slow elegance of a swami. A few years ago, he visited this prelapsarian tide country — a jumble of a 100 islands knitted with gnarled mangroves sitting just above the Bay of Bengal — and felt induced to stay.
It is a wild place, populated with fierce animals and dotted with small villages where cattle dung remains the primary source of fuel. A visitor might feel as if stepping into The Jungle Book, except that aside from designated settlements, the mangrove is so thick and dangerous that visitors are forbidden to step there at all. Instead, you move slowly by boat along lanes of rivers, canals and creeks that divide the islands.
I had ridden three hours by SUV from Kolkata, along bucolic swampland and rice paddies, before an hour-long boat ride deposited me at Sundarbans Jungle Camp, a low-key resort comprising a few bungalows and an open-air dining room, and appended to a village of 6,000 people.
Founded 10 years ago by local conservationists, the inn is now managed by an outfit hoping to use the largesse of tourism to protect the fragile ecosystem and provide a few jobs (today the local economy is propped up by a trade in contraband cows, stolen in India and smuggled over the border to be sold to Bangladeshis who are less bothered by eating them).
When I arrived, there was a lovely calm to the place, making it easy to mistake serenity for security. But the Sundarbans are perilous, a setting for monsoons and floods, and a home for crocodiles and estuarine sharks. More famously, it is also a reserve of a unique breed of cat called the swamp tiger, a rare feline that subsists on deer but will consume a villager every couple of weeks or so.
Hoping to glimpse one, I hopped a small boat with Roy. The waterways widened and narrowed as we moved between dense stands of trees and wide expanses of sea and sky. Roy and I were joined by the guard-cum-guide that the West Bengal Forest Department required me to have along, as well as the pilot and two young deckhands who periodically fetched tea as we drifted, peering into impossibly dense foliage for signs of wildlife.
I was astonished to remember that more than four million people live in the Sundarbans — during eight hours plying the water, we saw only a handful of fishermen casting nets from their wooden skiffs. What we did see in abundance were birds: Kingfishers, egrets, and herons, their wings pulling the colour of their chests and chins against a sun-bleached sky. A massive white crocodile sunned on a bank and everyone leapt to attention. The young deckhands brandished their cell phones to take photos.
Of course, what we most wanted to see was a tiger. They grow to 9ft and rule this jungle like Kipling’s Shere Kahn. According to a display near the police station where visitors are required to register, the local tiger population is down to 70, a 95-percent decline since 2000. (Some people dispute the official numbers, claiming that since no reliable census of tigers was taken, the government’s figures for decline are merely a guess.)
Although spotting tigers is very rare, their presence haunts the forest. Ignoring the risk and in contravention of the law, locals sometimes venture into the mangrove to gather honey, first offering prayers for protection from Bon Bibi, the tiger goddess, whose devotees include not only polytheistic Hindus but otherwise monotheistic Muslims.
For hours, I maintained faith that I would be blessed with a tiger sighting and when suddenly we spotted fresh pugmarks pressed into the muddy bank, our hopes soared. The pilot slowly turned the boat and killed the engine. There we sat, bobbing until it was apparent that I’d have to be content seeing only the birds and a few crocs.
Back in the village, I met a man who, not long ago, hadn’t wanted to locate a tiger. He was collecting crabs, he says, when a cat sprang and clawed out his right eye. Now, his eyelid hangs flaccidly over the empty socket. He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled up his leg to show scars on his chest and calf; he walks as if his joints were displaced. The man couldn’t get help for his injuries because explaining how he got them could invite prosecution. “He talks too much,” said the fellow who introduced me. “He tells too many people. He’s going to get himself into trouble.”
Sometimes, though, bad luck can find you, even when you do what you’re told to avoid it. Each night, due to limited power from the camp’s solar panels, the electricity cuts out at midnight. At least it’s supposed to.
Later that night, I was awakened by a bright light reflecting off the ceiling and illuminating my room. Convinced I wouldn’t sleep until I’d turned it off, I got up and went outside. This time, I didn’t gaze at stars. I looked for snakes, scorpions and you-never-knows. The switch took a while to find. I went back to bed.
In the morning, I refrained from confessing to Roy. He had a bemused look on his face, like someone who wanted to share something important. “Did you hear?” he asked.
“Hear what?”
“There was a tiger in camp last night!”