Should you ever be mauled by a Royal Bengal tiger, it is likely you will be attacked from behind. The animal will leap for your throat and snap your windpipe and spinal cord, using its clumpy paws with claws that retract, much like a kitty-cat’s, to keep you from wriggling too much. If you look into its eyes, you’ll notice the irises are amber and viscous like a healing crystal. Then, when you stop thrashing around, it will drag your corpse into a private spot and begin a nose-to-tail portioning of meals. It will start with your thighs and buttocks, the most succulent meat, and pick its way through to the gnarly bits over the next three to five days.
This information is imparted to me, without sensation or hysteria, by a 37-year-old man called Mohammad Abdul Goni, known to everyone as Tiger Goni. We are sheltering from an unholy downpour in the cabin of a chugging, belching launch shaped like a Jack Purcell high-top. The boat is moored besides a village called Horinogor opposite the Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh. I had been forewarned that Goni was eccentric and maniacally brave — “nuts” was the word used — and it was said he believes he can communicate with tigers. I began to imagine a Kurtz-esque off-the-grid renegade. So, I am disappointed to find a smiley father-of-two with cropped hair and a bright polo shirt who, stood next to me, barely comes up to my armpits.
Goni has the oddest job description I’ve ever come across: he rescues — or recovers the bodies of — people who have been savaged by tigers in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans. As soon as he receives a call, day or night, Goni and two colleagues from the Emergency Response Team (ERT) jump in their boat and head to the spot where the victim was last sighted. Whatever the state of the body, and whether the tiger has finished its meal or not, Goni’s sworn assignation is to deliver the remains either to a hospital or back to the victim’s home village. Most Bangladeshis are Muslim and, according to shariah law, burial should take place as soon as possible after death. Since 2007, he estimates he has retrieved 100 victims of tiger attacks from the forest and saved more than 30 lives.
So, how does Goni feel about tigers? Does he fear them? Hate them? “No,” he replies, sucking on his cigarette. Goni smokes relentlessly, but when your job is rescuing dismembered bodies from the jaws of tigers, you maybe don’t worry so much about your nicotine intake. “I love the tiger just a little less than I love my mother. For us, in the Sundarbans, they are priceless things. Without the tigers, our existence is in danger.” It is an unexpected answer from someone in his line of work. Yet, during two weeks in Bangladesh, I hear the sentiment expressed by nearly everyone I speak to about the Bengal tiger: from fishermen and honey collectors, whose lives are in peril every time they step in the forest, to even victims of tiger attacks and the widows whose husbands died. People revere them almost as gods. And, in a bizarre twist, each now depends on the other for its survival.
For thousands of years — since tigers wandered into these parts from south China and Southeast Asia — an arrangement of sorts has existed between man and beast. Inhabited areas belonged to the people who lived there; should tigers enter them, they could expect to be surrounded and battered to death by villagers. But the Sundarbans forest — protected by Unesco as a World Heritage site and uninhabited in Bangladesh — was definitely theirs. It is common, for both Hindus and Muslims, to offer a prayer to Bonbibi, the lady of the forest, when they enter the Sundarbans to protect them from the tigers. One begins, “Mother, we are entering your kingdom…”
In recent years, however, the relationship has changed dramatically. As we speak, Goni constantly glances at his mobile phone, as though he might be called into action any second. But it doesn’t ring, and the reality is that the ERT has not been so busy of late. In fact, when we meet in mid-May, he has not had to retrieve a single body in 2015. It’s very hard to gauge accurately how many people are killed by tigers in the Sundarbans annually: one recent study from Jahangirnagar University in Savar put the average figure at 27 per year in Bangladesh; dig around, though, and you can find estimates from a handful up to 150. Goni’s not sure, either, but he remembers 2010 and 2011 as being especially busy.
In one sense, of course, declining numbers are good news. After all, human lives are at stake, a fact that for Goni, and many others round here, has a personal resonance. In 2007, before he worked with the ERT, Goni was harvesting honey one day, high up in a tree, when he heard screams from below. Through the smoke the collectors billow out to anaesthetise the wild bees, his saw his friend being attacked by a tiger.
“I was in a fix,” he recalls. “I couldn’t decide what to do. After a few moments, I climbed down the tree, picked up my stick and went to the tiger. I was face to face with him; he roared at me and it was so noisy that it felt like the ground shook. I roared back and we stood for some minutes until the tiger eventually retreated. But my friend was dead.” Goni looks down at the floor. “If I had taken the decision a little faster then perhaps I could have saved his life.”
But the decrease in attacks on humans also hints at a worrying development: the tigers themselves are being killed off at an alarming rate, mainly by poachers to service a lucrative trade in body parts for traditional medicines, especially in China, and skins for interior decoration. With the global population of tigers in the wild estimated by the National Geographic Society at just 2,500 — a fall of 97 per cent in the last century — there is genuine concern the animal could become extinct, perhaps by 2022, ironically the next Chinese year of the tiger. In this context, the Sundarbans, with numbers of Royal Bengal tigers in the hundreds, remains one of the last strongholds on the planet.
While I am in Bangladesh, a comprehensive tiger survey is being carried out by the Forest Department, its results due in a couple of months. Goni, and many others, are pessimistic both for the tigers and for the effect their dwindling numbers will have on the human population and the Sundarbans. “People say that eight tigers are killed every month by poachers,” he says. “I don’t think that’s true, but the accidents are occurring much less than before, for sure.”
The earliest known mention of man-eating tigers in these parts is from 1599, in letters from Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Tigers are adaptable and extraordinarily efficient predators, but they are mostly secretive and reclusive and do not typically have a taste for human flesh. Something, though, in the humid, salty and remote mangrove forests is clearly different: these particular tigers never feared man. During colonial times, when the global tiger population was around 100,000 and the Sundarbans extended hundreds of miles north to the suburbs of the city of Calcutta, tigers were said to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people every year.
The Royal Bengal tiger, Panthera tigris tigris, is not “royal” at all: that was just the name given to it by the British because of its mood and attitude. Befitting their regal nomenclature, Bengal tigers are feared and revered among the nine subspecies that scientists recognise. Shere Khan, the villain of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, is one; so, too, is Richard Parker, the misnamed antagonist in Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Life of Pi. Even as he faces his imminent demise, the story’s hero Pi Patel is beguiled by this creature who we learn was captured in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans before ending up in the life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
“What art, what might,” Martel writes. “His body, bright brownish orange streaked with black vertical stripes, was incomparably beautiful, matched with a tailor’s eye for harmony by his pure white chest and underside and the black rings of his long tail… [His] face looked like the wings of a butterfly and bore an expression vaguely old and Chinese. Every hair on me was standing up, shrieking with fear.”
Like all societal misfits, Royal Bengal tigers are partly a product of their upbringing and environment. Mangrove forests are low-lying tracts of salt-resilient trees that are neither quite sea nor land. Mangroves are mostly found in the tropics and are typically small, but the Sundarbans — at the mouth of the Ganges Delta, 60 per cent in Bangladesh, the rest in India — is the largest expanse in the world. At 10,000sq km, it’s just a little smaller than Yorkshire. Its name possibly comes from the Bengali language, meaning “the forest of beautiful trees”, but equally could derive from sundari, the dominant tree of the area.
The Sundarbans is, in some senses, a place of substantial bounty. It is home to unfathomable varieties of trees, birds and reptiles; humans — up to 300,000 every day — enter to fish, collect wood and the most delicious honey, available for only a few weeks each year. But this is also a place of hardship. Tigers, the largest of the big cats, have evolved to be about half the size in the Sundarbans than they are elsewhere. Uniquely, they have taught themselves to swim and, when they’re in the mood, paddle so furiously they can keep pace with a motorboat. And they have been forced to eat whatever they can catch, which means fish, monitor lizards and, at a stretch, human beings.
It is a menacing landscape, defined by forbidding aerial tree roots (pneumatophores), which rise upwards from the gloopy swampland like spikes to provide oxygen for the mangroves. That, combined with the mud, which envelops you up to your knees with every step, deters all but the most intrepid, or desperate, visitors. Besides tigers there are king cobras, other venomous snakes including kraits, sharks and saltwater crocodiles, which scare Goni more than anything. The land, which is on sea level and sinking, is prone to flooding and is sporadically battered by cyclones. The last big one, Cyclone Aila in 2009, saw the water rise by six metres and made over half a million Bangladeshis homeless.
If that wasn’t enough, there are human dangers, too: dacoits (bands of pirates) patrol the waterways armed with AK-47s, extorting money from anyone who makes a living here. If they don’t pay, the dacoits kidnap their relatives and demand a swingeing ransom. Considerable resentment has built: not long ago in Horinogor, where I meet Goni, three pirates turned up at a local market and, unarmed and outnumbered, were set upon and killed by villagers.
The Sundarbans is often labelled one of the most dangerous spots on Earth and certainly there can’t be many places facing its challenges. Yet within this hostile and dysfunctional environment, the Royal Bengal tiger assumes a strange and surprising authority. In one sense, it presents the most terrifying threat to the 1.7m Bangladeshis living on the borders of the forest and who depend on its bounty for their livelihoods. Research done by the University of Kent in 2013 identified 24 “locally relevant” dangers, from climate change to the pirates, faced by the people of the Sundarbans. Tellingly, the only threat cited by more than 50 per cent of respondents was being attacked by a tiger.
Nevertheless, the extinction of tigers in the Sundarbans would create many more problems than it solves. Without them lurking in the shadows, many more people than currently do so would enter the forest. “Even my wife would go in and cut trees!” one fisherman I meet says. In no time, locals believe, the natural resources of the Sundarbans would be stripped. Even the meagre existence they enjoy in the poorest corner of one of the poorest countries in the world would be taken from them.
Although tigers are terrifying, it’s felt they are at least fair. The same cannot be said of the dacoits or even employees of the government’s Forest Department, underpaid and overworked, who nominally have authority over the region. The cynicism is understandable. In 2012, the carcass of a tiger was found in the forest: it had been skinned, its head and paws hacked off and its entrails cleaned out; the Forest Department reported that it had died of “old age”. “Only the tigers can save the Sundarbans,” the fisherman goes on to say. “You can bribe the Forest Department, you can handle the pirates with money. But you cannot corrupt the tiger.”
My journey to the Sundarbans had been an unexpected one. A couple of years ago, I was contacted by an old zoologist friend, Adam Barlow, who had read an article I’d written. We’d met in our halls of residence at university and had bonded, during our initiation to the rugby club, over the fact that neither of us much fancied eating a Mars bar covered with pubic hair. We hadn’t spoken for almost 20 years, and it turned out that for much of the last decade he had been living in Bangladesh working with a non-profit called the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh (now rebranded as WildTeam) on a research project about the region’s man-eating residents. One of the most conspicuous dangers that tigers faced came when they wandered into inhabited areas, usually by accident or desperation, and they were attacked by villagers. Confronting a tiger conferred great status: one study found that 89.4 per cent of people agreed with the statement that “people who kill tigers are brave”.
After detailed consultations with villagers across the Sundarbans, Adam came up with a counter-intuitive proposal: the formation of Volunteer Tiger Retrieval Teams (VTRT). When a tiger entered a village, these unpaid locals would take charge and return the animal, where possible, to the forest. Adam knew the idea was a gamble: “The big question,” he told me, “was why would they ever spend their time being trained and then risk their lives saving tigers?”
I told Adam I’d like to go with him to Bangladesh. The appeal was not strictly based on checking up on the work of the VTRT. Mainly, I just wanted to see a Royal Bengal tiger in the wild. The attraction, in part, was that this was a long way from the traditional safari experience. In the Sundarbans, there are no trackers out in the field, finding the animals each morning, while you toddle along in a Land Rover sipping chilled bottled water. No one could predict if you would see a tiger and how it would respond if you did cross paths. It felt dangerous, primitive, vital, especially sitting at a desk thousands of miles away contemplating it. Of course, I wasn’t wholly unaware of the idiocy of it, too: the people who enter the Sundarbans every day do so because they have no alternative; a privileged person actively looking for a Royal Bengal tiger becomes, in this sense, a little insulting.
By the time we’d made the arrangements, Adam was living back in the UK, but I decided to go anyway. I’d read enough to have some appreciation of how precariously balanced the situation was; it was now or never if Royal Bengal tigers were going to be saved in Bangladesh. To add extra intrigue and jeopardy, the only people who could secure their future were the ones most at risk of being attacked by them. We spoke on the phone before I left and the last thing Adam said was, “You’d be the only westerner to be eaten by a tiger in 200 years or something. It could be one of those emotional pieces where I finish it off for you.”
Out in Bangladesh, the difference the VTRT programme had made became clear. There are 49 teams across the Sundarbans and more than 360 volunteers. Since they were formed in 2008, there have been more than 50 incidences of tigers entering a village and none so far has resulted in the death of a tiger. When one of the volunteers was killed by a tiger, there was concern that the whole system of VTRTs might unravel. Instead, the dead man’s son took his place on the team. The fact that they are not paid has proved to be a masterstroke: the villagers appear to feel it is their project, not one imposed on them by a remote authority.
In the village of Kadamtala, I meet eight VTRT volunteers: they include fishermen, a carpenter, small-business owners; they are aged between 20 and 70, and all wear orange hi-vis vests, one of the few rewards of their job. In 2008, a tiger had entered Kadamtala and killed three people and picked off a few chickens and goats. Eventually, a mob formed of many thousands from all around the surrounding areas and cornered the tiger in a house. A fishing net was thrown over the exits to stop it escaping; it was restrained with a lasso and savagely bludgeoned to death. “Everybody wanted revenge for the people the tiger killed,” says Mohammad Hossein Ali, a volunteer. “Very few people had sympathy with the tiger; the majority wanted the tiger to die.”
Then, only four years later, in 2011, Kadamtala’s VTRT team, under Adam’s guidance, became the first to successfully tranquillize a tiger and return it to the wild. So what changed? “Before, we didn’t realise how important the Sundarbans is, and how important the tiger is for the Sundarbans,” says Mohammad Hossein Ali. “The Sundarbans is how all of us here make our living. It provides us with oxygen and it protects us from cyclones. If we can protect the Sundarbans, then maybe our next generation will not face such great problems.”
There is something hypnotic about the Sundarbans. It’s not so much that it is beautiful; the landscape, viewed from WildTeam’s launch, is in fact relatively monotonous: the trees are low, dense, impenetrable. What you do feel, though, is an eerie sense of menace: it’s misty, often spooky, and you’re constantly aware you are far away from help. If I lived in the Sundarbans, I’m pretty sure I’d believe in spirits, too. No one is in control: not the government, not the villagers, not even the tigers. It feels, in the true sense of the word, wild.
Part of the incongruity comes from how different the Sundarbans is from the rest of Bangladesh. With 164m people in a land just fractionally bigger than England, this is one of the most densely populated places on the planet; the only countries more crammed are tiny nation-states such as Monaco and Vatican City. Bangladesh, especially its gridlocked capital Dhaka, is frenetic and impossible. Yet, here is an uninhabited, undiscovered region where you can chug around for a day in a boat and scarcely see another soul; the dacoits tend not to bother westerners because it will bring too much attention to their activities. The Sundarbans feels old-fashioned, even ancient: in some villages, locals still fish at night with short-haired otters, as they have done for centuries; the otters are harnessed and herd the fish into a net to receive offcuts from the catch.
My stay in the Sundarbans is full of incongruous experiences. One day, I watch a group of children sprint from the water after seeing a venomous snake swimming towards them; I assume they are scared, but they run to get sticks to pummel it, long past the point a referee should have intervened. In complete darkness one night, my translator, Robi, began singing, almost in falsetto: “Near, far, wherever you are...” He knocks out the whole thing, word perfect, and announces, “That is a tune from Titanic by the Canadian artist Celine Dion.” I ask if he knows any more tunes and he sings a Limp Bizkit number. I meet one tourist in my entire trip, a French girl who, after two months in India, is grateful she is no longer seen as a “walking wallet”. This is remarkable and sad considering what Bangladesh has to offer visitors.
In 1989, Ted Hughes, then the poet laureate, spent 10 days in Bangladesh. He told his hosts that he wanted to visit the Sundarbans and see a Royal Bengal tiger. He was informed, with a smile: “We can take you to the tigers, but we cannot guarantee that the tigers will come to you!” In the event he didn’t see any, but he was inspired to compose a number of poems, notably “Four Things Created by God”, in praise of the tiger and its magical homeland. It ends: “Bangladesh take care of the Sundarbans.”
I’m not sure when it becomes clear to me that I am not going see a Royal Bengal tiger. I’m equally unclear whether I am disappointed or mightily relieved. But, like Hughes, it was more of a preoccupation before my visit than it is when I am in the Sundarbans. When you are there, it makes perfect sense that there is a near-mythical creature that is both the greatest threat to interlopers and also the benign protector of the region. It begins to feel almost churlish to demand that it show itself. It’s that religious idea that if you need proof something exists then you are not worthy of seeing it. Or maybe it’s just really difficult in a deep, tangled forest to spot a rare and solitary animal that only moves for four hours a day.
It’s tempting, as Hughes did, to beseech Bangladesh to look after the Sundarbans and its tiger population. But it’s also not a stretch to see how maintaining an area of pristine wilderness might not be a preoccupation of those leading the country. Bangladesh is a nation that only appears on the international agenda in the aftermath of a disaster. In recent times, headlines have come from the collapse of the Rana Plaza sweatshop in 2013 that led to the death of 1,100 workers. Or the four violent and very public assassinations of secular bloggers that have been a recurring story throughout 2015. Watching the slow and begrudging attempts to prosecute the guilty in those cases makes it hard to imagine that police will track down the poachers and the dacoits, who operate with the sophistication of drug syndicates, in the Sundarbans.
On my final day in Bangladesh, back in Dhaka, I visit Dr Anwarul Islam, the genial CEO of WildTeam. The NGO is flourishing these days: it has 80 full-time staff, all Bangladeshi, and recently won a $12m grant from the United States Agency for International Development to fund its activities for the next four years. Still, the tone of my conversation with Dr Anwarul is mostly a little gloomy. The battle to save the Royal Bengal tigers has become less about conservation and more about gathering intelligence on poachers and working with law-enforcement agencies. Bangladesh scores very badly on any corruption index so this is inevitably a frustrating path. Convincing politicians, starting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, to become seriously invested in the subject remains a hope, though not a serious expectation.
“If our prime minister says, ‘I declare war against the poachers! I am going to do everything to protect the tigers’, then she becomes a world leader for tiger conservation,” Dr Anwarul says. “We tell the Forest Department that, but we are not allowed to reach the prime minister.” He shrugs and continues, “But if you look at our population, look at the area we have, look at our challenges — should she talk about humans? Or talk about tigers? It’s not a priority area, that’s the problem.”
A shake of the head. “The Sundarbans are our Taj Mahal,” says Dr Anwarul. “You can build 10 Taj Mahals, but you can’t build the Sundarbans. Everyone knows that.”
At the end of July, the results of the tiger census in Bangladesh were announced. The news wasn’t good. In 2004, the previous survey estimated there were 440 Royal Bengal tigers in the region; now, there are somewhere between 83 and 130, a 75 per cent reduction. The statistics, reported by both the BBC and The New York Times, were shocking enough that there was an immediate response from the Bangladeshi government. In early August, police, acting on a tip-off about a tiger-poaching ring, raided a hideout deep in the Sundarbans. A 20-minute shoot-out ensued, leaving seven poachers dead and a handful of officers injured. Three mature, 10ft tiger skins were seized, each with a value of £2,000 and all of which, from their look and smell, had been taken in the previous week.
Whether this was a show of force, in part to impress foreign eyes, or the start of a much-needed crackdown on poaching, only time will tell. By 2090, the population of Bangladesh is projected to reach 300m; that’s awfully crowded and it’s not easy to see where the Royal Bengal tigers will fit in. “You have to be hopeful, otherwise you are hopeless,” says Tiger Goni, back on the boat. He flicks his umpteenth cigarette out the window of the cabin into the water: “Even if there is only one tiger left, we will do everything in our power to protect it.”