Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea

Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea

by Kennedy Warne


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ISBN-13: 9781597266833
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 02/23/2011
Edition description: 1
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Kennedy Warne is author of Roads Less Travelled and founding editor of New Zealand Geographic. His articles have appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian, GEO, and other publications.

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Let Them Eat Shrimp

The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea

By Kennedy Warne


Copyright © 2011 Kennedy Warne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-024-8


Tigers in the Aisles

Mangroves are the supermarkets of the coastal poor.

—PISIT CHARNSNOH, Thai campaigner for coastal ecosystems and community rights

HONEYBEES have been coming to the riverboat all morning, swirling about the decks and wafting through the companionways of the MV Chhuti as she toils toward the Bay of Bengal. Now and then one alights on my neck or arms for a lick of salt. It clings for a moment, then sails away into the shimmering heat.

I am three days into a journey through the Sundarbans, the largest tract of mangroves on earth. Shared one-third by India and two-thirds by Bangladesh, this vast tidal woodland is rooted in the delta sediments of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers, whose tributaries snake through the forest in a Medusa's head of silt-laden channels.

Rubáiyát Mansur, known as Mowgli, is my guide through the labyrinth. Lean as a jungle vine, with a gleaming black ponytail that stretches halfway down his back, he has been working on his father's riverboats since he was a boy. There was a time when he found the job boring. He worked with his Walkman headphones clamped over his ears, dreaming of escape to the city. Then the wild mystery of the forest began to seep into his consciousness. He began to notice the turquoise flash of a kingfisher's wings, the throaty cackle of a wild hen, the startled glance of a spotted deer. Now this world is his world, the life of the forest his life.

The bees' arrival tells Mowgli we're close to the honey section of the Sundarbans supermarket. Supermarket, lumberyard, roofing depot, fuel store, pharmacy—the forest is all these things to the people who live on its fringes. The Bangladesh Forest Department estimates that as many as a million Bangladeshis enter the Sundarbans each year to harvest its resources. An unknown number of these people—perhaps a hundred a year—do not return from their shopping expedition. Tigers prowl the aisles of this supermarket, where the shopper is also the shopped.

Mowgli scans the river for mouali, the honey collectors of the Sundarbans. Each guild of harvesters—fishers, woodcutters, thatch cutters, mollusk and crab collectors, honey hunters—has its own name and traditions. None of the workers live permanently in the forest, which has been a reserve since the 1870s. They enter it to earn their living, and in doing so they take their lives in their hands.

Mowgli spots the narrow, live-aboard boats of a group of mouali and signals the captain to nudge the Chhuti toward the bank. Half a dozen men emerge from a thatched cabin and greet us with broad, inquisitive smiles. Mokbul Mali, the leader of the group, tells Mowgli they are about to set out on a collecting trip, and agrees to take us with them.

A few paces into the forest, Mokbul points out a fresh tiger pug mark with his machete. The print is the width of my hand. Mokbul tears open a packet of cherry bombs and lights one. The explosion sounds loud enough to scare off any feline in a five-mile radius, but in this mangrove maze, one of the few remaining haunts of Panthera tigris tigris, the Bengal tiger, no one takes chances. Four honey hunters have already fallen to the paws of the tiger since the season opened a few weeks earlier. It is April, a month before the onset of the monsoon.

The men fan out through the forest, calling "Ooooo-WOOH, "ooooo-WOOH!" to keep in contact with each other. Most wear an amulet for spiritual protection—a small metal cylinder with a scrap of paper inside containing verses from the Koran. They strap it on their upper arm or around their neck. Every few minutes Mokbul lets off another firecracker, bringing to mind Oliver Cromwell's dictum: "Trust in God, but keep your powder dry."

We push through thickets of young saplings, many of them a semideciduous mangrove called gewa, the leaves of which turn maple-red at this time of year. A gray lichen grows on their trunks. Mowgli tells me to scratch the lichen with my thumb. "Now smell," he says. I lean close and catch an aromatic whiff of aniseed, delicious in its unexpectedness. He tears a gewa leaf, and latex springs out. If this toxic sap splashes into a woodcutter's eyes it can cause temporary loss of sight, hence the tree's other name: "blind your eye."

In waterlogged areas the mud bristles with the pneumatophores—the aerial or "breathing" roots—of sundri, the tree from which the Sundarbans takes its name. The pneumatophores, 30 centimeters (12 inches) or more in height and as thick as deer antlers, grow so densely there is barely room for a foot to squeeze between them. The honey hunters scan the treetops for bees as they walk, but I keep my eyes on the obstacle course on the ground.

We enter a drier, more open part of the forest, where the soil is covered with a salty rime. Salt making was once a major enterprise in the Sundarbans. Seawater was boiled to make a concentrated brine, then poured into hundreds of coconut-sized terra-cotta bowls to evaporate. Earlier in the journey we had visited the site of an abandoned saltworks, where the ground was paved with shards of smashed pottery.

Mokbul considers this high-salinity area unpromising for honey and is about to turn back when a cry goes up—"Allah-lah-lah-lah!" One of the mouali grabs my arm and pulls me toward the sound. Through the foliage, I glimpse thick folds of honeycomb hanging from a low branch. The surface is aquiver with bees fanning their wings to keep the hive cool.

Mokbul lights two torches made of tightly bunched mangrove fern, and we approach the hive. Bees hurtle in all directions, buzzing past our heads through the smoke. The men wear no protective clothing, just a piece of cloth wrapped around their faces. A moual with a curved knife gripped between his teeth climbs the tree and begins slicing off chunks of honeycomb and dropping them into a basket. He leaves a nubbin of wax on the branch to encourage the bees to rebuild. A comb may be cut two or three times in a season, Mokbul says, but by the third time "the bees will be very angry!"

He offers me a piece of the dark, dripping honeycomb. It is unbelievably good—warm, sweet, fragrant, with a kiss of smoke. There are about five kilograms (11 pounds) in the basket. The men hope to harvest a tonne during their month-long stay in the forest. Like most workers in the forest, they are financed by a moneylender who also acts as the purchasing agent. The mouali themselves cannot afford to make the trip without obtaining a loan to provide for their families while they are away.

Steps are light and spirits high on the way back to the boat. "We have preserved our honor," says Mokbul, beaming.

I have come to the Sundarbans not just because it is the world's largest mangrove wetland but because it is also one of the best preserved. That a forest the size of Everglades National Park remains largely intact and resource-rich in one of the world's poorest and most crushingly overcrowded countries is little short of miraculous. It is a tribute to the foresight of Bangladesh's colonial rulers. The British made the Sundarbans a reserve, imposed a strict management regime, and prohibited settlement within its borders—policies that are maintained today. Harvesters pay a fee to enter the forest, and there are set seasons and quotas for its various products.

Honey, timber, seafood, thatching materials, fruits, medicines, tea, sugar—the inventory of the mangrove supermarket is huge. You can even get the raw materials for beer and cigarettes. Each product is collected by its own group, or guild, of harvesters.

Of the many harvest guilds in the Sundarbans, none is more specialized than the otter fishers. One night the Chhuti passes a group of them sculling upriver as we chug down. Their boat is a dark shape on the dark water, the only light the orange speck of the oarsman's cigarette. Mowgli hails them, and we turn and let the two vessels drift together. Two of the fishermen come aboard for a cup of tea. The otters, housed in a bamboo enclosure on deck, squeak loudly for attention. There are two adults in one compartment and six pups in another.

During fishing, an otter is tethered to each end of the net mouth. Like aquatic sheepdogs, they round up fish, lobsters, and prawns that are hiding in holes in the riverbank or under vegetation and herd them into the net. Their reward is a share of the catch. The pups swim around freely, learning by watching their parents, and the fishermen pass on the technique to their sons in the same way. One of the fishermen says his otters once helped him catch a 40-kilogram (88-pound) fish, but adds that he thinks this fishing method may disappear. His own sons are not interested in carrying on the tradition. Mowgli says he knows of fewer than twenty villages where it is still practiced.

Not so the cutting of golpata, the mangrove thatching palm, which remains a staple Sundarbans livelihood. Golpata, or Nypa fruticans, to give its scientific name, is the only member of the palm family to have taken up the salt-loving mangrove lifestyle. Unlike most other palms, it does not have a trunk; its tall green fronds spring from an underground rhizome and stand like a feathery palisade along the water's edge.

Golpata has more to offer than just leaves for a roofing material. It also produces a sweet sap that is boiled to make molasses for cooking, used in skin ointments, and even employed as a snakebite medicine. In Singapore and Malaysia, Nypa fruits, known as atap chee, are popular as a dessert or in ice cream.

But thatch is the main product, and more than 100,000 tonnes of golpata leaf are harvested in the Sundarbans each year. Golpata cutters work in pairs, dropping the five-meter (16-foot) fronds with machetes, then ripping them lengthwise down the midrib by hand. They load the split fronds, odorous with sap, into skiffs and shuttle their cargo to a mother craft, a giant ark of a vessel that is stacked like a hay wagon. These tar-coated arks, the delivery trucks of the Sundarbans, move at an elephantine pace along the twisting waterways, propelled from the stern by a single massive oar. We saw one, weighed down beyond its limit with mangrove logs, which had sunk, leaving only the top of its cargo showing. The crew were on the riverbank eating their breakfast, apparently unperturbed by their predicament.

In the dense forest margins where the golpata cutters work, visibility is low and the risk of tiger attack high. Danger, however, adds no monetary premium to the product. A split frond sells for two cents. On a good day a man might cut a kahon, 1,280 split fronds, to earn $25. Like the mouali, the cutters wear amulets or scraps of red cloth that have been blessed by a holy man. They believe the Sundarbans to be a holy place, so they adopt many purification practices and prohibitions. Before entering the forest, they will not eat fried foods or uncooked onions. They will not comb their hair or look in a mirror. They always enter the forest with the right foot first and leave it with the left foot first. They do not work on a Friday, the Islamic day of public worship, because they believe the gods and goddesses will be too preoccupied with the prayers of others to protect them.

The superstitions extend to the cutters' wives at home. While their husbands are away they will not wash their clothing or hair, slaughter a chicken indoors, or withhold alms from a beggar. They will also not eat raw onions or burn dry chiles, believing that if they do so the aroma will be mysteriously transferred to their husbands, attracting a tiger.

At the beginning of the harvest season, the devout will make puja at one of the shrines to Bonbibi, the goddess of the Sundarbans, which are located around the edges of the forest. I visited one: a simple roof and walls of golpata thatch over a framework of mangrove poles, with a gorgeously painted tableau of the guardian deity and her attendants as the centerpiece. Bonbibi smiles benignly, seated on a tiger with a child on her lap. In some tableaus she has her pet crocodile at her side. Incense sticks and candle stubs are placed around her feet by supplicants. Her hand is raised in blessing.

According to the poetic texts, Bonbibi defeated her nemesis, the malevolent tiger god Daksin Ray, and offers her protection to those who call upon her. Her divine favor extends not just to forest workers. Many women regard Bonbibi as their mother and their goddess.

It is said that Daksin Ray, dark lord of the deep forest, can enter the body of any tiger and command it to do his bidding. I visited a forest department guard post where the staff had had to barricade themselves in an upstairs room when a tiger entered the building. The tiger climbed the stairs and broke down the door, forcing the terrified occupants into the rafters. At the same guard post I met a man who had been collecting firewood with three others when a tiger attacked. They were walking in a line in an open area near the buildings. The tiger sprang out of the forest and jumped the second man, knocking him to the ground. The third man tried to beat the animal off with a stick, at which the tiger turned on him, dragged him into the forest, and killed him. I was talking to the fourth man.

Even being on the water is no guarantee of protection from Daksin Ray. Tigers have been known to swim out to a boat and climb into it to take a fisherman.

Attacks on humans are more common in the drier, less lushly vegetated western part of the Sundarbans than in the east. It may be that prey species such as spotted deer and wild boar are scarcer in the west, leading tigers into greater conflict with humans. But the link is not proved. "Tigers are complex animals," Adam Barlow, lead researcher of the Sundarbans Tiger Project, told me. "We know so little about what makes them tick." Barlow's project, administered by the Bangladesh Forest Department, uses satellite tracking and long hours of personal observation to learn about tiger behavior and ecology—no easy task given their scarcity. A census in 2004 put Bangladesh's tiger population at just 440 individuals. Spread across the Sundarbans, that equates to one tiger per 1,200 hectares (about 3,000 acres).

To increase the odds of locating their study subjects, researchers use the controversial technique of live baiting. We stumble across one such bait station during a forest walk. It is a patch of raised ground that was once used by salt makers but appears now to be a tiger's banqueting table. Bones of deer and other prey are scattered about, and tethered to a tree in the middle of the area—a tree with deep claw marks in its bark—is a young ox. The animal seems preternaturally docile, as if resigned to its highly unpleasant fate. I can understand the researchers' rationale: by sacrificing a domestic meat animal, they might gain knowledge that could save a charismatic wild species from extinction. The goal is worthy, but the method troubling.

Mowgli points out a curious quid pro quo concerning tigers and the Sundarbans: the forest protects the tiger, and the tiger protects the forest. The ban on human settlement and hunting assures the tiger population of a large, prey-filled range, while the presence of a man-eating predator is a powerful deterrent for would-be poachers. The net result is a wilderness preserve in which unique human traditions coexist with healthy natural processes. A place that remains—as one translation of its name has it—the "beautiful forest."

Lately, tourism has come to the Sundarbans, driven in large measure by the chance to see a tiger. Riverboats like the Chhuti ply the labyrinth with nature lovers lining the decks, watching the unfathomable forest glide by. They come for a glimpse of the tiger, but, like me, many leave spellbound by a place of enchantment and surprise.

One afternoon I watch a bevy of spotted deer—antlered bucks, skitterish hinds, inquisitive fawns—drift through the red-leafed gewa groves. With their bright white dapples on roan flanks, they look as if they have stepped out of a Bambi film. Along the riverbanks they have nibbled the mangrove foliage to a neat line about two meters (seven feet) above the ground, as high as they can reach. It is as if the forest has had a haircut. Crabs, far from the tide, scuffle in the dry leaves. Woodpeckers hammer away in the canopy, halting momentarily in response to the shrieking alarm of a troupe of rhesus macaques. A wild rooster crows—an incongruous barnyard sound for such a wilderness.


Excerpted from Let Them Eat Shrimp by Kennedy Warne. Copyright © 2011 Kennedy Warne. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Tigers in the Aisles
Chapter 2. Paradise Lost
Chapter 3. Pink Gold and a Blue Revolution
Chapter 4. The Old Man and the Mud Crab
Chapter 5. The Cockle Gatherers of Tambillo
Chapter 6. A Just Fight
Chapter 7. Bimini Twist
Chapter 8. Candy and the Magic Forest
Chapter 9. The Carbon Sleuth
Chapter 10. Paradise Regained
Chapter 11. The Road to Manzanar
Chapter 12. Under the Mango Tree
Chapter 13. A City and Its Mangroves
Chapter 13. A Mangrove's Worth

Author's Note

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Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
DSaff More than 1 year ago
Mangrove forests harbor many incredible animals and help provide storm barriers for our land. So many times they have been taken for granted or treated as dispensible. As civilization pushes forward into new areas, mangrove areas have been not only disturbed, but in some cases destroyed. Why? Many times it is to produce new areas for shrimp farming. In this book, Kennedy Warne takes the time to explain the importance of mangroves and the habitat they provide. It is an interesting wake-up call about simply moving forward without considering the consequences. I didn't really know much about mangroves and their importance until reading this book. I recommend it to those who want to know more about this wonderful earth we inhabit, and the little known environments all around us.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Does not avoid the tough questions. Gives history to present in even-handed tone. Good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago