What was your best experience during this assignment?
I was with a team from the Bangladesh Forest Department in a small boat, trying to pick up a signal from a radio-collared tiger. I knew the chance of seeing a wild tiger—especially in this dense mangrove habitat—was extremely slim, even with the aid of a radio-tracking device. I was trying not to get my hopes up. We'd been coursing along the river channels of the Sundarbans mangroves for hours, trying to pick up a signal. Finally, as we reached a side creek, we had one. The ranger holding the receiver started to get excited—the signal was getting louder. Suddenly we spotted her. We were much too close! The big tigress was lying under the vegetation just meters in from the bank, staring right out at us through a small gap in the mangrove trunks and roots. She could have been in our boat in a leap and a bound. Our hearts were racing, and you could feel the tension in the boat as we paddled backward as fast as we could. The tigress did not budge. She just stared at us with those huge eyes. We anchored the boat out in the big channel at a safe distance, and I was able to get some pictures. It was an intense but very satisfying afternoon seeing my first tiger in the wild.
What was your worst experience during this assignment?
I was out with a group of honey hunters, searching for the huge combs of the giant honeybee that are found in the Sundarbans mangroves. It was nerve-wracking work, hiking through the boot-sucking mud in a place where we kept seeing fresh tiger tracks. One day I decided to wait behind in our boat until the honey hunters had found a hive. They blew a horn to tell us they'd found one, and we went up the side channel in our skiff. As we landed at the place they had marked, the hive turned out to be in a tree right above the bank. Suddenly the bees started swarming and attacked. One of the first ones on shore, I curled up in a ball on the ground and didn't move as the bees swarmed over my head. I escaped with a single sting, but others in the group weren't so lucky. The bees attacked the men still in the skiff mercilessly, and our guide, Rubaiyat Mansur, was stung nearly 20 times as he bravely helped push the boat back out into the channel. The screams of the boatmen continued as the bees chased them down the creek. Everyone recovered from his stings, and from then on we all treated the bees with a great deal more respect.
What was the oddest experience you encountered during this assignment?
It was so hot on our riverboat in the Sundarbans mangroves that, to escape the stuffy confines of the cabin, each evening I would string my mosquito net on the outside deck to try to catch some of the cooler night air. Over the past 20 years I've frequently camped in the tropics. But the number of mosquitoes around my net one night exceeded anything I'd ever experienced. The air was packed with them. There were thousands, and their collective buzz was so loud I could hardly fall asleep. Fortunately, they couldn't penetrate my net. But during the night I must have turned, positioning myself against the net. When I awoke, there were welts all over my elbows and knees where I'd been stung right through the net.