Published March 9, 1998 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1998 Susan Scott
When I decided to visit India’s Sunderban Sanctuary last month, several sources warned me I would not see a tiger.
Yes, this largest mangrove swamp in the world, where the Ganges River empties into the Bay of Bengal, is a preserve for the last of the world’s royal Bengal tigers. But only 200 or so of these reclusive animals remain here. My chance of seeing one was nearly nil.
Taking Jacques Cousteau’s advice, “Il faut aller voir” (“we must go and see for ourselves”), I went anyway. Besides, even if I didn’t see a tiger, there were enormous crocodiles and giant lizards called water monitors to look for, not to mention kingfishers, fishing eagles and herons.
After a hard, two-day journey from Calcutta, I boarded the tour boat and settled down for a cruise through this 54-island alluvial archipelago.
The Sunderbans brochure says this is where “the sea creeps in at high tide and forests float.” The area is worthy of such poetry. As we putted along, gaudy kingfishers poised on branches, their blues and reds so bright, the birds looked lighted from within.
I glimpsed a 6-foot-long water monitor crawling through the shoreline mud. Around the corner, an enormous estuarine crocodile lazed on a beach, then slithered into the water.
As the sun set, a chill set in, and I descended from the upper deck to the main cabin. A moment later, I heard a cry: “Tiger!”
I scrambled up the ladder, expecting the animal to already be gone. But no. Here was a fantastic sight: An adult Bengal tiger was swimming across this half-mile-wide channel right in front of our oncoming boat.
The apparent ease with which this tiger swam was astonishing. The big cat moved through the water with the grace and efficiently of a true marine animal.
In fact, the tigers of the Sunderbans have adapted to swimming, being slightly smaller and thinner than their inland cousins. These cats have been recorded swimming over six miles at a time.
Also true to their marine nature, Bengal tigers eat fish when they can catch them, gulping down salt water in the process.
“Closer, closer!” the crowd yelled as camera flashes filled the darkening sky. “Lights! Lights!”
The captain turned the boat to cut the tiger’s path. “No, no,” I thought, tears filling my eyes. “Don’t.”
At the same time, a spotlight shone onto the tiger’s face. With a lunge, the cat rose from the water, roaring in fury at this intrusion. Even now, weeks later, that warning roar from this top-of-the-line predator rings clearly in my ears.
The tiger deviated from its path for only a moment, then, whipping the water with its long tail, reset its previous course.
Swiftly and steadily the cat swam toward the distant shore, ignoring the shouting people, flashing lights and smelly boat. Then, with a surge of power, the tiger leaped from the water to the shore, water cascading from its orange-and-black fur. In a second it was gone.
My first reaction to this five-minute incident was profound embarrassment at the behavior of my own species. I felt we were the wild animals, the tiger the creature of reason.
But after I began breathing again and my heart slowed to its normal rate, I realized that not long ago, this boatload of people would have been yelling, “Kill, kill!”
OK, so the crowd got a little excited – but they were shooting cameras, not guns.
It means a lot that tiger hunters today crave a picture to show friends rather than a skin to cover a floor.
These tours might briefly annoy the occasional tiger, but it may be the best way to save the species, because seeing that tiger was an event no one on that boat will ever forget.