The story unfolded a few years ago, when a national daily reported an unidentified wild animal had attacked farmers, on a shoal of the Padma River, in Faridpur district. Fear spread like wildfire in that area and villagers locked themselves inside their homes.
My partner in adventure, Masud, and I took no time to decide to pay a visit to the mysterious creature. The report provided only a little information on the animal which was dubbed a tiger by the villagers. It mentioned that the animal had black and white stripes. What kind of tiger had black stripes over white? Our wildest imaginations took off. Could it be striped hyena? Striped hyenas are native to the Indian subcontinent. As evident in their name, unlike their African relatives, they have stripes instead of spots. Now extinct in Bangladesh, striped hyena roamed the north-west region of the country until the end of the 19th century. Our hunter genes were tickled by this fanciful thought. We were going to shoot some hyenas or tigers – with our cameras.
One fine morning, we traveled to Faridpur, and then took a boat ride to North Channel union where the "tiger" had been spotted. We took another ride on the back of a motorbike, the only public transportation in the area, met the local union parishad (UP) chairman and informed him of the purpose of our visit. He helped us with a place to stay. . It was a rarely used tin shed house that belonged to the union parishad.
The local bazaar was almost deserted. People walked around with sticks in their hands, to defend themselves from a possible tiger attack. We talked to some of them, got a rough idea about the area and tried to figure out how to spot the beast.
The union parishad's caretaker arranged our dinner, did one or two more things to make sure our stay was as comfortable as it possibly could be. Before leaving for his home, he warned us of rats that would make noise in the dead of night and advised not to be scared. After the hectic day, we fell asleep as soon as we went to bed.
Some time after midnight, I woke up fully alarmed. As I was trying to figure out what interrupted my sleep, I heard a noise that simulated the screeching sound of some rusty door hinge. What kind of rat opens a heavy wooden door and closes it again? For half an hour, I had to endure all types of bangs and other sounds that could only emanate from the movement of a large… something.
The crisis deepened when I realized I had to go to the bathroom. A part of my brain told me to wake my friend up. But the other part shamed me. What sort of adventurer is afraid of ghosts? So I gathered some courage and went to the bathroom which required a walk across the whole God-knows-what infested house. There were strange noises from the roof of the bathroom, which was basically a tin awning attached to the main house that was within the reach of my hands. Something crossed my mind, and I knocked the roof thrice, with one second intervals. Within seconds, a similar knocking sound returned- three times with one second intervals.
Before starting this horrendous mission to the bathroom, I had programmed my brain to return to the relative safety of the room where my friend was sleeping, no matter what happened. So I could manage to walk back to the bed with a semi-conscious mind and near-numb body and fell asleep. In the morning, my friend reported waking up by the noise later in the night.
The next morning, we left after breakfast. There were only a few farmers working in the vast fields. We reached a relatively high piece of land. The place overlooked a grassland so similar to the African savannah that we probably would not have been baffled had a giraffe or lion appeared from somewhere. Now began the hard part – patiently waiting for something that usually chooses to avoid being seen.
Hours passed. Farmers returned to the village for their lunch break. Our tummies signaled for one, too. However, abandoning our posts for a proper meal was out of the question. Moreover, chances of spotting the creature were higher when no one was around.
Suddenly, I noticed a slight movement in the bushes some 60 metres away. As I looked through the telephoto lens, I saw it. A bird, foraging a few feet away from our hideout, was startled and flew away as the shutter of the camera crackled. The animal was sniffing something. I kept observing it, until it disappeared behind a wall of tall grass, but I could not recognize it from a distance. I brought up the photo on the display of the camera and zoomed in. It was merely a silhouette, but I started to get an idea of what it could be.
We held our positions for the rest of the day. Just before dusk we spotted another similar animal. The stripes were clearly visible this time. As we returned to the village, people gathered around us to have a look into the camera's display. As they saw the striped animal, they announced with confidence that this was a genuine tiger – with emphasis on the term genuine – and that it could effortlessly eat a man. The villagers started planning an all-out war against the tigers. They said they would burn every bush, check every hole in the ground and beat every tiger they found to death.
The next morning, we spotted the thing without having to wait long. I ran between patches of bushes to cover myself and closed the distance. A close encounter followed. We looked at each other calmly. It was Felis chaus, a jungle cat.
We returned to the village, digitally labelled a photo of the cat with a clear and large Bangla font revealing its identity, and distributed the image to everyone's mobile phone. It was difficult for us to convince them that the "tiger" was just a brother of the domestic cat and it was incapable of doing serious harm – even to children. We also told them that the cats help farmers by killing harmful pests like rice-field rats. As to ourselves, we consoled ourselves that a tiger is nothing but a big cat! Of course, it would have been more interesting had hyenas made a comeback.
The next day, we traveled to another village where the man who was reportedly attacked by the cat lived. We found him easily. He described how the "tiger" blocked his tractor and tried to launch an attack on him while he was tilling a piece of land that had been recently cleared for cultivation. He was still very scared and had skipped work from then on. Based on his account, I assumed that the specific cat in question probably lost its den during the clearing, and/or was guarding its kittens, hence its aggressive behavior. It is possible that he had actually been confronted by a fishing cat, which is much larger than jungle cats and can be fearsome when angry. The fishing cat is known as Mechho bagh in Bangla, and in the laymen's eyes they bear more resemblance to a small-sized Bengal tiger than a jungle cat. Perhaps because of shock, he had not paid much attention to the appearance of the animal at the time, so he was unable to distinguish between what he had seen and what we showed him on camera.
We spent two more days in that village and photographed one more jungle cat. We talked to the UP chairman and requested he ensure the villagers let the harmless cats be. We did not spot a fishing cat, but people showed us photos of one that had been beaten to death by fishermen two weeks prior.
Though the jungle cats were spared that time, the killing of other wild cat species is very common across the country. Once abundant, these cats have become so rare that people cannot identify them anymore, confuse them with ferocious animals and mercilessly beat them to death. In other scenarios, people beat the poor creatures and manage to capture them before they die. Fishing cats are probably the worst victims of lynchings as they are large and look more dangerous. I roamed the country for a picture of a fishing cat in the wild. I later found one near my village home – but only after it was captured by people who thought it was a tiger. A forest department official came and arranged to relocate it to a place that was not a natural habitat for fishing cats. The officer also misidentified the animal as a civet. That's a story for another day.