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SHUNDERBUN

Also see, the postscripts at the end of this story, and after them

the pictures of the female seedstock collectors of West Bengal, India.

 

Editorial Note: Just before midnight on Sunday, March 31, 1996, I retrieved something from my garage, which is on a lower level and in another building.  The round-trip usually takes about five minutes.  When I returned, there was a large, whitish envelope pinned to my door.  Neatly printed in large letters, it said “Bob Rosenberry”.

 

Tethered closed with loops of red string wrapped around large, dark brown paper buttons, the envelope had a rough feel from a gridwork of string glued to its inside surface for reinforcement.  Sandwiched between two pieces of musty-smelling cardboard were some pen-and-ink illustrations and five pages of difficult-to-read text.  The type was so light that I had to dust the parchment indentations with graphite to reveal some of the words.  Cross-outs and type-overs accompanied every sentence.

 

The pages carried no return address, no signature, no indication of authorship, no dates, nothing.  They tell a strange story about an obscure place, a place where shrimp farming is just beginning to have an impact.

 

Obviously, the story is fiction, but the overall geography appears accurate and the information on seedstock fishing rings true.  I just don’t know about the rest of it! Beware, it’s a story about a successful Bengal tiger attack on a shrimp seedstock fisherman.  I’ve cleaned up the typing and duplicated the original typeface; otherwise, nothing has been changed:

 

 

Shunderbun

 

 

I am SHUNDERBUN, an enchanted land of mangrove islands that lies just south of the Indian/Bangladesh border.  I’m the estuary, the tidal zone, of the Holy Ganges River, the greatest river in all of Asia.  Reaching south and then slowly dissolving into the Bay of Bengal, my creeks, mudflats and lush islands support an incredible biodiversity of crustaceans, fishes, repitles, incects, birds and mammals.

 

They also support a population of men and tigers--the last place on earth where both roam free.

 

 

DASKIN RAY, the Tiger God

 

My son, DASKIN RAY (pronounced Dawkin Roy), the Tiger God, controls this world by killing humans.  Currently, he must kill 20 humans a year to keep the ecology in balance.  But, as shrimp farming expands in the civilized world to the north and as the number of fishermen coming into the groves to harvest shrimp seedstock increases, he will need to kill more and more.  RAY believes the groves will be lost forever if the seedstock fishermen take over.  He longs for the good-old-days-before government, before the masses of humanity-back when the gods were in full control.

 

Of course, the local people (honey collectors, woodcutters, poachers, forestry officials, pirates and soldiers) worship RAY because they know that he and his tigers protect them from the hoards of humanity to the north.  That’s why seedstock fishermen who come into the groves from the north are one of RAY’s favorite targets.

 

 

Balram, the Victim

 

Barely alive, Balram floated onto a newly-formed sand island in the Saznakhali River during the 1991 cyclone.  He owned a lungis (a length of cloth wrapped around the waist) and the right to scavenge through the storm debris.  The cyclone killed his wife and five children–and 140,000 other people.  As one of the first residents on the new island, he quickly staked a claim and began looking for a way to make a living.  Having worked for a shrimp seedstock fisherman before the cyclone, he looked for the tools of his trade, an assortment of pots, nets, poles, string and rope.  He knew about the soaring demand for shrimp seedstock.

 

From storm debris, he and thousands of other homeless people quickly fashioned huts and gardens on the island.  Within three months, it was covered with vegetation and supported a community of 5,000 people.  As storms constantly reshape the geography in this part of the world, these sand island communities come and go, few of them last longer than a decade.

 

Balram went to work for a seedstock fisherman from the village of Duttar, on Satjelia Island, a short paddle from his sand island.  Occasionally, in late March or early April, his boss would send the fishing crew south, across the Saznakhali River, into the groves to catch the first seedstock of the season.  The seedstock follows the declining salinity gradient northward, reaching the groves before hitting the more populated inland areas.  Of course, the first seedstock always brings the highest prices at the market in Najat.

 

When fishing in the groves, the crew takes along a holy man to ward off tigers.  Before the day’s fishing begins, he performs a ceremony in honor of the Tiger God.

 

Balram, whose people spent 30 generations in the slums of Delhi, knows little of RAY and his powers.  And, since he has seen several holy men consumed by tigers, he has less faith in the Tiger God than the local people.  Once, during a Tiger God ceremony, Balram ridiculed RAY’s protective powers.  Unfortunately, RAY, who spends most of his time cavorting with the other young gods, was observing this ceremony-and he decided to get revenge.

 

 

The Tigers, Tigalia and Colita

 

Tigali-an inexperienced, four-year-old, 300-pound, male Bengal tiger-grew up on the fringes of Bangaduni Island, an isolated, low-lying island at the southern edge of the groves.  Only ten meters south of his birthplace, the submerged sandheads of the groves give way to the Bay of Bengal, where adult shrimp complete their lightning-fast sexual ritual, producing the billions of postlarvae (seedstock) that drift northward into the groves.

 

Finding it difficult to establish a territory on Bangaduni Island, Tigali swam and walked north to Arbesi Island, where two male tigers recently killed each other in a battle over tigresses.  Since tides wash away scent markings and large islands appear and disappear with great regularity in this part of the world, tigers in the groves are not as territorial as they are elsewhere, making it easy for young Tigali to establish a new base of operations.

 

On the higher ground of Arbesi Island, he learned to prey on the little spotted chital deer and the wild pigs that feed on the vegetation at the edge of the groves.  But, having grown-up on a low-lying island, he also knows how to hunt birds, snakes and lizards.  Like all the tigers in the groves, he’s an accomplished swimmer and can pull large fish from the water with paws, claws and jaws.  Every now and then, for reasons he can’t explain, Tigali gets the biggest urge to walk and swim great distances to find human prey.  And this is one of those times.

 

RAY uses Colita (in estrus)-an obedient, eight-year-old, 350-pound, mother Bengal tiger-to lure Tigali to the site of the kill.

 

The Kill

 

In February 1996, Balram bought a small, wooden, country boat.  Outfitted with a make-shift sail, a thatched sun roof, some paddles and fishing gear, he could now do his own seedstock fishing.  On April 1, 1996, he headed across the Saznakhali River, to a little creek on the west coast of Jhilla Island.

 

Tigali, Colita and RAY were waiting for him.

 

RAY knew that Balram would head for this spot because he had revealed the location to him in a dream, vividly projecting an image of abundant seedstock.  When Balram arrived at the creek of his dreams, he set his shootnet against the current and captured an incredibly high concentration of seedstock.  Every twenty minutes, or so, he had to empty the net and transfer the seed to the hundi (aluminum pots) in his boat.  He daydreamed about moving back to the slums of Delhi.

 

Getting Tigali to the right spot was more difficult because he rarely pays attention to direct orders from RAY.  Visions of little spotted deer and big striped tigresses dance in his head, leaving little room for RAY’s influence.  Without Colita, RAY would never have been able to get Tigali to the site of the kill.

 

Tigali followed Colita’s scent to the small creek where Balram was fishing.  When he spotted Balram, he lay down among the hental bushes and watched.  He watched as Balram waded into the creek to empty the shootnet, watched as he carried a pot full of shrimp seedstock back to the boat, and watched as he adjusted the mouth of net.

 

RAY noticed that Tigali had started to salivate, a good sign that he would stay in place and complete the kill.  RAY relaxed.  From here on in, he would just let nature take its course.  And it did, but not the one RAY expected.

 

Tired from the long walk and swim, Tigali fell asleep, and RAY could not wake him.  He tried several direct orders at full volume.  KILL NOW, commanded RAY, but, Tigali just rolled onto his back, rear legs spread wide, front legs curled into his face, still salivating, dreaming, twitching.  RAY, growing impatient, decided to bring Tigali back to reality, fast.

 

He positioned Colita on the opposite bank.  Tail high in the air, she pranced back and forth, emitting soft, moaning, contact calls.  Balram, who was hip-deep in the water adjusting the mouth of the shootnet, heard and saw Colita.  He hurried up the opposite bank toward the hidden Tigali, who leaped ten feet straight up in the air when he awakened to the sight, sound and scent of Colita, the words KILL NOW ringing in his ears, and his next meal running straight at him.

 

With Tigali at the peak of his leap, Balram retreated to the creek, ducked underwater and let the current carry him downstream.  A glimmer of his lungis danced on the surface.  Tigali followed along the top of the bank.  Then he leaped into the water. He quickly found Balram’s submerged body, rolled it into position, and, from behind and to the right, killed him with a bite through the neck, severing the windpipe, crushing and splintering the spine.

 

RAY confirmed the kill and departed.

 

 

After the Kill

 

Tigali carried Balram’s collapsed body to the opposite bank, where, again, the essence of Colita filled the air.  She had witnessed the action and was quite impressed with the underwater kill.  But she would not make it easy for him.

 

Tigali dropped Balram on the bank and trotted after Colita.  Bigger and stronger, she repelled his advances with loud hisses and forepaw slashes, one of which landed on his snout, drawing a thin stream of blood.  Bewildered, Tigali returned to Balram’s body.  He bit off the head, hands and feet, then picked up the body and delivered it to Colita, who had not eaten in several days.  She quickly consumed the stomach, intestines and internal organs.  Later a forest department official spotted the two tigers swimming low in the water (from heavy bellies) toward a small isolated island.  There, Tigali and Colita entertained each other for a few days and then went their separate ways.

 

Postscripts

 

Tiger Kills Seedstock Collector: On September 23, 1998, Pradip Chakraborthy, production manager at Andaman Fisheries, Ltd., in India, reported: Gita Sardar’s husband, Aswini, lost his leg some time ago, so Gita, 45, went to work collecting shrimp seedstock on the Gomar River, in Marichjumpi Forest, in the Sunderbans, West Bengal, India.  On September 20, 1998, she and her daughter, Sarla, crossed the river and began dragging for seedstock along the bank.  Like lightening and from behind, a tiger leaped from the underbrush, grabbed Gita, and dragged her into the forest.  Sarla’s screams attracted other fishermen who followed the tiger into the forest.  Brandishing iron rods, they found the tiger standing over Gita.  They frightened it off with firecrackers, but Gita was already dead.

 

Source: Pradip Chakraborthy, Andaman Fisheries, Ltd., Udyou Parisar, Middle Point, P.O. Box No. 251, Port Blair - 744 101, A&N Islands, India (fax 91-3192-32501).September 23, 1998.

 

Female Seedstock Collector Battles Tiger with an Oar: On July 10, 2006, a woman armed with only a row boat oar battled a Royal Bengal tiger in southwest Bangladesh to save her husband from the attacking animal.  Nazma Akhter, 18, and her husband Anwarul Islam, 25, were fishing for shrimp on Sunday in a canal on the fringes of the Sunderbans forest when the big cat pounced, said district police chief ASM Jahid.  “The tiger bit the man’s knee and was dragging him into the forest, but his wife Nazma frantically beat it back with an oar from their boat,” he said.  Using the oar, Akhter kept the tiger at bay for around ten minutes before it abandoned her husband and disappeared back into the forest, he said.  Police and forest officials said the incident followed fatal tiger attacks last week on two women in the area.  Islam was recovering in hospital on Monday and his injuries were not considered life threatening.  Tigers each year kill around 20 people in Bangladesh, mostly fishermen and honey and wood collectors, who work in the 5 800km² Sunderbans forest, the world’s biggest mangrove jungle.

 

Source: IOL.com.Women beats tiger with oar to save husband (http://www.int.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=126&art_id=qw1152520021867B215).  Sapa-AFP.July 10, 2006.

 

The Most Dangerous Place in the World: At the mouth of the Ganges Delta, the Sundarbans is the largest single mangrove ecosystem in the world, of which roughly forty percent lies in India and sixty per cent in Bangladesh.

 

Women trudge through the water near the shoreline, pulling nets behind them as they trawl for shrimp seed.  This practice, introduced in the past twenty years or so, has disastrously reduced shrimp and fish populations, and the constant pacing along the fragile shore by the women and children who drag the nets has contributed to erosion.  In their flowing saris, the women presented picturesque silhouettes that belie the danger of their work, up to ten hours a day waist high in the murky water.As many as ten fatal crocodile attacks are documented each year—and too many shark attacks to report.The most common are by dog sharks, which take a bite of soft tissue—a leg or buttock—but do not kill.  They are considered minor hazards.  The Sundarbans’s occupational hazards—crocodiles, sharks, cobras, kraits (poisonous sea snakes), swimming tigers and cyclones—make it one of the most dangerous places in the world.

 

Source: The New Yorker. Tigerland.  Caroline Alexander.  April 21, 2008.

 

Tigers Are Killing Postlarvae Collectors in the Sundarbans: Rice farmers in southwest Bangladesh face a bleak future.  Rising sea levels are engulfing their land, destroying their crops and dissolving their homes.  As a result, many small farmers are selling their paddy fields to shrimp farmers.  The trouble is a shrimp farm employs far fewer people per hectare than a paddy farm.  So, many villagers find themselves out of work and without food.  What can they do?  They could go into the nearby Sundarbans, a huge mangrove forest on the India/Bangladesh border and fish for shrimp postlarvae.  Sounds simple enough, but not when you consider that the forest is the home of the Bengal tiger, which is killing shrimp seedstock collectors at an alarming rate.

 

This is what faces women like Farida Khatun, 35, a mother of four whose own husband was killed by a tiger six years ago.  “He went fishing in the Sundarbans with his brothers,” she says.  “When he was pulling the last net up, he told the others to go on ahead.  A tiger came out of the grass and took him away to the forest.  We never found his body.”  Farida says, “My two oldest sons are in the Sundarbans fishing now.  Of course I worry about them, but we have no alternative.  There are no other jobs, and if they didn’t go, we wouldn’t eat.”

 

Source: AlertNet.org.  Sea change: Rising Sea Levels in Bangladesh.  Ben Beaumont.  December 24, 2008.

 

Tiger Drags Woman into the Forrest: On August 9, 2014, in the Sunderbans, India’s vast and tangled mangrove forest in the state of West Bengal, where the Ganges River empties into the Bay of Bengal, officials say a tiger snatched a woman and dragged her into the surrounding mangrove forest.

 

Forest official Nabin Chandra Bahunguna says the woman, her husband and a boat driver were trying to catch crabs in a shallow river near the Pirkhali Forest when the tiger grabbed her and dragged her into the forest.  Forest guards searched for the woman, but found no trace of her.

 

It was the sixth tiger attack this year in the Sunderbans, where environmentalists say shrinking habitat is forcing tigers to venture farther in search of food.

 

Source: Fox News.  Tiger Grabs Woman Crab Fishing in Eastern India, Carries Her Away Into Surrounding Forest.  Associated Press.  August 9, 2014.

 

 

 

The Female Seedstock Collectors of West Bengal, India

 

 

 

 

In chapter five of Forest of Tigers, author Annu Jalais, a post-doctoral associate at the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University (USA), details the lives of the shrimp seedstock collectors on Garjontola Island, a small mangrove island deep within the Sundarbans of West Bengal, India.  That seedstock, as it passes through a series of middlemen, eventually becomes one of India’s prized export commodities—frozen tiger shrimp (Penaeus monodon), which have earned the name “the living dollars” of the Sundarbans.

 

About 10,000 hectares, mostly in the northern region of India’s Sundarbans, have been converted into shrimp ponds.  Those ponds depend on shrimp seedstock collected—mostly by women—from the estuaries of the southern Sundarbans.

 

Shrimp seed collection got started in the late 1970s.  Then, after the disastrous cyclones of 1981 and 1988, when the saltwater estuaries flooded traditional fields, making them useless for three years, seedstock collection became an important industry in the islands.  With their fields lying idle, the people returned to collecting crabs, fish, honey, wood—and shrimp seedstock, which, in the last twenty years, has become one of the most stable sources of revenue for the islanders.

 

Shrimp seed collection also expanded because the late 1970s and 1980s were a time when the government came down heavily on those who worked in forest reserves without permits.  The permits were relatively expensive, a luxury that few islanders could afford.  Collecting shrimp seedstock around one’s village, however, did not require a forest permit.

 

Seed collection quickly became popular because it could be done close to home during one’s leisure time and required a very modest investment, a mosquito net mounted on a thin wooden frame.  Seed was readily available and sold, by local standards, for significant sums.  Shrimp seed collectors are predominantly women (but not exclusively) from families where the men work in the forest as honey collectors, fishermen and woodcutters.

 

The islanders say that in the beginning collecting was a craze that nearly everybody tried because it was such an easy way to earn cash.  The wives of school teachers and important politicians were, like their poorer counterparts, known to have hitched up their saris and spent entire days wading in rivers pulling behind them the fine net used to collect shrimp seed.  The threat of crocodiles in those earlier times was remote and seed prices were good.

 

 

But, don’t get the idea that collecting shrimp seedstock is a walk in the park.  Violence and risk loom everywhere.  In the 1980s, after the government established crocodile hatcheries, the rivers and canals of the Sundarbans became infested with crocodiles, the largest of which grow to a length of 23 feet or 7 meters.  Apart from the crocodiles, collectors risk being attacked by tigers, sharks and venomous snakes.  Each year, the number of crocodile victims—mostly women—keeps increasing.  Tigers and crocodiles kill an estimated 150 people a year in West Bengal, India.  In addition, counting the shrimp seed gives rise to endless charges of cheating—and fighting.

 

 

Collection Techniques

 

The islanders use two techniques to collect shrimp seedstock: one requires a boat, the other can be done from the riverbank.  With the first technique, the collector anchors his boat in a tidal river, throws a net overboard and checks it for postlarvae every half hour.  This often requires spending an entire night on the river.  The second technique, much more popular, consists of pulling a mosquito net mounted on a wooden frame while wading in waist to shoulder-deep water along the bank of a river.  Usually women and children fish by pulling nets, and men (sometimes with their wives) fish from boats.  Pulling nets along the banks of their villages enables women and children to remain close to their homes.  Women can easily go back to their household chores and children to their classes or games.  A couple of hours of net-pulling allows a woman to make more money than the wage she would have made from working a full day in someone’s fields.

 

Even though it is illegal, seed collection is also undertaken around the forest reserves because the catches are greater there.  Groups of intrepid young women or groups of men and women of all ages row their boats to large river intersections, settle on a bank, and pull their nets for six or seven hours.

 

 

Counting, Buying and Selling Seedstock

 

When the collectors return to dry land, they count the seed.  This procedure entails hours of sitting along the village paths while separating each grayish, inch-long, hair-thin tiger seed with a white bivalve shell.  The counting of shrimp seed is a long-drawn-out process that often erupts in fights.  Sometimes dead tiger postlarvae (which turn reddish) or non-tiger shrimp (differences are apparent only to the trained eye) are passed off as the real thing.  The dealers stroll up and down the village levies with aluminum pots in the hope of coming across collectors who have just returned from fishing.  Prices vary greatly, and change seasonally from village to village, and even hourly, depending on how good or bad the catch was that day.

 

From August to October, the monsoon months, when shrimp seed proliferate, women catch around 1,000 postlarvae a day and men in boats around 3,000 a day.  During this time the price for shrimp seed drops to as low as $1.10 a 1,000.  During the leanest months, January and February, when the catch falls to 200-300 per person a day, the rate goes up to $8.50 for 1,000 seed.

 

 

Middlemen Purchase the Seed and Sell It to Farmers

 

Four to seven men usually work as purchasing agents for each shrimp farm.  When they are not out on the levies buying shrimp seed, they work in their little shacks where they stockpile shrimp in aluminum pots and keep records on the number of seedlings purchased by each collector.  They sell the seed to the farm owners, not by counting it all over again, but by letting the farmers count the seed in a pot picked at random.

 

During the high season, shrimp collectors at two villages on Satjelia Island—each with 3,000 inhabitants—sold a total of about $14,000 worth of seed a night.  Pirates regularly attack the boats that take the shrimp seed to the farms or to Bangladesh.  Boats are also heavily fined by the Border Security Force when they illegally cross the border to sell the shrimp seed in Bangladesh, a frequent practice because the Bangladeshi dealers pay a higher price for seed than the dealers in West Bengal.

 

Information: A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library.  ISBN: 978-0-415-54461-0.

 

Information: Amazon.com.

 

Sources: 1. Forest of Tigers.  People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans.  Annu Jalais.  Chapter Five/Roughing It with Kali: Braving Crocodiles, Relatives and the Bhadralok.  Routledge/Taylor and Francis Group.  London, New York and New Delhi.  2010.  2. Photographs.  Except for the book cover, the photographs are not from Forest of Tigers.  They came from the following source.  Guardian.co.uk.  Sundarbans: Paradise Eroded.  March 28, 2008. 3. Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News Internationall, Updated, March 2008

 

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