A Spotted Deer foraging on the fragments falling from a Keora tree while a Rhesus Monkey breaks small branches to chew on fresh leaves and throw the rest down. I had seen that great spectacle many times in Sundarban in the past 30 years. Monkey, deer and fish of this forest find the juicy leaves and fruits of Keora tree irresistible.
Without any help from monkeys the fish get to eat Keora leaves only as high up as it may swim in spring-tides, and the deer manages to eat it as far as it can reach by standing awkwardly on hind legs. An enormous pile of leaves and fruits beyond that modest level is left to the monkeys to feed on. Fortunately, monkeys are very messy eaters and keep tossing a lot of tidbits to others.
The deer and the fish of Sundarban thrive to a great extent on the bounty tumbling down from the feeding monkeys. As the tide turns, the deer and the fish take turns to feed on the falling leaves; at low tide the deer comes, and at high tide the fish assemble. Every day between sunrise and sunset the opportune moment comes at least once for the deer and once for the fish. The monkeys seem to be pleased to see the deer and the fish follow them faithfully along the edges of rivers and canals of Sundarban.
The grumbling beast called wild boar is also seen along with foraging deer where monkeys feed in the trees. Wild boars eat soft tubers, and are not interested in Keora leaves. They come under Keora grove because the monkey acts as the lookout against potential tiger attacks. From their vantage points the monkeys work as sentries and shriek like little devils when they see a tiger. Tigers in Sundarban pray mainly on deer and wild boar; and only a foolish tiger would initiate a hunt when the monkeys are on guard in the trees.
Tigers, however, do not vengefully attack the monkey but 'generously' treat it as a general prey just like deer and wild boar. Tiger attack monkeys when they feed on the sodden soil of Sundarban; but those assaults seldom end for the tiger in triumph. Monkeys are clever creatures quite capable of surviving in the forest ruled by a formidable predator like the tiger.
But that enviable niche of Rhesus Monkey may be shattering now, thanks to our growing presence in Sundarban. Now at Kotka we see the monkeys spend more time on or near the tourist landing platform and less on Keora trees. Generous tourists give the monkeys handouts that are much more appealing than Keora leaves. Tourists' gift may not be the right food for monkeys but it tastes good and involves much less climbing, stretching and munching.
I would indeed like the growing number of tourists who care to share their food with monkeys if I were a monkey in Sundarban. I could quickly gobble down the high-calorie foodstuff the tourists give me generously, and just like them, enjoy my day off doing nothing hard or important.
Although a few 'minor' problems would crop up in this new way of living, such as - I have to fight with other monkeys over the tourists' favours; I have bad teeth; I have weak muscles and I look more and more like those rotund tourists. But boy, am I not saving a whole lot of chewing on Keora leaves now! Though there are two 'minor' problems there also - the deer and the fish are not getting enough food now; and there is no one in the trees to shout 'tiger, tiger' in time to save other mortals on the ground.
I would indeed like the growing number of tourists who care to share their food with monkeys if I were a monkey in Sundarban. I could quickly gobble down the high-calorie foodstuff the tourists give me generously, and just like them, enjoy my day off doing nothing hard or important
We concluded our short tour of Sundarban by visiting Karamjal Tourist Centre. As expected, we came across many more tourists there than we did at Kotka and Harbaria. More tourists have been feeding the monkeys there more enthusiastically for a longer time. We saw a large number of monkeys prancing on Karamjal tourists' trail; many of them were obese and blunted. A few of them were aggressive and keen not only on begging but on robbing us.
Along the rickety trail of Karamjal came a monkey mother begging with a baby on piggy-back. It was very depressing to see a baby monkey starting its life as a beggar unaware of the endless bounties of Sundarban. Will this baby, in time, learn the art of untidy eating on Keora grove and take pleasure in scattering leaves and fruits for the hungry mouths on the ground and in the water? Would the baby ever develop the ancient bond with the appreciative deer trotting on the ground and the euphoric fish jumping out of water? Probably not.
How thoughtlessly we are turning a large community of generous and daring primates into some bumbling beggars dependent on handouts from the tourists! And all these are happening in Sundarban, the least spoiled wilderness of our country and the most bountiful forest for the monkeys.
As we left Karamjal I recalled this crushing quote from the English playwright William Congreve, "I could never look upon a monkey without mortifying reflections." In the Sundarban are we adding a new meaning to his dismal words!