Inside the cage looking out: a brief visit to the Indian Sunderbans

Inside the cage looking out: a brief visit to the Indian Sunderbans

The Sunderbans are an amazing place – let’s list some of the reasons why, in no particular order:

  • a global biodiversity hotspot
  • a water/landscape that is continually being reshaped through the processes of complex river systems originating in the Himalayas
  • a site of livelihoods for local fishers, honey collectors, agriculturalists etc
  • a site for tourism – domestic and international
  • a site for serious tiger protection measures
  • a world heritage area with the responsibilities which that brings
  • a trans-boundary ecosystem requiring not just dialogues but integration of sustainable protection (‘sustainable’ here meaning for both ecosystems and people whose livelihoods depend on them).
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The sun sets on the Sunderbans

Already you can probably see some tensions here.  For example, there is a protection/conservation dimension to the Sunderbans, but there are also significant livelihood needs as well – the two are likely to clash. Then there is the recreating of the water/landscape by the complex river systems, which are themselves being looked at as opportunities for irrigation, hydro-development and the like. These dams will have specific impacts on the ‘re-creation’ processes as the journeys of water and silt are interrupted or stopped.

And then there is the tourism – the ultimate challenge of sorting out ‘insider-outsider’ relationships – including managing the created dependencies of insiders on outsiders and managing the tourism engagement with place.

I’m a big believer in the importance of engagement with place.  ‘Place’ in this sense is related to landscapes, which by definition have multiple layers of meanings to people – livelihoods, individual or cultural connections to place, religious values, conservation, recreation etc. So the more we engage with place the more we understand the complexities of how people engage and the more we can then look at ways this contributes to sustainable futures.

Which brings me to the Sunderbans.

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Typical scene

For me, the Sunderbans have a very specific place in my mind and in my imagination – partly generated out of reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, partly having a long career in the analysis of protected areas/national parks, including the the protection of endangered species, and partly, if I was to be really honest, a construction of the place, as a series of backwaters, mangroves, villages, fishing boats, wildlife and a kind of light that comes from sun filtering through thick mangroves, reflected (or not) off silt-laden water.

So the trip I’ve just come back from was an interesting one for me. First it was by no means a ‘local slow travel (LoST)’ experience as time was short, too short to even think about doing justice to the web of life that is to be found in the Sunderbans, even in a superficial sense.

But there were some bigger questions that I’m still working my way through.

Because its a tiger reserve and because the tigers here are particularly dangerous the whole experience of the Sunderbans is, let’s say, ‘controlled’. I understand why I think, but perhaps I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so ‘controlled’.

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The entry to one of the human cages – note the steel fencing/gates as well as, to the right, the nylon fencing.

First off, there is a huge fence around a significant part of the perimeter of the tiger reserve section of the Sunderbans and you can see it from the boat as you meander through the mangroves. In fact, there were times when I thought I was in Jurasic Park, the fence was so high – I was expecting to see the head of a dinosaur rise above both it and the mangroves….

The fence is supposed to be to protect people on other islands from tigers swimming across the channel and reaching human habitation. And this makes a lot of sense because the Sunderbans tigers are very good swimmers – an adaptation to life in a mangrove ecosystem one presumes.

But it could be the Forest Department trying to keep humans out of the tiger reserve. Who would know…Either way, though, there’s a big fence you can see as the boat slowly winds its way down the channels on the Indian side. It’s a nylon fence, not a heavy duty steel one. It’s perhaps partly a symbolic gesture and hopefully tigers know symbolism.

But there are heavy duty steel steel structures as well, and these are for visitors. You come from the tidal water onto a landing and the landing is protected by fences. You then become the animal in the cage – this time a human cage – looking out, while you wander around restricted areas and climb an observation tower to look over the land/waterscape (for it is a land/waterscape – land is being recreated by the silt that gets washed down from the Himalayas and the rest of the Brahmaputra’s journey of 3000 kms. And this isn’t to mention the other rivers depositing silt).

So the trip and the experience was a little unusual – in one sense you’re not really engaging with the landscape because you’re on the margins, but in another way you are as you slowly go along the channels. But I wanted to be able to go deeper, into that space of dappled light and abundant wildlife. I understand the safety issues and I understand the Sunderbans management issues and I understand the importance of protecting this very amazing land/waterscape.

But I think about the work I’ve done in other tiger reserves and there was always an engagement. I didn’t walk around the jungle too far on my own, but it’s possible with guards, or in other parts, on elephants. In fact the best times I’ve seen (and perhaps more importantly haven’t seen) tigers in the wild have been on elephants, not in jeeps – on an elephant, if you don’t see a tiger it doesn’t matter because you’re engaging with the tiger’s landscape. In a jeep, your main purpose is to move around quickly to see tigers.  The motivations for the experiences are very, very different, I would suggest.

But in the Sunderbans it was the river and these human cages. In one sense totally understandable, in another sense though I was left wondering how visitors would actually feel the essence of the place – the small back ways, the thicker forests, the abundant wildlife. Or perhaps I’m constructing my own unattainable vision of the experience?

Fisihing in the Sunderbans waterscape 2 (1 of 1)

Fishers looking up the bank. Small scale fishing, small boat, big safety issue

I was talking to someone about this in Kolkata after I got back. He was telling me the tourists stay on the main channels of the tidal ecosystem – these are sometimes 400 metres wide depending on tides – and don’t enter into the inner parts of the Sunderbans. The backwaters are too dangerous for smaller boats with less protection from tigers and crocodiles. And I can understand that as well – if you see the image of the fishers, you can see how susceptible they are to attacks which are a very real issue – the intersection of poverty and bearing costs of conservation…unfortunately not that unusual globally.

But, for all the ‘I understand’, I still had the feeling that I was on the margins of the Sunderbans, its ecosystem and its life. And I know the trip I did is a standard experience of the place – this amazing land and waterscape that is the Sunderbans.

And I was left thinking how could it be different – or in fact could it be different? This last question is one that will occupy my mind for some time…

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Sunrise at the edge of the Sunderbans – a new day, a new beginning. Hopefully…