First Swamp Tiger

There was a time when people used to believe, that sighting of a tiger in the Indian Sundarbans is a matter of mere luck. But in recent years, the thought affair has changed, and now quite a few people believe the fact, that tigers can be seen very often in these mysterious mangroves as well. Although luck does play some role but most of the sightings depend on the best possible tracking abilities, understanding how the ecosystem works in and around the mangroves, and with proper geographical knowledge of the system. Only when all these things are put together, chances of seeing a tiger becomes stronger in these swamplands.

But these do not happen in one day, it happens over a long period of time as tour operators, guides and boatmen spend years studying and acquiring the ability to track the tigers in these mystifying lands. But it’s worth the thrill and adventure. And to get a taste of such adventure, I went to the mangroves with a leading tour agency of the region, GoinWild LLP in search of the mysterious swamp tiger. The tour was of five nights and six days and with the onset of monsoon, most of the time it would rain and there was barely any activity around.

If someone has not visited Sundarbans before, they would have a very different experience from other national parks in the country. The ecology, geography, everything is very different and unpredictable in these tidal forests, the tidal variations make it worse. The same goes for the animals surviving in these swamplands. And it is astonishing to see how they have thrived and maintained balance throughout centuries.

As I went in the monsoons, things were more difficult. For almost two days we found no sign of any movement or any indication of tigers in the area. On the third day, we came across some pug marks, and from then the thrill began. After a lot of discussion and calculations, my mentors and guides figured out where the tiger might be traveling next. But with out any luck for the next two days, we only came across pug marks which indicated random patterns of movement and were very unusual. Now only two days were left of my tour and by then I had lost hope of sighting a tiger.

In the afternoon of the fifth day, as we were having lunch, one of my mentors said humorously, ” we will see a tiger today and have biriyani at night”. That day the cook has made crab curry especially for me and as I took my first bite, I was randomly looking at tidal inlets and small creeks as our boat moved passed the swamp, and I saw it, a huge dark orange body crossing a small creek. Before this, I had never seen a wild tiger or any wild cat, and during the whole tour, I would see a deer from far away and misinterpret it as a tiger. Soumyajit Nandi, who was one of the two mentors on the tour, told me that when I see one I won’t mistake a deer with a tiger ever. And indeed one can never mistake in recognising once they have witnessed the tiger, it was huge, the size of a full grown bull, it’s strength could be felt as its paws would dig deep inside the mud as it walked towards us.

Swamp tiger, tigers of Sundarbans, Sundarban tiger, Bengal tiger, The Bengal tiger
This is the first image I made, as I saw him walk down the shore of an inletAlso, the first-ever wild cat image captured by me.

For a moment as I saw it, I froze and then screamed, ‘tiger tiger!’ Seeing it in front of my eyes increased my heartbeat, changed my body temperature and made my hands shiver, all simultaneously. The very next moment, I almost dropped my plate as I reached for my camera and started taking pictures, in excitement I had even forgotten to wash my hands. The thrill and excitement I felt during that moment are beyond any explanation. This particular male has a reputation till date in Sundarbans and is well known for his boldness. He is one of the most photographed tigers in the Indian Sundarbans and was also filmed by BBC in the series of big cats.

For those who have seen tigers in other parts of the country, they would find the tigers of Sundarbans very different. The tigers here in Sundarbans, have evolved and adapted with a very harsh environment. The dark orange coat of the tiger, the massive appearance, the unbelievable stamina to swim such vast canals, and the incredible ability to not only survive in such difficult terrain but also to dominate and rule these tidal forests, make these swamp tigers of Indian Sundarbans stand out exceptionally. Not only the tigers but the whole process of tracking and finding one, differentiates the experience from any other part of the country.

Swamp tiger, tigers of Sundarbans, Sundarban tiger, Bengal tiger, The Bengal tiger
The sight left me enthralled as he looked straight towards us from such as close distance. He exuded an aura of confidence and dominance over the area.

After this, we almost spent more than one and a half hours with the tiger as he patrolled through the shores of his territory.

Swamp tiger, tigers of Sundarbans, Sundarban tiger, Bengal tiger, The Bengal tiger
He would always stop at the edge of the shore and stare at our boat before crossing any creek. 
Swamp tiger, tigers of Sundarbans, Sundarban tiger, Bengal tiger, The Bengal tiger
Then he would comfortably walk down the shore into the water.
Swamp tiger, tigers of Sundarbans, Sundarban tiger, Bengal tiger, The Bengal tiger
Again he stared at us, before walking up the shore and disappearing into the thickets.

Often, it seems that these swamp tigers have not adapted to the environment, rather the mangroves have evolved itself according to the tiger. The thickets and the flora of the region not only provides immense possibilities to camouflage the cat requires but also protection from any outside threat. And the tigers posses an excellent ability to blend in with these environment.

Swamp tiger, tigers of Sundarbans, Sundarban tiger, Bengal tiger, The Bengal tiger
It’s a dream of most photographers to capture a frame like this one, where the glimpses of the tiger are visible through the thickets.
Swamp tiger, tigers of Sundarbans, Sundarban tiger, Bengal tiger, The Bengal tiger
At one point the tiger came out off the thickets, sat behind a few plantations for s while and kept starting right at us. Eventually, we realized that our boat had also moved quite close to the shore and it was one of the reasons why he sat down to judge our movements. 
Swamp tiger, tigers of Sundarbans, Sundarban tiger, Bengal tiger, The Bengal tiger
Then as we moved away from the shore, after some time had passed, he got up and disappeared inside the mangroves.

As I said, expertise in these areas does not come in a day, rather it comes with years of experience and Soumyajit Nandi along with our guide had the right amount of expertise needed to make my experience more memorable. Soumyajit da asked our boatman to rush towards Shudhanyakhali camp. As we went there and ran up the watchtower, the tiger was already walking head-on towards us.

Swamp tiger, tigers of Sundarbans, Sundarban tiger, Bengal tiger, The Bengal tiger
The significant moment of the brief eye contact he made with us. Like a king he proudly walked in front of all of us for the last time.

Before he finally went inside the deep mangroves, I saw him for 15 more minutes just outside the camp, as he walked towards a man-made pond, sat there, scent marked with urine, and then walked away peacefully. The experience that I had during that one and a half hours is still exceptional. Such experiences cannot be described with words.

The mangroves play a major role in human lives, it acts as a shield against many natural disasters like major cyclones and tsunamis, it also supports the livelihood of a major community and thus it needs to thrive. The swamp tigers, in turn, play a major role in maintaining the balance in these regions, the tigers are the reason for the stability of the ecology in these areas. And that is the reason why they need to be protected as well. There was a time when there was a major decline of tigers in these regions due to illegal poaching but now thanks to the forest department and their hard work, the numbers have been increasing more than ever.

Lastly, I would like to thank the mentors of GoingWild, our guide, and all the crew members of the boat. Without them, the experience would not have been possible.

Thank you

All pictures are reserved too www.swarnavanandi.com 2020

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