The sun was just beginning to set over Sundarbans, India’s vast mangrove swamp, when the four woodcutters began winding up a day’s work.
Everything had gone better than expected. Forest guards hadn’t spotted them working illegally on two muddy islands. And they hadn’t encountered any of the crocodiles, poisonous snakes, sharks and tigers that roam the tidal delta.
It was low tide, and the men began wading across the channel between the two densely wooded islands, collecting fish they had caught in nets for dinner.
They joked with Bablu, their leader, as they put the fish in the pot he was carrying.
Suddenly, a flame-colored Royal Bengal tiger leaped out of the forest. Although some experts believe tigers strike only from the rear of their prey, it attacked Bablu from the front, grabbing his shoulders with its paws and trying to bite his neck.
Bablu and another man fainted, but the other two drove off the tiger by hitting it with sticks.
Moments later, as the men desperately pulled Bablu toward their boat by his feet, the tiger returned, grabbed Bablu by the neck and dragged him away as the others fled to their village outside the Sundarbans reserve.
Elsewhere, tigers seldom kill people unless they are defending their food or cubs, or recovering from wounds inflicted by a hunter.
But in Sundarbans, tigers behave like no others in the world. They have hunted people for centuries, says Sy Montgomery, an American who has studied the region for years and recently published a book about it called “Spell of the Tiger.”
Scientists don’t know why, she says. “They are a mystery.”
“Nature does not obey the rules here,” Montgomery says in her book. “Fish climb trees; the animals drink salt water; the roots of trees grow up toward the sky instead of down to the earth. And here, the tigers do not obey the same rules by which tigers elsewhere govern their lives.”
Each year, dozens of men are killed by the 250 tigers thought to live in Sundarbans, which stretches between India and Bangladesh along the Bay of Bengal.
It is one of the few places left on Earth where the dwindling species isn’t being eradicated by poachers or by villages and industries encroaching on tiger habitats.
With 3,000 to 4,000 tigers in all, India is home to about 60% of the world’s remaining stock, but hundreds of tigers are killed by poachers each year, said Peter Jackson, chairman of the Cat Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union in Switzerland.
Their skins and bones are smuggled to China, South Korea and Taiwan for use in folk medicines. And Jackson predicts tigers will all but disappear in the wild by century’s end unless countries like India do more to save them.
But the Sundarbans tigers probably will escape that fate. Although some poaching goes on in the swamp, its forests are too thick and its tigers too dangerous for many hunters.
“Even if the tiger disappears from everywhere else, it will survive in Sundarbans because it’s very inhospitable terrain to poachers. It’s also the area where they are most likely to be killed by tigers,” said Arin Ghosh, director of the network of tiger reserves that India established in 1973.
Man is not at the top of the food chain in Sundarbans.
The swamp’s tigers, which weigh up to 500 pounds, are completely at home in the channels that separate the many islands. They have been known to rocket out of the water onto the deck of an open boat and pull a sleeping crewman off by the back of his head.
K.C. Gayen, director of the Sundarbans reserve, believes the cats often consider man an easier catch than their main prey: wild pigs, spotted deer and fish.
“The deer are faster. The boar has a tusk to defend itself. Even the fish negotiate the swamps and waterways better,” Gayen said.
And tigers aren’t the only predators.
Visitors on one of the 60-foot motorboats the government permits to operate in the preserve can see crocodiles lurking in the shadows of the mangrove trees that are partially submerged during high tides.
Six species of shark roam the waterways, including 18-foot tiger sharks and dog sharks that sometimes cordon off schools of small fish and take turns swimming through them to feast.
Few visitors dare land their boats on the muddy banks of the islands and walk through the wooded swamps. In addition to monkeys, monitor lizards and the little mudskipper fish that can climb trees, the branches often hold cobras and vipers.
Huge swarms of bees sometimes kill people. At one point during a reporter’s visit, a swarm 20 feet long and 10 feet wide flew over the boat.
Only Forest Department officials are authorized to travel inside the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve’s 515-square-mile core area, which is set aside for wildlife alone.
Around the core is a buffer zone of 560 square miles. Outside that, many impoverished lower-caste and indigenous tribal people live in remote villages.
The villagers are allowed to fish, collect honey and cut wood in Sundarbans if they first get permits. But many venture into tiger territory illegally each day, risking becoming the cats’ prey.