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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #25 (June 20, 2006), page 16.
A mystery, a marvel
The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans
By Sy Montgomery
Photographs by Eleanor Briggs
Houghton Mifflin, 2001
Hardcover, 57 pages, $16.00
By Josephine Bridges
The Tiger is Watching," the title of the first chapter of this marvelous book, adds an ominous touch to the deceptively tranquil opening: "A warm May night in eastern India is a peaceful time in the mud-and-thatch villages that ring the forest at the edge of the sea." Sy Montgomery relates a story of five young men planning to spend the night in a place they werenít supposed to be, and becoming increasingly nervous, then invites her readers to try to solve the mystery of the disturbing behavior of The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans. "Where to begin? First, you would have to fly halfway around the world."
One of many mysteries of Sundarbans, a flooded forest along the Bay of Bengal, is how it got its name. It may come from a word that means "beautiful," or one that means "forests of ocean." Either way, itís home to more tigers ó 500, it is said ó than anywhere else on earth, "the only mangrove forest with tigers in it." Eleanor Briggsís astonishing photographs help readers imagine a visit to Sundarbans, where "even nature doesnít seem to obey the rules."
Accompanied by dazzling close-ups of the stripes on these big cats, "How Tigers Live" compares and contrasts the tigers of Sundarbans with the tigers of the rest of the world. "Nowhere else on earth do healthy tigers routinely hunt people. In fact, no other predators ó not sharks, not lions, not polar bears ó kill as many people a year as do the Bengal tigers of Sundarbans."
The authorís light touch gives young readers a healthy perspective on a grisly mystery. In "What the Scientists Say," she confides that tiger urine "smells sort of like buttered popcorn," and points out that in order to "study an animal you canít see, canít track, canít radio-collar," youíre going to need some help.
"Meet Girindra Nath Mridha," who lives at the edge of the forest. He knows a lot about tigers. "In fact, three of his uncles were eaten by tigers." We learn in "What the Villagers Say" that "almost everyone in Sundarbans knows someone who was killed by a tiger." And, while women and children are usually preyed upon by sick or injured tigers in the rest of the world, the tigers of Sundarbans "really are man-eating tigers." Tiger attacks occur outside the villages, where only men venture.
"Tiger God of the Jungle" introduces readers to the spiritual practices of the region, where "Hindus and Muslims worship side by side at the shrines to honor the Tiger God and the Forest Goddess."
In the last chapter, "Tiger Magic," readers learn from Rathin Banerjee, one of the directors of the Forest Department, that "Sundarbans is too big for us to protect it all," from poachers and people who illegally collect honey and cut trees in the tiger reserve. Sy Montgomery doesnít skip a beat: "Fortunately, though, the Forest Department has help: five hundred man-eating tigers!"
You wonít ever want this book to end, but the way it does will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. There are several lavish appendices, too, including some common expressions in Bengali, tiger statistics, further reading, and organizations that help tigers. Itís no wonder that Sy Montgomery is an award-winning author. The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans gets this reviewerís highest honor: I wish I had written it.