The Story of The Sundarbans
NOTE: This whole publication is totally researched and all data have been acquired using inputs from locales and some ground test reports. All the pictures have also been uniquely captured by me and my associates during this trip (until specially mentioned). The story was also published as a Cover story in the newspaper The Telegraph in Schools (TTIS).
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Spanning for more than 10,000 square kilometers (3900 square miles), is located the largest continuous stretch of a littoral (or tidal) forest named ‘The Sundarbans’ in the lowest stretches of West Bengal, India and Bangladesh. The Sundarbans delta is a rich reservoir of flora and fauna due to its extremely dynamic physic-chemical factors. This highly dynamic zone supports a diverse gene pool of micro and macro biotic communities, in which mangrove vegetation occupies a major status. It serves as major nexus between terrestrial and estuarine aquatic ecosystems. Sundarbans is actually famous for its unique Royal Bengal Tiger and the almost endangered species of Fiddler Crabs. It received its name from the famous Sundari tree that grows in abundance in here. According to current estimates, the tiger population has increased from 103 to some two hundred or so in recent time.
The Indian Sundarbans is located on the southern edge of the state of West Bengal, spreading over the districts of North and South 24 Parganas. Major parts of the forest lie in Bangladesh. The region is bordered by the Haribhanga-Raimangal River along the International boundary with Bangladesh in the east, the great Hooghly River in the west, “Dampier-Hodges” lines in the North and the Bay of Bengal in the South. The Indian part consists of 102 islands in the estuary out of which 54 are inhabited by humans while rest are not. The Indian Sundarbans is primarily divided into three zones:
- Sanctuary Zone: This group mainly consists of docking area and motor able villages. Sometimes considered a part of the Buffer Zone.
2. Buffer Zone: This is the transition group of islands where civilization slowly ends into untamed wilderness of the forests. It contains the very famous Sajnekhali Tiger Reserve, which contains a view point to view tigers and a museum. There are only restricted areas to land.
3. Core Zone : This part can be informally considered the ‘untamed’ part of the Sundarbans. It contains primarily only wild mangrove forests and undergrowth and no one is allowed to land. The area contains many divided islands and ‘khaaris’ where tourists can travel with boats, ferries and
canoes, mainly during high tide. A river named Gomodi constitutes the maximum area of the forests. Khedo Khali is the last jungle island before the forests end into the Bay of Bengal. The mostly viewed block of islands here is the Goshaba block which contains 21 rudimentary villages. There have been frequent tiger attacks in these forests.
Life in Sundarbans :
I did a trip to the Sundarbans for three days. I am primarily going to talk about what I learned about life in the forests and the flora, fauna and soil factors that influence the eco-system of the Sundarbans. I have done my own extensive scientific research and have tried to refrain from using Internet information as much as possible. I will try to bring to you as much of fresh data from the very locales of Sundarbans, which I have gathered. I arrived at the Cantonment and took a ferry boat to a hotel in the Sanctuary Zone of the
Sundarbans. The Sundarbans is the ‘home-world’ of the Royal Bengal Tiger, as I told earlier. It is rightly said that when one is at home, his/her rule prevails there. So does the rule of the tigers prevail here. It is true that humans are to blame for invading their homes. Life in Sundarbans is all about struggling, struggling against the mysteries of the wild, struggling against the dangerous side of wildlife. Since, it is not the tigers’ kingdom; it is up to them that they show themselves to us. Unfortunately, we could not get a hold of a tiger but we got a lot of other species, worth knowing of. The Sundarbans is filled with dangers. Firstly, the Royal Bengal Tiger has claws that can claw open the body of a human as if a hen is being butchered. They can smell other animals and humans too, in a way many other animals cannot. Tigers are not really suited for tidal forests but the specific species of the Royal Bengal Tiger, has adapted over years to suit to the clayey and salty soil, saline water and the soil stabbed with roots of mangrove forest species. Royal Bengal Tigers tend to stay awake for most part of a day. According to experienced guides, a typical Royal Bengal has a sphere of influence of nearly 20 km to 35 km. Anyone, who enters the area, is instantly smelled by the tiger(s) and is pounced upon. People, who live here, have no surety to the survival in the following day. It seems difficult for us to imagine such a life of insecurities, living amidst the safety of our cities. Primary occupation of the people here is fishing and that serves the tigers and the alligators for more prey. People often slip into the waters or the tigers attack them when they fish. Royal Bengal Tigers have a tendency to attack from behind; hence, people here go out to fish, with masks behind their face. The story of sacrifice is one of great one here. Men go out for 7–8 days, with miniature homes made for them in their boats itself.
They do not have any guarantee of whether they’ll return but they still take the risk, to satisfy their hunger pangs. The women don’t wear vermilion until their husbands return, or do they eat non-vegetarian diet.
Moreover, another problem looms if they fall on the soil. The soil is full with hardened soil uproots, which can pierce through the softer body of humans. People here often take collecting honeybees as a profession and they frequently fall on the soil to receive such a fate. The soil contains such uproots or ‘breathing roots’ because the forest species cannot breathe in the soil that is brimming with saline water. Therefore, honey collecting is a risky business in the Sundarbans. Both the banks of the Sundarbans riverines contain
silver-soil with bordering vegetation. Each honeycomb contains around 25,000 bees. Bank to bank stretches for around 100 feet to 120 feet. The roots of the trees can be well seen due to much influencing bank erosion in the coastal areas. The forest species are maintained by WWF, Sundarbans Tiger Project, UNESCO, Ramsar Convention and local NGOs. With exceptional permission from the Central Government, the State Government has set up nets of nylon to save the villagers from tigers and other harmful animals.
According the locals, the nets are quite effective for animals other than the tigers. The tigers can easily tear them open with their powerful paws. The, why put weak fences? Well, some believe, it is merely a psychological defence. The people feel safe if they feel there’s a net. Who put the net in places? The locals again! They go out for the whole day. At night, they use torches made of dry leaves and kerosene as fuel.
Often, they were taken away by tigers, more often, by snakes. There are around 26 species of different snakes in the Sundarbans, with Kalnagini being the most famous. Other important occupations include making salt out of the water and poaching, which is illegal. In Sundarbans, each litre of water yields 150 g of salt, approximately. Many birds even hibernate to this place, mainly Lesser Adjutant Stock or ‘Madantak’.
Life in Sundarbans is also greatly affected by natural calamities and effects of global warming. Tropical cyclones or ‘Bay cyclones’ in late monsoon and ‘Kalbaisakhi’, a local wind which is called ‘Bardoli Cheerha’ in Assam, greatly affects life here. I was caught in such a storm myself and we had to anchor in the midst of a spooky environment, with our boat swerving as it never did. Waves crash against the banks, causing evident bank erosion and much more to man-made features like docks. Boats even overturn sometimes, killing many men by drowning and others by crocodiles. Tides play a big role in the forests with many ‘khaaris’ turning into deserts during low tide. During ‘Aila’, a natural cyclone in the year 2009–2010, Sundarbans’ ecosystem was in chaos.
I listened to the horror stories from the locals. Houses were submerged under cold, saline waters. Food and essential needs were pushed into depths of water. People struggled to survive for weeks without food and water. Many even died. When supplies are dropped by helicopters, almost a hundred struggle for one crate weighing around 80 kg. This aggravates problems as
the crate are burst open, often leading to the food supplies flowing into the saline waters, making them inedible. They still eat it, and later on, suffer from dangerous diarrhoea. Sundarbans still lacks efficient hospital, medical and educational facilities. It’s a sad thing that being located about 80 km from Kolkata only, civilization has not yet been modern in the Sundarbans. There was a boy in our boat who was just sixteen, i.e. of my age, and when asked about schooling, he said he received education till class three. After
three, his school was destroyed by a flood. It is true that we have invaded an idyllic biosphere, but the people living there are Indians and Bangladeshis, and above all, humans. I think, they too, deserve education, and effective medical treatment. The government should put more effort in cognitive
emancipation of the people living here. The fruits growing here, are primarily inedible so people cannot eat them, during calamities.
Regarding the species composition and ecological distinction of mangrove flora in the Indian Sundarbans, several authors opined variedly; viz. 60 species under 41 genera and 29 families, 56 species of euryhaline
mangrove and mangrove associates and 69 species under 49 genera and 35 families. Many controversies exist between mangrove and non-mangrove tree distinction, particularly in the genetic level. Mangrove ecosystems are threatened globally due to their widespread resources which are utilised for human use. In the Asia-Pacific region, non-sustainable utilization, overexploitation of resources and conversion to other land-uses principally for fish ponds, human settlements, infrastructure development and paddy cultivation are greatly reducing these resources at an alarming rate. Sundari trees are used to build boats since its timber is very light-weight and durable. Other trees like Gorjan or Goran and Hental are used as ‘fuel- wood’. Some tree species that I encountered are:
> Sundari Tree (Heritiera fomes):
A non-exclusive, endangered mangrove species, the Sundari is an evergreen tree that grows up to 20–25 metres in height. The bark is rough, with longitudinal fissure, grey, about 3 mm thick. Brown or dark brown inner coating is observed if outer bark is removed. Inner bark is reddish in color. Heartwood is very hard, durable but quite light-weight. Hence, it is used in making boats. Leaves are of simple type and is short petiolate. The flowers are
unisexual, cream-like to brownish in color. It is a shade-bearer in the early stages of its growth. It can tolerate moderate saline water. The fruit is woody and is one-seeded. On an average, a Sundari leaf bears around 13 veins on
either side of its leaf body stalk. It has a cable-root system.
For making boats.
Used as fuel-wood.
Used to make furniture, houses and bridge construction.
Bark is used for tannin and dye.
Plant has very few medicinal uses too.
> Golpata (Nypa Fruticans):
An exclusive mangrove species, Golpata is an evergreen, fast growing, stem-less clumping and versatile palm. The species contains a horizontal creeping stem that grows under the ground level and grows up to 2–9 metres in height.
This species has been flourishing in these forests since the past 45 years. Leaves are quite compound and long. Leaves have pulvinate bases. The midrib of each leaflet is marked with regular linear brown scales up to 2 cm long.
Trees contain individual male flowers near female inflorescence. Seeds are white, egg-shaped and about 7 cm long. It grows with moderate to high saline water and full sunlight. It forms in pure patches on the banks of canals. It stays in co-ordination with other grasses. Its leaves are obovate blade-shaped and has pinnate venation. It has type of stilt-roots which are wonderful adaptations in soft and sifting muds.
Its leaves are used for thatching roofs, primarily the older leaves.
Its fruits are like ‘talshash’ and can be eaten.
The stalk of the fruits yields a substance that serves as an antiseptic.
Young leaves are used as cigarette-wrappers.
Midribs are used to make brooms.
Young seeds are edible.
Sap is a good source of alcohol.
> Keora (Sonneratia apetala):
An exclusive mangrove species, keora is an evergreen and fast-growing tree too. It is a pioneer tree that grows to heights of 20 m, with pendulous branches. Bark is smooth at an early stage, while rough, with irregular fissure, at a later stage. Pmeumatophore is corky, height varies from 60cm — 150 cm. Leaves are simple, opposite, short petiolate and mid-rib is yellowish-green. Flowers are large, white or yellowish-white , has large stigma which is umbrella or mushroom-shaped and ovary is 2–20 celled. The fruit is berried, has many seeds, a depressed globose, has thin wall and supported by local calyx.
Wood is used often as fuel-wood.
Wood is also used to make pulp, matchbox, planks, poles, etc.
Leaves are used as fodder.
Flowers are a good source of honey.
>Goran or Gorjan (Ceriops decandra) :
An exclusive mangrove species, it is an evergreen, medium-sized, slow-growing perennial shrub that grows to heights of 5 to 6 metres. Bark is smooth, grey to brownish in colour and about 2–4 mm thick. The inner side is quite greenish in colour, while inner bark is a little brownish. Stem base contains numerous stilt-like roots and sporadic lenticels. Leaves are quite simple, opposite in direction, spirally arranged and gathered more towards the ends of branches. Flowers are rich, white in colour and rich in fragnance. This species of mangrove can tolerate very high saline water too. It has good coppicing ability.
Stems used to make posts, tools, fuel wood and for charcoal production.
Bark is used for dye and tannin.
Different parts have medicinal values.
>Gewa (Excoecaria agallocha):
An exclusive mangrove species, Gewa is a deciduous, much-branched shrub that grows to the height of 5–15metres with irregular crown. This plant as a whole yields a white milky latex and the stalk of the leaves yield a material that can make one blind if it falls on one’s eyes. Bark is smooth, dark grey coloured and about 3–4 mm thick. Red colour is observed after removing the upper bark of the roots and stems. Branches yield a greenish-yellow colour on doing so. The trees bear a tiny kind of flower, which are spirally arranged. They tolerate on non-saline to moderately saline waters. It occurs in clusters with Sundari mainly.
Wood can be used as fuel wood, for making matches, carving, pulps and aromatic wood.
Latex is used as fish poison as well as dart poison.
Plant parts have medicinal uses.
> Batul or Mock-Willow or Harua (Excoecaria indica):
An associate mangrove species, batul or mock-willow or harua is a small to medium-sized, evergreen to semi- deciduous and fast-growing short trunked tree. It grows up to 12 metres in height with a crown which is bushy. The
bark is quite rough, dark brown to blackish, with longitudinal fissure and about 5–6mm thick, Inner bark is pale brown in colour. Sapwood and heartwood are white. Lenticels are situated at stems of seedlings. Flowers do grow, which are unisexual and has a woody capsule. It is 2,5–3cm in diameter and thrice-seeded. The species shows epigeal germination of seeds.
Wood is used for fuel-wood and for indoor construction.
Leaves are used for preparing black dye.
Young fruits are used to poison fish.
Plant also has medicinal values.
Many other plant species also grow. Some of them are Kankra, Hental, Jhau or Jhao, Passur, etc.
The Sundarbans consists of a diverse gene-pool of animal species. The most renowned among them is the Royal Bengal Tiger, which is quite an endangered animal. A combination of mammals, reptiles, birds and alligators mostly constitute the fauna in the Sundarbans. Apart from tigers, there are quite some crustaceans, reptiles and other species too because mangroves are a transition from saline to freshwater ecosystems. Sundarbans has around 150
species of commercially important fishes, 250–270 species of birds, 42 species of mammals, 35 reptiles and 8 amphibian species. Some of them are:
>The Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris):
The most renowned animal species in the Sundarbans is the Royal Bengal Tiger. Being present in some two hundred or so numbers, in the whole of Indian Sundarbans, they are now an endangered species, as labelled by IUCN Red List. They have been mainly threatened by poaching. It is among some of the biggest wild cats, in the present world and is the national animal of both India and Bangladesh. Bengal tigers weigh about 700–750 pounds. They reach a head and body length of about 3.2–3.5 metres. It competes with
Amur Tiger in its size. Unfortunately, it was our bad luck that we could not spot a Bengal tiger. Most of the Royal Bengal tiger are found in the ‘Core’ zone.
As told earlier, a typical Royal Bengal tiger has a sphere of influence spanning from 20–35 km. It marks its area by touching the bark of trees with its face, by which a chemical substance that is secreted from its face rests on the trees. This scent causes a unique scent that is different for each tiger. According to local experts, when there is high tide, these scents get diminished and the tigers get confused, causing furious fights amongst the tigers themselves. These tigers have adapted even to what normal tigers are not adapted to, i.e. clayey soil filled with ‘breathing roots’. A typical tiger can jump to heights of 18–21 feet and run at a stretch of 250–300 feet, without rest. The tigers are generally captured, if required, by tranquilisers. However, there are other methods to track/capture tigers too:
1. Stool-Test: The most rudimentary, test, in this, the stools spooted in different regions are collected for research. Scientists find out if it belongs to a tiger and by doing so, they can estimate their numbers.
2. Sweet-water inundation: Some sweet water inundation lakes are built, where tigers come to drink water. They are shot by tranquiliser bullets. When they become ‘tranquilised’, the officials tie radio camera collars and leave the place. Later on, they are used to keep a track of the tigers. The problem arises when tigers try to detach the tranquiliser bullet as soon as they are shot. The collar even tears due to several reasons.
3. Drone Camera: Drones are being used in recent time, to keep a track of the tigers. However. This method serves ineffective due to the forests’ thick undergrowth and high, dense canopy.
The female tigers generally bear 2–8 kids in one gestation. The female tigers, when pregnant, go far away from the male tigers, because they may eat them as food, when angry. The normal food of a typical tiger is deer. Deer are slimy and hard-hoofed, leading to a wonderful adaptation to escape the tigers. However, the Bengal tiger has a unique determination. It chooses only one target, and chases it to exhaustion. Even if another target is easily available, it won’t deter a bit from its target. No wonder, it is named ‘Royal’.
>Chital Deer (Axis axis):
This is the most common deer type in the Sundarbans, and an easy prey for the tigers. The males have horns while the females don’t. They weigh around 50–75 kg. The species is sexually dimorphic. The Chital is the sole member of the genus Axis.
The hooves of the chital measure 4 to 6 centimetres. Compared to the hog deer, the chital has a cursorial build, i.e. adapted to run. They are even endothermic in heat nature. The Chital deer mainly favour a grass – Cordia myxa as their primary diet. Chital are very silent when they graze together. We saw a bunch of 6–7 deer in the Sajnekhali Reserve. They came in slowly, drank the water and very quietly, left the area.
>Saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus):
The largest of all the living reptiles, the saltwater crocodile can reach to sizes of 6–7 metres. These crocodiles generally survive the best in salty or brackish mangrove swamps, especially in the Sundarbans. It is a hyper-carnivorous apex predator that catches the prey, nearly drowns it and then swallows it,
revealing its opportunistic predator outlook. This crocodile has a wider snout as compared to other crocodiles. These crocodiles stay inside the waters
as a camouflage to wait for preys like deer, rhesus monkeys, etc. The scales of this crocodile are oval in shape.
>Common Rhesus Monkey (Macaca mullata):
The most widely available monkey species of the Sundarbans, the Rhesus monkey is available in loads and is far from being endangered. We spotted the monkeys in possibly every place, we visited. It is primarily famous because the ‘Rh-Factor’ of our blood is named after it. These have been commonly seen stealing people’s equipment. One should be very careful about them and should not look directly into their eyes or try agitating them. A typical Rhesus monkey is only 53–55 cm long and weigh 6–9 kg.
>Fiddler Crab :
Fiddler crabs are quite an endangered species, but one won’t be able to understand that if they visit the Sundarbans. They are abundantly spotted on either bank of the rivers and riversides. Their special feature is that they have one claw small, another very big. They can be closely related to ghost crabs. Fiddler crabs have a constant circadian life cycle, spending 2–3 years in captivity and then living a very short life of 1–2 years. When they signal with their small claw, it is called a ‘dishonest’ signaling. We spotted red, blue and blue with dotted appearance fiddler crabs.
> Gangetic or Irrawaddy dolphin(Platanista gangetica):
The national aquatic animal of India, the Gangetic dolphin is a freshwater dolphin. However, the ones found in Sundarbans have adapted over years to the saline conditions of the water. Their sizes are around 2–3 metres. The species has crystalline eye-lens. [We spotted it only once, but was too quick for a picture]
>Lesser Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilos javanicus):
Commonly called ‘Madantak’, this bird species is very widely distributed in the forests. It has an upright stance, a pendant pouch and has lengths of 87–100 cm. The sizes may vary because these were my estimations, tallying with those of local experts. The upper plumage is usually dark-colored. The only
difference with the greater adjutant is its not so straight upper bill edge. It has yellow-colored neck.
> Brahminy Kite (Haliastur Indus):
One of the most royal species of the Sundarbans, it is contrastingly coloured and has a great pulmmage. It is normally light brown in colour, but turns to dark brown during mating. It is primarily of the same size as a black kite, but has shorter wings with orange-colored ends.
The Sundarbans delta contains deltaic alluvium, or typically littoral soil. It contains high amounts of water and large sized clay particles. I did my research on the soil, using two things: Firstly, I used a soil meter — Generic GNRC_2, 3 in 1 Ph Tester, Soil Moisture and Light Test Meter F (14018777Mg) and a soil test kit of Agrinex Corporation, generally used to test agricultural soil. It is called Agrinex — Soil Doctor Plus; I used it to test the chemical composition of the soil. It has tablets for K, N, P and pH tests and a TCN solution for the Phosphorous (P) Test.
Generic Meter Readings:
I tested the soil thrice in three different places, two of the Sanctuary zone and one of the Buffer Zone. Core zone research could not be tested since landing there is prohibited. The average readings are:
pH : 6–7 (Slightly acidic)
Soil moisture : 1000 gram per 100 gram of soil.
Light-dependence : 2–4 lux.
Agrinex Chemical Tests:
I collected samples from the same three places and researched on them. I had to mix soil sample and water in a ratio of 1:2 and keep it stagnant for 30 minutes for proper sedimentation and then, careful decantation, to extract
soil sample. The following are the results:
For pH I, put the pH dust, opening the capsule, in a test tube. Then, I added 4.0 ml clear soil extract, using a dropper. I had to cap it gently and keep it for another 5–10 minutes. It showed a characteristic orange colour, proving it to have a pH of 6.
For Nitrogen (N): After Soil Doctor — N capsule is opened and dropped into the test tube, I transferred 4.0 ml clear soil extract with dropper. It gave a characteristic orange-red colour. The results were hence: The soil contains very low nitrogen content, around only 30–40 kg/ acre.
For Potassium (K): After Soil Doctor-K capsule is opened and dropped into the test tube, I transferred 4.0 ml clear soil extract, with a dropper. It gave a characteristic greyish-white colour. The results were: The soil contains moderately high amounts of potassium, around 90–120 kg/ acre.
For Phosphorous (P): After Soil Doctor — P capsule is opened and dropped into the test tube and 4.0 ml clear soil extract is transferred, I drop 4 drops of TCA solution. It gave a characteristic bluish colour. The results were: The soil contains moderate amounts of phosphorous, around 30–40 kg/acre.
My result may vary with pre-recorded data.
Interview with Debnath Mondol, a forest ranger.
(Picture has been withheld due to request)
How many years have you worked in the Sundarbans?
I have served in the Sundarbans for 20 years now.
Which was your latest tiger sighting?
My last tiger sighting was on 26 th March, 2018.
It is said that one when encounters a tiger, it is his/her last encounter. How much do you think it to be true, coupled with modern technologies?
It depends on what kind of a technology you are talking about. The technology you may mean, has not yet reached Sundarbans. Sundarbans is still much technologically backward. Many regions still do not have proper safety and electricity facilities. We generally tranquilise the tigers. If that does not work, we release crackers that frighten the tiger(s). However, there are still many reported sightings of tigers and their ruthless killings.
Do you think that the religious and other beliefs of the local people interfere with the local ecosystem, mainly the habitats of the tigers?
Obviously it does. We have destroyed the homeland of the tigers. If they take revenge, they are right. They mainly invade the homes of humans for sheep and cows. If they do not get them, they attack humans. They easily get through the nets. Moreover, the tigers also influence the local beliefs and societal structure. As you know, the locales worship a goddess named ‘Baghdebota’ before going on long trips to Sundarbans.
Have you ever been in a hand-to-hand combat before?
Only once. Though, it was not much of a ‘combat’, but I fell nearly in front of a tiger.
Interview with Babloo Das, a young fisher boy.
What is your age?
16 years. We both are of the same age! (laughs) [Am 18 though, no problem in a genuine laughter]
Till what grade did you receive education?
I received education till class 3. After that, my school was hauled up in a storm. I joined fishing and tourism department with my father after that.
How many times have you been in the midst of a storm?
Quite often. Storms hit our boat MV Sutapa at least thrice every two weeks. You experienced one yourself too!
Interview with Anup, a local expert guide.
How many days have you been in the Sundarbans as a guide?
Well, Sundarbans is where I live. I have been in the guiding profession for nearly 5 years now.
Have you ever seen a tiger?
Many times! The last tiger I saw was on 31 st January, 2018. It was severely injured in its head. It was swimming down a khaari in Birkhali.
Is spotting a tiger, purely dependant on luck?
Yes. People say, if you stay here for three months, you are sure to see one! Well, no. If you stay here for 6 months, you may not see a tiger whereas if you come for one day, you may see one. It is their home, unlike a zoo and it is their wish to reveal themselves to you. Do you think they did not watch you? Maybe you could not spot one but some always spotted all of us, maybe hiding from a bushy trench or dense undergrowth.
Oops! That’s creepy. What should we do if we encounter one?
Till date, no tourist has died out of tiger attacks. We are far from their reaches. However, for proper safety, it is always better to make as loud a noise as possible.
Do you think poachers should be killed on sight?
Yes, absolutely. Am not a humanitarian when I see humans are at fault ! (laughs)
What is your message for a typical tourist to the Sundarbans?
Well, don’t come for a tiger. Come for wildlife!