And so it is the morning of my only full day at the Sunderbans. This day of my road trip will be spent by boat and on foot. Together with the fellow tourists at the camp I board the MV Oceanus, its crew there on deck and on shore to steady our walk up the narrow gangplank, the wooden plank springing gaily up and down under our weight and the mismatched timing of our footsteps. Most of the passengers are Indian, though there is one young American girl who rarely speaks, and a couple of undisclosed nationality who are not at all sociable. My Indian acquaintance of yesterday evening is there. He discloses he has an unmarried son, and I reciprocate by divulging that I have a daughter, also unmarried, of similar age. I assure him that she is of an appropriate social class and that her teeth are in good order, but in the end I fail to make the beginnings of an arrangement to the mutual benefit of both our houses. Maybe it was my disinterest in cricket that cruelled all prospects of securing the match. In future I shall not be so forthright concerning my sporting politics, and instead I will don the cap of keen supporter of the game.
We voyage through the estuary system of the Sunderbans, and though there is extensive mangrove habitat in every direction, excepting a few shore wader birds, several species of egrets and herons, the ubiquitous Black-capped kingfisher Halcyon pileata, and the widely distributed Spotted dove Stigmatopelta chinensis, there was little wild life to be seen. This is not unusual as most wild animals anywhere are secretive, and a noisy boat in late morning does not make the best timed of viewing platforms, though I should not be so dismissive of the Black-capped kingfisher as it is a distinctive bird, and although wide ranging the species is restricted to coastal environments. A keen birdwatcher, if restricted to India’s hinterland, will surely miss this species. However, the Sunderbans is not the habitat to wander joyfully about alone, armed only with a pair of binoculars and a bird identification handbook for one’s protection.
In 2004 there were estimated to be 274 tigers in the reserve, this figure up from an estimated population in 1973 of 181. Tigers have a habit of occasionally killing people, hereabouts sometimes 40 a year, being so proficient at stealthily stalking their prey that forest rangers wear human masks at the back of their heads, the rearward facing gaze of the mask’s eyes hopefully serving to discourage attacks, for tigers are wary predators. Not so wary are the saltwater crocodiles that inhabit the mangroves of the Sunderbans, and crocodiles are not deterred by such devices. Intermittent attacks on unwitting tourists and inhabitants in Australia’s Northern Territory by the same species demonstrate the danger. So these are two reasons why not to wander about at leisure, and explain why the visitor walkways provided on land are caged or fenced in. In this place, tourists are the ones in cages, though one can only guess at the frustration of tiger and crocodile, having a meal so close, plump tourists that we are, yet thanks to the cage wire, one beyond the tasting.
The diversity, or as many ecologists now prefer, the ‘species richness’, of the plants and animals found in the Sunderbans deserves a little detailing. In Hometown, admittedly located towards the southern latitudinal limit suitable for mangrove colonisation, only three species of mangrove occur, one of which is quite rare. Rarely are these mangrove communities more than narrow fringes along estuary shores. But in the Sunderbans there are more than 60 mangrove species, these including ‘Genwa’ Exoecaria agallocha, ‘Kaukra’ Bruguiera gymnorrhiza, ‘Khalsi’ Aegiceras corniculatum, and ‘Dhundal’ or Cannonball mangrove Xylocarpus granatum. These form true forests, their roots exposed at low tide, and when inundated by high tides the branching shelter of their roots become home to aquatic fish life. The mangrove forests also include a true palm, the Nypa palm Nypa fruticans. Nypa palms are distributed from India to Australia, but the species is restricted to habitats that are inundated by tides. In such habitats it often forms dense stands. The Nypa palm produces seeds but can also vegetatively spread by means of the prostrate branching of subterranean rootstock. It produces large quantities of sweet syrup which can be extracted from the trunk if the flower stalks are cut off at the right time. If I can be excused for reverting to imperial measurements, I am told 1 acre of Nypa palms will yield 3,200 gallons of this inexpensive source of sugar, vinegar and alcohol. Thus there is incentive to harvest them.
Apart from tigers the mammal fauna includes wild boar, fox, the Indian grey mongoose, pangolin and Chital deer, as well as several smaller predatory cats, namely the Fishing cat, Leopard cat and Jungle cat. These are small to medium sized cats that prey on animals such as birds, lizards and frogs, and fish. The small Leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis and the slightly larger Jungle cat Felis chaus are locally common in India, though the Fishing cat Prionailurus viverrinus is endangered throughout its range. Although I was to see little of it, the reserve’s bird fauna is a rich one, and includes Open-bill storks, Black-headed ibis, Brahminy kites, Grey-headed Fish eagles, Red Jungle fowl, Jungle babblers, Night herons, Green pigeons and Paradise flycatchers. Of these I am familiar with only two. Brahminy kites include the east coast of Australia in their range, and I see them there commonly patrolling in the skies above beach shores and over estuaries, the distinctive white-headed males resplendent in their otherwise rust-red plumage. The Jungle fowl is believed the ancestor of the Australian backyard ‘chook’, and domestic chickens worldwide for that matter, though the latter has devolved somewhat from its lithesome Asian forebears. Once the chook was the ‘Christmas turkey’ of the Australian working class family, now they are slaughtered each year by the million, no ritual sacrifice or the burning of incense preceding their death.
The aquatic realm of the Sunderbans includes Sawfish, electric rays and the Shishumaar, the Ganges River dolphin, but in the Bay of Bengal this and dolphins of several other species fall prey to fishermen. The reptiles include chameleons, Rat snakes, Checkered keelbacks, Dog-faced water snakes, Common kraits, King cobras and Russell’s vipers. Most of Australia’s snakes are from the family Elapidae, thus poisonous and best avoided, but many of India’s snakes are from the family Colubridae. Consequently, most are relatively innocuous and generally do not possess a nasty fang in their body. Rat snakes grow to three metres in length, kill their prey by constricting and are no threat to humans. The Dog-faced water snake is a docile species found commonly on mudflats, though for all their reputed commonness I did not see one. However, India does possess some snakes of truly venomous merit. Russell’s viper is named after Patrick Russell, a Scottish herpetologist, its genus name Daboia, in Hindi meaning, ‘lies hid’ or ‘the lurker’. It is one of the four most venous snakes in India, not only being widely distributed but also occurring in highly populated areas. It is not small either, for adults can reach over 1.4 metres in length. And they are stout, not thin. The head of a Russell’s viper is flattened and triangular in shape, quite distinct from the neck. Unlike highly venous Common kraits, whose colour pattern can be confused with that of several relatively harmless snakes, the colour pattern of a Russell’s viper leaves no doubt as to what you have encountered for it consists of large dark brown irregular spots, 23-30 in number, on a lighter brown background. Patrick Russell, 1726-1805, surgeon and naturalist, is no less of interest than the snake named in his honour. In 1785 Russell was offered the post of botanist and naturalist by the East India Company’s Governor of Madras, a position in which he was also presumed to have the abilities of linguist, meteorologist, geologist and antiquarian. He made a special study of snakebite, undertaking within this an investigation of the various purported remedies then on offer. Although acclaimed pills of local manufacture and concoction failed abysmally as remedies, large volumes of warm Madeira wine, poured into the mouth of a bitten soldier, already in a state of torpor, by all account proved successful. Russell left India for England in January 1791, and there he wrote ‘An Account of Indian Serpents collected on the Coast of Coromandel’, Part I with 44 plates being published in 1796. The last two volumes of Part II were published posthumously in 1807 and 1809.
The King cobra, Ophiophagus hannah, is the world’s longest venomous snake. It preys chiefly on other snakes, but is not a true cobra, these being members of the genus Naja. King cobras are found predominantly in forested habitat from India through Southeast Asia to Indonesia and the Philippines. A captive one in the London Zoo grew to 5.6 metres, that’s more than 18 and a half feet in length in the old pre-metric scale of measurement. The King cobra competes with the Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake of North America and the Gabon viper of Africa, for the title of the world’s heaviest snake. The heaviest specimen was caught in 1951 at the Royal Island Club, Singapore, measuring 4.8 metres and weighing in at 15 kilos. Its poison is not especially potent. It’s just that it can envenom the unfortunate with so much of it, enough to kill an elephant if it has a mind to.
In 1894 the English Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling published a book of stories called ‘The Jungle Book’. Though one story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi contained two conniving cobras, Nag and Nagaina, it was the character of the python Kaa that I always equated with King Cobras. In 1942 Zoltan Korda produced a film adaptation of ‘The Jungle Book’, starring Sabu Dastagir as Mowgli the ‘man-cub’. In that film, me watching it as a ten year old on an old Healing 11-inch black and white television set, the giant and menacing Kaa looked for all the world like a King cobra, intended or not. Kipling was born in India and spent the first six years of his life there. He was to return later for a further six and a half years. ‘The Second Jungle Book’ followed the first in 1895, and was a collection of fables using animals in a human-like way to give moral lessons; in similar fashion to the Panchatantra. But the best known of his characters was the youthful Mowgli who was raised by wolves. Because of its moral tone ‘The Jungle Book’ came to be used as a motivational book by the Boy Scouts movement.
The works of Rudyard Kipling aside, a brief discussion of the reserve’s fauna cannot be concluded without mention of the Mangrove horseshoe crab, scientific name Carccinoscorpius rotundicauda, a large endangered invertebrate that inhabits the shallow waters and the mudflats of the Sunderbans’ inter-tidal zone. It vaguely looks like a prehistoric, sadly now extinct, trilobite and is not a crab at all but rather is more closely related to spiders and scorpions. The Mangrove horseshoe crab is distributed from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, and while this might suggest it is common exploitation for food and the loss of mangrove habitat threatens the species throughout its range. Four species of horseshoe crabs are known to occur in the world, three are found in the Indo-Pacific region, but the fourth is found only in North America, this believed to have diverged on the path of evolution from its relatives about 135 million years ago.
Our boat stops at a jetty that gives access to a long, fully caged, walkway through the mangroves. There are several species of true crab to be seen, in particular large numbers of a bright red fiddler crab which are not bothered by the loud chatter coming from the mouths of those whose company I am obliged to enjoy. Their noise frightens all other animal life away, only the crabs being deaf or careless to it. The narrow constraint of the walkway’s netting not only keeps me safe from attacks by feline predators, but restricts my ability to avoid requests for photographs. I am not that famous I am implore, infamous if anything, so I fail to see the delight families take in being photographed in my company. Talk about being caged. It does give a fresh perspective on how animals in zoos must feel, photograph after photograph, and not a fair trade over copyright ownership at all.
On the return voyage to the tiger camp an Indian lady of polite disposition engages me in conversation. Her son is with her, but he is too young for me to seriously discuss with his mother an introduction to my daughter. Open as the pleasant lady proves to be on the subject of arranged marriages, I am diverted to other subjects. These mostly relate to matters of environmental management and respective costs of living in our two countries. We do not, thankfully, engage in the subject of cricket. She is proudly Indian, though patently aware of the ills that face her homeland. However, I am ambushed, though that was my choice of words and not her intent, by a question I did not expect. The question was “Why are Australians attacking Indian students studying in Australia?” It was a question that would recur later in my travels. On this occasion I answered with the little knowledge I had of the assaults, throwing in for good effect that my family physician of 20 or so years standing was an Indian-Australian, and a Sikh one with a fine beard at that. But the question brought home to me that maybe here I was not seen simply as a foreign novelty, and that I should not be so naively comfortable in this land where, after all, I was only a guest.
Before my evening meal I enjoy a theatrical performance put on by, and starring, the camp staff. The play relates a local folk tale involving fisherman, a small boy, and a forest deity. I do not understand the language, so the subtlety of the storyline escaped me. Nevertheless the performance is brilliant, the language barrier no obstacle to my appreciation of it. I regret not filming the play. They should be invited to perform at the ‘Sydney Festival’; someone please take note. Scores of large hive bees, which I take to be Apis dorsata, are attracted to the lights in the theatre room. Most die overnight. I do not know why.
After the meal I attempt to visit the mangroves adjacent the camp compound, for my torch is powerful enough to serve as a spotlight in search of any nocturnal animals that might be active or foraging there. The gates are locked, no watchman is about, and so I return disappointed to my bungalow.