The amazing Sunderbans, land of superlatives, is where the Ganga River meets the Indian Ocean, a great expanse of flat, mangrove covered islands, and estuaries that change salinity with the tides. Both the world's largest river delta and largest estuarine mangrove forest, it's also home to the world's largest population of Royal Bengal tigers as well as some of the world's largest crocodiles, which can get to be over 20 ft. long, with the girth of two grown men. Every year villagers are killed by the local wildlife. Three years ago, we took a boat ride through the uninhabited regions of the wildlife sanctuary. Since the islands are heavily forested and we were confined either to the boat or to fenced-in walkways on a couple of the islands, we did not see much of the unique wildlife (except baby crocs at a breeding station). No doubt, the water, too, teems with life, including elusive pods of rare freshwater dolphins, but it's too full of silt to see anything at all. The Sunderbans felt wild to me, and mysterious, a place where a thousand eyes peer at us, unsentimentally, though we are blithely unaware.
Here's a recent article on the increasing conflicts between tigers and humans in the Sunderbans. It's a story with a tragic ending, from every point of view, but it brings together several strands of complexity on questions of how people co-exist with nature (or don't), and might have done throughout human history. The people in this article live by forest subsistence in tiger territory, much as people would have throughout southern Asia for perhaps the last 60,000 years, until the tigers (and lions, and forests) were mostly killed off, in just the last hundred years. John Vidal, of the Guardian, vividly recounts the story of one tiger:
Tarak was walking along the high earth embankment that protects Jelepara from the river Chunkuri, and had just passed a small Hindu temple with its gaudy, painted wooden effigies of the tiger god Dakshin Ray. He would not have seen the real tiger that had just swum across the river from the great Sunderbans forest 400 yards away. It hauled itself out of the water and mauled him from behind. No one even heard Tarak cry out.... But that was just the start of the drama in Jelepara that night....
Now it was the animal's turn to run. First dozens of men tried to corner it, blocking off its escape routes and chasing it away from the village. The tiger was tracked through long grass and rice fields. Finally it leapt on the roof of a house. Film shot on a mobile phone by a villager shows the tiger looking perfectly relaxed.