Post 21 – Day 11 ‘Tiger, Tiger’ (Pt 1)

Post 21

My stomach and I have, on this the eleventh day of my journey, rediscovered the beginnings of a mutually beneficial relationship. Though like many a relationship, especially those of an intimate kind, some fine tuning is required. I suspect the complaint is a reaction to my malaria tablets, nothing to do with Indian cuisine at all. So out went the tablets, and I would take my chances with the mosquitoes. Given my crimes against animals of the lesser type, for as a biologist I had dabbled overly long in the black arts of entomology, I was taking a risk. After all, malaria is making a strong comeback on the world stage. So, the issue of the tablets hopefully dealt with, and never normally being one to let ‘fourths’ stand in the way of ‘thirds’, this morning I felt confident that I could demolish a hearty breakfast of things whose names I did not record, and consequently, whose names I no longer can recall.

My hand is also much revived. It is my right hand, and so enthused by this morning’s revitalised constitution, and having achieved a better grasp of things, so to speak, I attempt to eat Indian style. I would scorn the plebeian tourist handling of cutlery and grub right in with my fingers. If only my parents could see me now. All those childhood years spent in the judicious study of Western table etiquette down the drain. I was like a pig in a trough. My efforts at eating ‘finger fashion’ were much rewarded, most of the meal going directly from my hand to my mouth, only a small portion left perching in my beard. Seeing no mouse about, to which I could surreptitiously feed these morsels, I delivered the offending slops back to my serving plate, there to be recycled, fully aware of the several waiters hovering behind me; for these watched each and every of my movements, quick to replace plate or bowl, swift to refill glass or cup.

The new driver collects me from the hotel’s front door, I wave farewell to the staff lined up at the front of the hotel, and we are away. The driver is young, and once leaving the city’s limits, I quickly learn that he also is an avid fan of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and has adopted ‘Mr Toad’ as a cult hero and guru of what I coin the ‘Indian School of Adventitious Roadway Domination’. It makes the acronym ‘ISARD’ which, on a reflection thereof, I note it fits into a Bob Dylan song, suitably corrupted in Procrustean fashion, as in ‘’IS a ‘ARD rain’s a gonna fall…”. I know, it’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination, and you have to be familiar with Dylan’s lyrics to appreciate my fine word play, but long road trips do that to you, and I had long been a student of the absurd. Such frivolities of human mental meanderings explain at least two things; one, the perceived faster passage of time in situations that otherwise would be painfully tedious, and two, the premature ending of otherwise lifelong friendships of those trapped in the tour car with you. I have friends who left Australia’s shores as passionate lovers, but by the end of the first week of their journey,….well, that was the end of that.

I was beginning to suspect that this particular school of driver awareness, its branches apparently far flung on this subcontinent, had many students but few graduates. The driver veers for no one, no thing, no matter how huge or fragile. I had hoped to have put Toad’s ‘Mr Hyde’ alter ego behind me, back there west of Bodh Gaya. Sadly no, as I quickly realise, so we weave in pursuit of our destination, careless of traffic, careless of creatures be they beasts of four legs or beasts of two, and heedless of the condition of the road. Age, gender, social status and religious caste, all are irrelevant. For three and a half hours Death accompanies us, but I am well-padded by luggage in the rear of the car. I have not given up my seat.

Advancing trucks and buses deter us not, pot holes are passed over at such a speed that our vehicle’s tyres are given no opportunity to bounce neither in nor out thereof. Families of seven or eight, clinging tight within the confines of labouring autobicycles are given no quarter. We are indestructible, at worst my driver will find spiritual rebirth in either a different form, or will at last achieve ‘moksha’. I consider a swift conversion to Buddhism for in such a refuge I might at least also find hope of rebirth, and if I’m lucky enough all my treasured books will still be in their old places in my library. Pray that I return to Earth before my children have the ‘garage sale’. I hope they do not consign my best cloth bound tomes cheaply to ‘e-Bay’.

We pass a corpulent woman in the most sumptuous of embroidered gowns, the metallic ‘zari’ thread of the fabric glistening in the sunlight. She sits side-saddle on an ancient Enfield motorbike, its engine straining to a weight for which it was not designed, dark grey exhaust smoke belching behind, her driver bent forward in feverish purpose across the handle bars. All of 50 kilometres an hour that poor machine must have been progressing at. Both motorcycle driver and motorcycle passenger are ignorant of our approach and so are oblivious as to their tenuous hold on life. At least ignorance may deliver them kindly to their death. In front we cut, “Sound Horn, Sound Horn” my conveyance bellows, the bike and its passengers thrown into disarray. I turn and see the motorcycle disappearing in a cloud of dust somewhere to our left. I have a vision of its two occupants blithely sailing into the roadside ditch, the woman nonplussed in her calm pose, the driver holding strong to the handlebars as if no calamity had befallen them, worldly matters of no consequence.

I consign myself to the evolutionary convergence of homicidal driving skills, one’s fragile adherence to mortal life on Indian highways, and the prevalence of ‘Mr Toads’. Of the latter I will badger my readers no further. Onwards to the Sunderbans Tiger Camp we fly, “Sound Horn, Sound Horn”, our calls met and answered by other oncoming beasts of the roadway.


The Sunderbans is a national park, a tiger reserve, and a World Heritage Biosphere Reserve located in the Indian State of West Bengal. It adjoins The Sunderbans West Wildlife Sanctuary in Bangladesh, for at this point on the Bay of Bengal the borders of both countries converge. In terms of the region’s ecology, no boundary exists at all. For neither species nor natural processes respect political lines drawn on a map. They interact back and forth as they see fit.

At about 329,000 hectares in size the Sunderbans is one of the largest reserves in which the Bengal Tiger survives, and it constitutes the largest mangrove forest in the world. The park’s core area was declared as a tiger reserve in 1973, and more broadly as a national park in 1984. Permanent management stations are located in the national park, however, there are also floating watch stations and camps to protect the park from poachers. Armed forest rangers patrol the reserve. The average altitude of the park is 7.5 metres above sea level, and is made up of 54 small islands and is bisected by several tributaries of the Ganges. Seven main rivers and countless water courses form a complex network of channels. Tidal influences are pronounced and daily range between 3-5 metres, and sometimes up to 8 metres. In a time of rapid climate change such low-lying habitats are vulnerable to prolonged and more permanent inundation. There are lots of mudflats, and tidal action constantly deposits silt back into the channels. This raises the beds, thus forming new islands and creeks, and establishing a new and ever-varying geomorphology.

Poaching and encroachment by villages are major management issues. Human disturbance, such as the collection of wood, honey collection, fishing, and the removal of forest products, are restricted from the core area. However, in the surrounding buffer area fishing, honey collection and wood cutting are permitted in a limited way. There are extensive conservation and education programs, and training of staff in environmental management, and scientific research is also undertaken. Mangroves, and other vegetation, are planted in the fringe areas so as to meet the needs of about 1,000 villages for firewood, and to conserve the buffer area. The proximity of villages to the park results in tiger attacks, so extensive fencing has been erected to control tigers straying into areas of human occupation. That’s an introduction in a nutshell, sufficient to paint an outline.

Except for the presence of a ‘top predator’, the tiger, the management issues confronting the Sunderbans are similar to those besetting Australia’s national parks. Human pressure, weed invasion, feral animals, illegal removal of plants and plant products, and the unknown long-term impact of climate change; all pose, individually and cumulatively, threats of significance. I live alongside a national park, it has its distinct pleasures, yet I cannot imagine life there if I was to share the space of my particular patch of the natural world with that of an overly-sized cat, no matter how pretty its stripes might look. It would certainly take the relaxation out of a leisurely afternoon hike.


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