What was your best experience during this assignment?
The sweetest part of this assignment—quite literally—was discovering an unexpected delicacy: mangrove honey. In the Bangladesh Sundarbans, I was able to join a group of honey harvesters as they searched for wild hives. It's dangerous work because it takes the harvesters deep into tiger country. To scare away the big cats, the men set off loud fireworks every few minutes. And they wear amulets containing verses from the Koran around their necks or arms.
As they walked through the forest, they scanned the treetops for bees and eventually came across a large hive with thick folds of honeycomb hanging from a tree branch. They lit smoke torches to mollify the bees, and one of them—with a knife clamped between his teeth—climbed the tree and sliced off large chunks of comb, dropping them into a basket. They offered me some, and it was unbelievably good: dark, warm, sweet, aromatic—the best I've ever tasted. I would go back to Bangladesh tomorrow just to eat Sundarbans honey. OK, and to see the magnificent Sundarbans tigers again. And to watch the antics of the mudskipper fish. And to take part in the nightly games of chess with the riverboat crew.
What was your worst experience during this assignment?
The toughest aspect of researching this story was to confront the human impacts of the shrimp-farming industry, which has been responsible for massive destruction of mangrove wetlands and their adjacent salt marsh areas. But the environmental damage of irresponsible shrimp aquaculture goes beyond just the cutting down of trees. In the Brazilian coastal village of Curral Velho, which means "old corral," I stood in the barren garden of Alouiso Rodrigues dos Santos. The 74-year-old told me he had grown vegetables on his plot of land since 1958: sweet potatoes, melons, cassavas, beans. The land was so productive he had to tie up his papaya trees with ropes to stop the weight of fruit from toppling them. Five years ago a shrimp farmer built his ponds right up to the boundary, 30 yards (30 meters) from dos Santos's back door. Now, with the seepage of salty water from the ponds, his land produces nothing but saltwort and weeds. Unable to grow food, dos Santos turned to the sea, borrowing money to build a fish trap. But heavy seas destroyed it. "The land threw me out to sea, and the sea threw me back to land," he said. "Where can I turn except to God?"
What was the oddest experience you encountered during this assignment?
I live in New Zealand, a country where sheep outnumber people ten to one, so I'm used to seeing farmers working with sheepdogs to round up their flocks. But fishermen using otters to round up fish? This was something new and surprising.
I met a group of otter fishers one night in the Sundarbans. They were sculling upstream in their small live-aboard skiff as our riverboat steamed down. Mowgli, our guide, hailed them, and they maneuvered alongside. The otters were housed in bamboo cages on deck, and they squeaked noisily as we talked.
Two of the fishermen came aboard for a cup of tea and described how they deploy the otters: They're tethered by long leashes to the ends of the fishing net and swim in close to the banks of the channels to flush out fish and shrimp from among the mangrove roots, chasing them into the net. The otters' reward is a share of the catch. Like sheepdogs, they are looked after well, almost like members of the family. One fisherman lamented that his son—who wanted a city job—wasn't interested in following in his footsteps. He thought this unique method of fishing might die out before too long.