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Spell of the Tiger: The Man-Eaters of Sundarbans Paperback – February 15, 2009
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"Clear, emotionally telling and always right to the point, her accounts of the other forms of life are without peer."--Farley Mowat, author of Never Cry Wolf
About the Author
Researching articles, films, and her twenty-one books for adults and children, bestselling author Sy Montgomery has been chased by an angry silverback gorilla in Rwanda, hunted by a tiger in India, and swum with piranhas, electric eels, and pink dolphins in the Amazon. Her work has taken her from the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea (for a book on tree kangaroos) to the Altai Mountains of the Gobi (for another on snow leopards.) Her books for adults include The Soul of an Octopus (a National Book Award finalist), The Good Good Pig, Birdology, Spell of the Tiger, Journey of the Pink Dolphins, and Walking with the Great Apes. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband, the writer Howard Mansfield, their border collie, Thurber, and their flock of free-range laying hens.
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The book was at times as much a portrait of the Sundarbans as of the tigers themselves and of the people who lived with them. The world's largest mangrove forest and one of the largest wilderness areas in India or Bangladesh, fed by the rivers Brahmaputra and Ganges, its name derives from three Bengali words, sundar (the word for beautiful), sundari (name for a type of mangrove, once the dominant tree), and samudraban ("forests of ocean"). This wilderness of monkeys, chital, sharks, snakes, wild boar, crocodiles, crabs, mudskippers, tigers, and at one time rhinos was once much larger, once stretching to the outskirts of the cities of Dacca and Calcutta and as recently as 1895 covered 7,722 square miles, twice its current size. Over the last six hundred years the land has dried, the forest has shrunk, and the area become saltier as since at least the seventeenth century the Ganges has shifted progressively eastward and other bodies of water flowing into the Sundarbans have become clogged with silt and claimed by an increasingly burgeoning human populace (interestingly, one can find ruins of temples and other buildings abandoned in the Sundarbans due to increasing salinity).
The Sundarbans is not one of the safest places for people to live and work in. In addition to the local tigers, there are several deadly species of shark (including appropriately enough the enormous tiger shark) and several highly venomous snake species (notably the kalash, fond of crawling into beds). Also the Sundarbans are plagued by deadly cyclones between August and November, a good-sized percentage of those living and working there go blind due to a type of fly that likes to lay eggs in people's eyes, the waters seethe with disease (not potable even to the locals), and owing to the fact that the Sundarbans is located in one of India's poorest states, antivenins, antibiotics, and other aid is often hard to come by. On top of all that, pirates - known as dacoits - have taken refuge in the region's innumerable channels since at least the seventeenth century. Though not the great slave traders that were as late as the 18th century, they still prey on fishermen, tourists, and even forestry officials, forcing tour operators and government officials to carry Russian-made rifles with them for protection.
Though Montgomery had to contend with a cyclone and disease, her biggest and most heart-breaking obstacle was the language barrier. Frustrated in her efforts to learn Bengali stateside before her trips, through a series of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and changed plans she was often without a translator, working among earnest, friendly, and accommodating forestry officials, fishermen, woodcutters, and honey collectors who spoke very little or no English, leaving her many days "dazed with mute frustration." Though she went to sometimes extraordinary efforts to try to get translators or translations of what was said to her, often she was frustrated and sorrowful that she wasn't able to adequately communicate with people eager to share with her obviously interesting stories.
So what did Montgomery learn about the tigers? Though she only saw a tiger in the flesh once, she still learned a great deal. Not surprisingly perhaps, Sundarbans tigers are different from tigers found elsewhere. Tigers here are not nocturnal as they are elsewhere, but instead are as apt to hunt by day as by night and their hunting seems to be dictated more by the tides and the activities of people. Excellent swimmers, some believe that they may hunt from and in the water; the local villagers certainly believe this, as the author recounted many tales of tigers snatching unsuspecting victims off of boats. Sundarbans tigers do not appear to be territorial in the same way other tigers are, perhaps due to the fact that half of their territory would be either underwater all of the time or twice daily, washing away their markings. Studies of the tigers are difficult, as elephants, commonly used to track tigers, cannot be brought in, there are no roads to use Land Rovers on to follow the tigers, radio telemetry becomes blocked by the dense forest, and the Tiger Tracer, a device used to identify the unique footprints of individual tigers for tiger censuses elsewhere, does not work in the soft, almost liquid mud of the Sundarbans.
Much as she did with her other books, Montgomery also chronicled the tiger as it exists in the minds of the locals, the mythic tiger. Visiting many local communities, including villages known as vidhaba pallis or tiger widow villages, she related a number of real and fantastic, legendary stories about the tiger.
The Sundarbans tiger is very much a man-eater, as according to Forestry Department officials 30 to 40 people a year on the Indian side of the forest are killed by tigers, official deaths among individuals with permits to fish, collect honey, or cut wood, their relatives compensated by the government. Many more though die unofficially, there illegally, their deaths unreported due to fear of prosecution by survivors and victim's families.
Religion and religious views on the tiger form a surprisingly large part of the book, with Montgomery documenting worship practices to various gods by those seeking protecting from tigers, of myths about tigers in both Hinduism and Islam, and of the efforts of shamans and other folk magicians and healers to work to save locals from tiger attacks.
An interesting book, I do think the emphasis tended sometimes to be skewed a bit towards the tiger in myth and religion and she may have spent too much time describing some of the rural religious ceremonies she witnessed, it was still good travel and natural history writing and a book I enjoyed reading.