It’s a jungle out there

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Michael Yon describes the Sundarbans, between India and Bangladesh:

When a man says, “It’s a jungle out there,” he means, “It’s the Sundarbans.”  Among the many wild and unforgiving places in the approximately 65 countries I’ve traveled, most are fairly safe when approached with good judgment and aforethought. The Sundarbans is not one of those places.  Few jungles are this dangerous.

The natives here rub shoulders with mortality on a daily basis.  And so before venturing into the labyrinth waterways, one should acquire a guide, which in my case was a government employee with a powerful FN-FAL rifle to ward off man and beast.  Competent, local guides are always your best insurance, and if I had a choice of any rifle in the world to bring here, the FN-FAL would be high on the list.  And so those boxes were checked.

Within about a week previous my arrival, eight people had been killed and more than a dozen wounded in personal combat with tigers.  Nobody knows why the tigers kill so many people here.  None of the eight people recently killed were eaten.  The tigers often devour their prey, but sometimes they just murder, and of course there is always a market for tiger parts.  It’s a bloody mess.

Add to that the giant saltwater crocodiles, sharks, incredibly venomous snakes, mosquitoes and so on and so forth, and the Sundarbans is a mysterious place that remains off of the backpacker beat.  I’ve wanted to come here for years but was rudely interrupted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The vast jungle and mangrove swamps cover about 10,000 square kilometers.  Many sights and smells can nearly mirror places in Florida, and so at times it felt like home and could have made me homesick it weren’t so fun and interesting.  Anglers who tool around the estuarine river areas of Florida, and who cast for snook near the mangroves, would find reminders in the form of beautiful white egrets, kingfishers and relentless sun.  The mostly compliant alligators we see basking in Florida are replaced here by extraordinarily ferocious crocodiles.

Noticeably missing are the turtles.  Whereas in Florida it would be normal to see a hundred turtles per day sunning themselves on white-worn branches elbowing out of the waters of the Peace River, it can be rare to see even a single turtle after spending long days on many Asian rivers.  This is true ranging from the mighty Mekong, to the Mae Ping, the Salween, over to the Ganges or up at the Bramaputra in Nepal.  I rarely if ever see turtles in Asia, though there were land turtles in Afghanistan.  There has been a program to introduce thousands of snapping turtles into the Indian Ganges to eat the thousands of human corpses, but apparently the turtles could not keep up.  My guess is that the people ate the turtles.

Numerous substantial rivers including the Ganges feed the Sundarbans.  About one third of the Sundarbans drains from India and the rest from Bangladesh.  Due mostly to Hindu funerary traditions, the Indians dump countless tons of human flesh into “Mother Ganges” (Ganga Ma) each year, which flows and fans to the delta by the crocodiles, the crabs, and the tigers.  Some people believe that the Royal Bengal Tigers of the Sundarbans may have gotten their taste for man from the stream of corpses flowing into their abode.

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