Friday, May 23, 2008

Of Tigers and Tides

This morning's reading and reflection led me to a string of trivia. One comment following the tragic flooding that continues to devastate Myanmar mentioned that the tragedy was made worse by the destruction of the mangrove forests that once offered some protection from tidal waves and winds that come with tropical storms. The reason given was that much of the delta was converted to shrimp farming. Shrimp for affluent tables makes a better cash crop than the subsistence fishing that comes with the mangroves.

Bangladesh, by contrast, is among the most impoverished of the world's countries, but following a similar national tragedy three decades ago that cost the lives of millions that country took measures to restore and preserve mangrove coastal forests which offer more protection against typhoons as well as a more diverse economic base. The forests of Bangladesh are habitat for the largest population of Bengal tigers in the world, once a threatened species.

The phrase "rise of the rest" is a phrase I heard several times lately, referring to economic and social improvements made by developing countries as their leaders and populations develop ways to swim better with the sharks in global waters which historically have advanced more exploitation than development. Rhyming with rise of the West, the line was made current by a book by the same name published a few years ago. The contrast of Bangladesh and Myanmar can be seen as a case in point, at least regarding the protection/devastation of mangrove forests.

The Bengal tiger reference comes only days after hearing a great review of The Life of Pi by Yann Martel which I read the year after it was published (2001). It is the unlikely story of a teenage boy who finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for several months in the Pacific. (Don't ask, but believe me when I say that Yann Martel makes this totally incredible story line plausible...but that's not why I'm writing about it.) Two unrelated references to Bengal tigers don't occur often in the same week, so I did some research. This is what I came across at Wikipedia...

The Sundarbans [the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world] are home to approximately 500 Bengal Tigers as of 2004, one of the largest single population of tigers. These tigers are well-known for the substantial number of people they kill; estimates range from 100-250 people per year. They are not the only tigers who live in close proximity to humans. In Bandhavgarh, villages encircle the tiger reserves, and yet attacks on people are rare. However, owing to various measures taken for safety, there is no report of single death since 2004 in Indian portion of the Sundarbans.
There are several speculated causes as to why these tigers maul humans:
►Since the Sundarbans is located in a coastal area, the water is relatively salty. In all other habitats, tigers drink fresh water. It is rumored that the saltiness of the tiger's water in this area has put them in a state of constant discomfort, leading them to be extremely aggressive. Freshwater lakes have been artificially made but to no avail.
►The high tides in the area destroy the tiger's scents which serve as territorial markers. Thus, the only way for a tiger to defend its territory is to physically dominate everything that enters.
►Another possibility is that these tigers have grown used to human flesh due to the weather. Cyclones in this part of India and Bangladesh kill thousands, and the bodies drift out in to the swampy waters, where tigers scavenge on them.
►Another possibility is that the tigers find hunting animals difficult due to the continuous high and low tides making the area marsh-like and slippery. Humans travel through the Sundarbans on boats gathering honey and fishing, making an easy or accessible prey. It is also believed that when a person stops to work, the tiger mistakes them for an animal, and has, over time, acquired a 'taste' for the human flesh.
►It has also been hypothesized that the tigers in this area, due to their secluded habitat, avoided the brunt of the hunting sprees that occurred over the course of the 20th century. ►Tigers inhabiting the rest of Asia developed a fear of humans after these events, but tigers in the Sundarbans would never have had reason to stop seeing humans as a prey item.

Pretty grim, huh?
How about this?

I have no deep reason for this post other than to keep track of that string of tiger trivia. Like empty coffee cans that pile up in the garage, one never knows when they might come in handy. After all, they make for an interesting footnote to an otherwise mundane story of yet another tragedy.

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