Reprinted from Time
The Honey Tigers
BY TIM MCGIRK/SUNDERBANS
|Author and philanthropist Dominique Lapierre and his wife, Dominique, on their second hospital boat. Equipped with X-rays, medicine, and even a small operating theater, this boat brings much needed medical assistance to the one million inhabitants of fifty-four islands of the Ganges Delta.|
The Bengal tigers living inside the vast, green maze of the Ganges delta have an attitude problem. They like people, but only for lunch. Some cat experts think it's because these tigers, safe for centuries inside their marshy lair, have never learned to fear humans. In fact, these beasts consider the few men who venture into the Sunderbans swamps--honey-gatherers, fishermen and woodcutters--to be particularly toothsome prey. The tigers have been known to stalk men through the mangroves and waterways for days, waiting for an opportune moment to pounce.
That moment came to a woodsman named Monindro Roy one morning when he saw his best friend killed by a giant tiger nearly as tall as he is. Roy, 64, a white-haired man wrinkled and taut like a length of old rope, recalls the attack: "My friend was chopping down a tree while three of us stood guard around him, watching the jungle. Suddenly, a tiger leapt over our heads and attacked my friend at the tree. The tiger was dragging him away. Back then I was strong, so I grabbed my friend's legs and tried to pull him out of the tiger's mouth," he says. This was more of a nuisance than the tiger had bargained for, and he let go of his intended meal. The woodcutter died from the mauling, and not long after, Roy says with a shudder, "I stopped going back into the jungle."
Tigers are just one of many natural menaces faced by the 300,000 impoverished islanders living on the watery edge of the Indian Sunderbans, a wide wilderness of mangrove swamps where the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers flow into the Bay of Bengal. The women and children who wade in the shallows trying to net baby shrimp are often attacked by sharks and saltwater crocodiles. Smaller but no less lethal killers, such as malaria, cholera and tuberculosis, also lurk in the marshes. Although these islanders are only 80 km from Calcutta, they seem adrift from the rest of India.
|The three hospital boats launched by the Lapierres to bring medical aid to fifty-four islands of the Ganges Delta all but forgotten by the world.|
But some connections are being established. The next time a tiger or a crocodile strikes in the Sunderbans, the victim may owe his survival to a flamboyant French novelist and do-gooder, Dominique Lapierre, 65. Author of City of Joy, a best-selling tale of a Western priest who rediscovers his faith in Calcutta's wretched slums, Lapierre has used some of the royalties from his book and collected enough donations to launch a $100,000 hospital ship to bring doctors and medicine into the remote villages on the Indian side of the Sunderbans.
Tigers were a problem, though. Lapierre couldn't find a crew for his boat because the Sunderbans tiger is an expert swimmer. As police inspector Abdul Rahim of Gosaba marveled, "These cats are faster in the water than the best of our national swim team. "The Sunderbans Bengal doesn't seem to mind an invigorating swim before dinner: the tiger waits until dark and then attacks crewmembers slumbering on fishing boats anchored in the mangrove waterways. Says a fisherman named Umed, "I woke up to see the flash of a tiger as it jumped over me to attack the man sleeping next to me. The tiger killed him." With such tales drifting out of the bayou, Lapierre found it almost impossible to recruit a crew and 10-person medical team for his hospital boat, which was sponsored mainly by Merisons, a Dutch wholesaler of household goods. "There is still a strong magic surrounding these tigers," says Lapierre. "It was very difficult to find doctors and nurses who weren't scared." Despite the tropical heat, the boat's windows all have strong, tiger-proof shutters.
Lapierre explains how a multimillionaire novelist with an unabashed taste for the high life--he owns a villa near St. Tropez and drives a vintage Rolls-Royce--came to be a champion of India's poor: "I took so much out of India. It was fantastic to be able to give it back." While searching for a charity, he was directed by Mother Teresa to James Stevens, a former London haberdasher who walked out of his shop one day resolved to help leper children in Calcutta's slums but who had exhausted his modest funds. Lapierre stepped in to help. "Honestly, I could never do what Stevens and the others do," Lapierre says. "I love my antique cars, the rest. But each one of us does what he can. I can mobilize people, animate them and also use my reputation to protect these poor people from harm." The novelist says he has donated more than $5 million of his own money from royalties and lecture tours over the past 15 years. The funds have been spent on curing and educating 8,000 leper children, drilling wells, operating a tuberculosis eradication program in hundreds of villages, and building schools and clinics.
Lapierre has seen a Sunderbans tiger only once, in a zoo. But he claims that even for those people of the Ganges delta who have escaped to Calcutta's shantytowns, the tiger still stalks their consciousness. "In the home for leper children, the kids sometimes wake up at night having nightmares of man-eaters," he says. The demonic reputation of the Sunderbans tiger has some islanders believing that the creature is a wrathful manifestation of Bon Bibi, the forest deity. So when honey-collectors go into the swamps, they first make a ritual offering to the goddess. She doesn't always listen. Nearly every village in the Sunderbans jungle has several "tiger-widows," says Novarun Bhattacharya, a senior police officer. "Sometimes these honey-gatherers come back. Sometimes they are gone with the wind." Conservationists believe the mangrove swamps, which stretch for over 18,000 sq km on the Indian and Bangladeshi sides of the delta, conceal about 520 Bengal tigers, the largest colony of big cats left on the planet.
Despite man's fear of the tiger, man is usually the winner when the two come into conflict. Conservationists say that over the past 12 years, poachers--who sell tiger bones as aphrodisiacs--may have killed off hundreds, reducing India's overall tiger population to something between 3,750 and 2,600. In the Ganges delta, however, the tiger ranks have remained constant. Pranabes Sanyal, deputy director of environment for West Bengal, says that the impenetrable jungle of the Sunderbans has shielded its tigers from hunters.
The Sunderbans tiger's fearsome reputation as a man-eater is well deserved. M.K. Ranjitsinh, a director at the World Wide Fund for Nature in New Delhi, explains: "Every Sunderbans tiger is a potential man-eater. This trait for killing human beings has definitely been passed down to the cubs." Identifying marks left in the mud show that in recent years one particular tiger has devoured 14 people. Throughout the 1980s, when more than 60 people a year were killed in the Indian Sunderbans, forestry officials began to experiment with a series of bizarre gimmicks to scare off the tigers. First they sculpted life-sized clay dummies and dressed them in the gamey old clothes of fishermen, honey-gatherers and woodcutters. Then they ran an electric charge through the dummies so that the tiger would be jolted into thinking humans were no longer as yummy as they used to be. But wardens found it too arduous--and dangerous--to replace batteries on the dummies, so they tried a new plan: anyone going into the Sunderbans was given a plastic mask to wear on the back of his head because it was believed that tigers only attacked from the rear. The ploy was effective only for about two years before the cunning beasts caught on. Once again, the fearsome Sunderbans tigers are making meals of men.