Sundarbans (150 kilometers southeast of Kolkata (Calcutta)) is great mangrove swamp that stretches between India and Bangladesh. It is the world’s largest mangrove fores and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. It covers 10,000 square kilometers (3,900 square miles), of which about 60 percent is in Bangladesh and the rest in India.
The Sundarbans (pronounced SHUN-der-buns) is a vast mass of unbroken swampland between the Ganges and Brahmaputra rives and the Bay of Bengal. Situated in eastern India and western Bangladesh it is a complex network of tidal waterways, rivers, channels and creeks set among tropical, evergreen forest, mangrove forest with a flats and small. It contains three wildlife sanctuaries.
The Sundarbans contains about 400 to 500 Bengal tigers, the largest colony left on the planet. The Royal Bengal tigers found here are unique because they are almost amphibians and spend long periods of times in the saline water, and are infamous man-eaters. Salt water crocodiles, leopards, spotted deer, monkeys, jackals, pythons, wild bears and fishing cats are also found here. The Sundarbans is famous for honey, wax and herbal medicines.
Sundarbans means "beautiful forest" and the region abounds with Sundari trees, which are found nowhere else in the world. In “Spell of the Tiger,” a book about the Sundarbans, Sy Montgomery wrote: "nature does not obey the rules; fish climb trees; the animals drink salt water; the roots of the trees grow upwards towards the sky instead of down toward the earth; the tide may run in opposite directions simultaneously in the same creek...Here the tigers do not obey the same rules by which tigers everywhere else govern their lives. They hunt people. They take their prey even in broad daylight. They will even swim out into the Bay of Bengal, where the waves may be more than two feet high. They often swim from India to Bangladesh. The tigers are bound by neither day nor night, land nor water; these tigers, some say, are creatures of neither heaven nor earth."
Ari Shapiro of NPR wrote: The Sundarbans is where three major rivers — the Ganges, Meghna and Brahamaputra — blend into the Bay of Bengal and tides smudge the boundaries between land and water. It's a patchwork of islands, some as small as sandbars, others miles long. And it's home to the world's largest mangrove forests, nearly 4,000 square miles stretching across India and Bangladesh, full of trees that survive on the border of land and brackish water. "There are no borders here to divide freshwater from salt, river from sea. The tides reach as far as 200 miles inland, and every day, thousands of acres of forest disappear underwater, only to reemerge hours later," author Amitav Ghosh wrote in his 2004 novel, The Hungry Tide. [Source: Ari Shapiro, NPR, May 20, 2016]
According to UNESCO: “The Sundarbans mangrove forest, one of the largest such forests in the world (140,000 ha), lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal.... The site is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, and presents an excellent example of ongoing ecological processes. The area is known for its wide range of fauna, including 260 bird species, the Bengal tiger and other threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile and the Indian python.
Four protected areas in the Sundarbans are enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Sundarbans National Park, Sundarbans West, Sundarbans South and Sundarbans East Wildlife Sanctuaries. Sundarbans National Park is a vast mass of unbroken swampland between the Ganges and Brahmaputra rives and the Bay of Bengal with an intricate network of rivers, channels and creeks and mangrove swamps and evergreen forests.
Getting There: By Air: The nearest airport to the Sundarbans National Park is Netaji Subhash International Airport at Dumdum, Kolkata, which is 165 kilometers away from the National Park. By Road: Sundarbans is well-connected to its neighbouring areas and Kolkata is at a distance of about 110 kilometers from here. By Train: The nearest railway station link is Canning. It is approximately 48 kilometers away from the Sundarbans National Park.
Geography of the Sunderbans
According to UNESCO: The Sundarbans lie on the delta of Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in the Bay of Bengal. A cluster of low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal, spread across India and Bangladesh, make up the Sundarbans, which is among the largest active delta regions in the world. The Sundarbans got its name from a mangrove plant called 'sundari', which translated means a beautiful forest. The area is riddled with rivers and various creeks and tributaries criss-cross through it. [Source: UNESCO]
“The site lies southeast of Kolkata in the District of West Bengal and forms part of the Gangetic Delta, which borders on the Bay of Bengal. The Sundarbans, covering some 10,000 square kilometers of mangrove forest and water, is part of the world's largest delta formed from sediments deposited by three great rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, which converge on the Bengal Basin.
“The whole Sundarbans area is intersected by an intricate network of interconnecting waterways, of which the larger channels are often a kilometer or two in width and run in a north-south direction. These waterways now carry little freshwater as they are mostly cut off from the Ganges, the outflow of which has shifted from the Hooghly-Bhagirathi channels progressively eastwards since the 17th century. This is due to subsidence of the Bengal Basin and a gradual eastward tilting of the overlying crust. In the Indian Sundarbans, the western portion receives some freshwater through the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system but that portion designated as the tiger reserve is essentially land-locked, its rivers having become almost completely cut off from the main freshwater sources over the last 600 years. Thus, waterways in the tiger reserve are maintained largely by the diurnal tidal flow, the average rise and fall being about 2.15 meters on the coast and up to 5.68 meters on Sagar Island.
“The land is constantly being changed, moulded and shaped by the action of the tides, with erosion processes more prominent along estuaries and deposition processes along the banks of inner estuarine waterways influenced by the accelerated discharge of silt from seawater. About half of the Sundarbans is under water and the rest of the landscape is characterized by low-lying alluvial islands and mudbanks, with sandy beaches and dunes along the coast.”
The Sundarbans are “in the 24-Paraganas District of West Bengal and forms part of the Gangetic Delta, which borders on the Bay of Bengal. Chamta, Consists of Matla, Goashaba, Chhotahardi, Mayadwip, Gona and Baghmara forest blocks, which are bounded by the Matla/Bidya and Haribhanga/Raimangal rivers to the east and west, respectively. The northern boundary is buffered by Netidhopani and Chandkhali forest blocks. 21°31' -21°53'N, 88°37'-89009'E”
According to UNESCO: “The Sundarbans contain the world's largest mangrove forests and one of the most biologically productive of all natural ecosystems. Located at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers between India and Bangladesh, its forest and waterways support a wide range of' fauna including a number of species threatened with extinction. The mangrove habitat supports the single largest population of tigers in the world which have adapted to an almost amphibious life, being capable of swimming for long distances and feeding on fish, crab and water monitor lizards. They are also renowned for being “man-eaters”, most probably due to their relatively high frequency of encounters with local people.
“The islands are also of great economic importance as a storm barrier, shore stabiliser, nutrient and sediment trap, a source of timber and natural resources, and support a wide variety of aquatic, benthic and terrestrial organisms. They are an excellent example of the ecological processes of monsoon rain flooding, delta formation, tidal influence and plant colonisation. Covering 133,010 ha, the area is estimated to comprise about 55 percent forest land and 45 percent wetlands in the form of tidal rivers, creeks, canals and vast estuarine mouths of the river. About 66 percent of the entire mangrove forest area is estimated to occur in Bangladesh, with the remaining 34 percent in India.
“The immense tidal mangrove forests of Bangladeshs’ Sundarbans Forest Reserve, is in reality a mosaic of islands of different shapes and sizes, perennially washed by brackish water shrilling in and around the endless and mind-boggling labyrinths of water channels. The site supports exceptional biodiversity in its terrestrial, aquatic and marine habitats; ranging from micro to macro flora and fauna. The Sundarbans is of universal importance for globally endangered species including the Royal Bengal Tiger, Ganges and Irawadi dolphins, estuarine crocodiles and the critically endangered endemic river terrapin (Batagur baska). It is the only mangrove habitat in the world for Panthera tigris tigris species.
“The entire mangrove forest extends over an area of 4,262 square kilometers , of which 2,320 square kilometers is forest and the rest is water, and is called Sundarbans owing to the dominance of the tree species Heritiera fomes , locally known as 'sundari'. This marsh vegetation consists of elements of the Malayan Peninsular and Polynesian regions, together with some Indo-Chinese, Ethiopian and a few of the New World. It is not found elsewhere except in a small part of the Mahanadi and Godaveri deltas to the southwest and the Bay Islands.”
The site is important because: 1) “The Sundarbans is the largest area of mangrove forest in the world and the only one that is inhabited by the tiger. The land area in the Sundarbans is constantly being changed, moulded and shaped by the action of the tides, with erosion processes more prominent along estuaries and deposition processes along the banks of inner estuarine waterways influenced by the accelerated discharge of silt from sea water. Its role as a wetland nursery for marine organisms and as a climatic buffer against cyclones is a unique natural process.”
2) “The mangrove ecosystem of the Sundarbans is considered to be unique because of its immensely rich mangrove flora and mangrove-associated fauna. Some 78 species of mangroves have been recorded in the area making it the richest mangrove forest in the world. It is also unique as the mangroves are not only dominant as fringing mangroves along the creeks and backwaters, but also grow along the sides of rivers in muddy as well as in flat, sandy areas.”
3) “The Sundarbans provides a significant example of on-going ecological processes as it represents the process of delta formation and the subsequent colonization of the newly formed deltaic islands and associated mangrove communities. These processes include monsoon rains, flooding, delta formation, tidal influence and plant colonization. As part of the world’s largest delta, formed from sediments deposited by three great rivers; the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, and covering the Bengal Basin, the land has been moulded by tidal action, resulting in a distinctive physiology.”
4) “One of the largest remaining areas of mangroves in the world, the Sundarbans supports an exceptional level of biodiversity in both the terrestrial and marine environments, including significant populations of globally endangered cat species, such as the Royal Bengal Tiger. Population censuses of Royal Bengal Tigers estimate a population of between 400 to 450 individuals, a higher density than any other population of tigers in the world.
Humans and the Sundarban Economy
The Sundarbans is home to around 4 million to 7.5 million people depending on how the area and its inhabitants are defined. Perhaps a few hundred thousand people live in less developed parts of the region. People have lived in the Sundarbans for some time. According to UNESCO: “Baghmara Forest Block contains the ruins of a city built by the Chaand Sandagar merchant community in approximately A.D. 200-300. Much later, during the Moghul Empire, Raja Basand Rai and his nephew took refuge in the Sundarbans from the advancing armies of Emperor Akbar. The buildings they erected subsequently fell to Portuguese pirates, salt smugglers and dacoits in the 17th century.
The main human activities are agriculture, fishing, forestry, honey production and herbal plant collection. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis depend on natural resources from the Sunderbands. Nearly half of Bangladesh’s timber come from forests there as well a large portion of the wood for charcoal production. Other valued products include wild honey and plants used for baskets, roof thatching and herbal medicines. Two principal tree species dominate the Sundarban forests: sundari trees, which are of tough timber, and gewa trees, a softer wood used for making newsprint. Sundari trees grow about 15–18 meters (50–60 feet) high. Teak and bamboo are grown in the central forests.
Ari Shapiro of NPR wrote: The Sundarbans “is the source of timber used for a variety of purposes, including pulp for the domestic paper industry, poles for electric power distribution, and leaves for thatching for dwellings. There is also a profitable semiwild honey industry based in the Sundarbans for those intrepid or desperate enough to risk it. Not only are the bees sometimes uncooperative, but the Sundarbans is also the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, and several instances are reported each year of honey collectors or lumbermen being killed by man-eaters. [Source: Ari Shapiro, NPR, May 20, 2016]
Thousands of people enter the forest every day. Many of them are former rice farmers whose land was flooded with seawater. Kennedy Warne wrote in National Geographic: “Half a million Bangladeshis risk mamu's displeasure by coming into the Sundarbans each year to harvest its products. They come as fishermen, woodcutters, palm-frond cutters, cutters of thatching grass, and harvesters of wild honey. The workers spend weeks at a time in the forest, living off its bounty as they earn a few taka for their labor. Seafood, fruits, medicines, tea, sugar, even the raw materials for beer and cigarettes are to be found in the Sundarbans larder.
Sundarbans and the Environment
Sundarbans provides a number of positive environmental purposes. It supplies habitats for a variety of animals and verty fertile agricultural land for farmers and serves as a vast breakwater for southwestern Bangladesh and part of eastern India. The coastal forest stop wave-driven erosion and captures riverine sediments, creating near land where the sediment meets the sea, and helps temper the destruction from cyclones and tsunamis.
Peter Schwartzstein wrote in National Geographic: For the 7.5 million people who live in the region, the forest is a natural barrier against tides and cyclones. But as people cut the trees and rising seas bring saline waters, the forest and the land itself are shrinking. More than a million coastal residents have already migrated north. Some farmers in Bangladeshrefer to their homeland as a divine prank: The soil is fantastically fertile, but you’re always in danger of getting washed away. In 1998 an especially monstrous flood inundated about 70 percent of the country.[Source: Peter Schwartzstein, National Geographic, June 18, 2019]
“One thing the region’s coastal communities felt they could always bank on, though, is the Sundarbans...This dense swamp of flood-tolerant trees stands as a green wall, absorbing storm surges and blunting even the worst cyclones. For villagers, the forest is also an abundant source of honey and its waters a source of fish. “The Sundarbans is our mother,” said Joydev Sardar, secretary of the fishermen’s association in Harinagar, Bangladesh. “She protects, feeds, and employs us.”
“But after years of abuse from man and nature, the mangroves seem to be nearing their limits. Illicit logging, mostly for building materials to house the region’s booming population, has thinned out the periphery of the forest. At the same time, increasing water salinity caused by the encroaching sea is killing off many higher value, storm-stopping tree species, such as the sundari that gives the forest its name. The salinity assault comes from both land and sea: Upstream dams on rivers in India have reduced freshwater flow into the Sundarbans, while sea-level rise caused by climate change is flushing more salt water into the mangroves.
“The salinity front is just going up and up and up,” said Mashfiqus Salehin, a professor at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology’s Institute of Water and Flood Management. “New areas will salinize, and moderately salinized areas might become unlivable. It’s becoming a big problem.” In the worst-case scenario, in which sea levels rise by more than six feet this century, Bangladesh alone stands to lose some 800 square miles of mangroves in the Sundarbans. The best-case scenario is a loss of roughly 80 square miles. Salehin and other scientists fear even that much might prove disastrous for a country so poor the forest is besieged by human needs. The land itself is disappearing. Without the tangled roots of the mangroves to stabilize it, land erodes into the sea—and with upstream dams trapping river sediment, it’s not replenished as it once was.
Sundarbans and Global Warming
Climate change has started to reshape some parts of the Sundarbans through sea-level rises and coastal erosion and produced a wave climate refugees. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted in 2007 that rising sea levels could submerge 17 per cent of Bangladesh by 2050, creating 20 million “environmental refugees” A 45 centimeter (17.7 inch) rise in sea levels would destroy 75 per cent of the Sundarbans, according to UNESCO, and subsidence means that net water levels are already rising 3.1 millimeters a year in parts of the forest. [Source: Jeremy Page, The Times, November 3, 2008]
Ari Shapiro of NPR wrote: “With every high tide, a huge amount of land in the Sundarbans disappears...Rising seas mean the land will shrink even more. Tides are taking away chunks of land that don't return.” Bittu Saghal, a conservationist and the editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine, said: "So tigers, people, everybody gets squeezed into smaller land areas. When fields and farms and residential areas get completely unusable and people try to move into tiger habitats, there is an inevitable clash [that] is going to take place. People will die; tigers will die." [Source: Ari Shapiro, NPR, May 20, 2016]
Peter Schwartzstein wrote in National Geographic: “It was when the body of a long-dead friend surfaced near her front door that Bulu Haldar knew her house was as good as gone. For weeks, the embankment shielding East Dhangmari, in the Khulna district of southwestern Bangladesh, had been threatening to sink into the Pusur River. First, a ferocious storm had ripped into the outer layer of concrete. Then, at the end of 2017, the river had begun eating into the porous earthen wall itself. Locals rushed in sandbags, but that bought only a few days’ respite. When the river finally surged into the cemetery across from Haldar’s garden, disinterring skeletons and contaminating the village’s drinking pools, it filled her one-room hut waist-deep in muddy brown water. “There was nothing else I could do to protect my house,” she said. “We were powerless, like children.” [Source: Peter Schwartzstein, National Geographic, June 18, 2019]
“Haldar, a meticulously dressed widow of about 50, had at least had some inkling of what was to come. She’d watched as the nearby Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest that flanks the village, had retreated, its trees looking increasingly weedy. She’d noted how the water appeared to draw strength from the forest’s weakness. The only surprise, Haldar insisted, is that the village’s earthworks held out for so long. “The trees defended us, but we treated them very badly,” she said. “So now we are all suffering the consequences.”
“In Bangladesh and the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal, there are thousands of villages like East Dhangmari—places that are losing their natural defenses against climate change just as it is intensifying. The land is paper-flat and crisscrossed by rivers bulging with meltwater from the Himalaya. Cyclones frequently roar in off the Bay of Bengal, sometimes killing thousands. Flooding is pervasive.
The islands in India’s Hugli River, in the Ganges estuary on the western edge of the Sundarbans region, illustrate advanced stages of the decay. At least three islands that a century ago were covered in mangroves—Lohachahara, Suparibhanga, and Bedford—have vanished. Others are eroding fast: Sagar Island has shrunk by about 20 square miles since the mid-20th century, even as its population has swollen with new arrivals from its disappearing neighbors. Crop-growing conditions on Sagar have deteriorated so much that residents now survive largely off seasonal labor elsewhere.
“In some parts of the Sundarbans, the sea is advancing about 200 yards a year. “The people around the Sundarbans will lose a lot,” said Tuhin Ghosh, an associate professor at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. “This is happening now.” But even cities like Kolkata and Dhaka that lie some distance from the vanishing mangroves, he added, will find themselves “extremely exposed to cyclones and storm surges.”
“In February 2018 part of the embankment that holds back the Chunar River west of East Dhangmari, Bangladesh, collapsed for the third time in a year. Sixteen houses were swept away in what for locals had become an almost routine tragedy. But as the catalog of misfortunes mounted over the following months, even the oldest, most judicious residents knew these were no ordinary crises. Rice yields during the 2018 dry-season harvest were way down—often well under a ton an acre, which pushed up food prices. In many fields, vegetables simply wouldn’t grow in the salty soils. “Because of the water damage, it sometimes seems like only the carpenters have work,” said farmer Bimol Sardar.
“In the spring of 2018, a disease that has proliferated across some of southern Bangladesh struck this quiet corner of the country. Cholera, thriving in the hotter temperatures and increasingly brackish waters of the Sundarbans, has come roaring back in the swamps in which it was supposedly born. When I visited, the local doctor was overwhelmed. “Almost every one of my patients is here because of water-related diseases that were nowhere near as much of a problem before,” said Shivapada Mondol. “The circumstances are verging on dangerous.” On a stretcher outside his office, a skeletally thin old man retched loudly; the man’s daughter tried to push more fluids into him.
“Finally, as if to illustrate the impossibility of living in the new Sundarbans, several dozen families pulled up stakes in April and moved to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. No longer able to make much of a living off the land, they opted to join the million to 1.5 million other villagers from southern coastal communities who’ve already relocated to the overloaded city, according to Atiq Rahman, director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies. The World Bank suggests that by 2050, more than 13 million Bangladeshis—including most of those on the margins of the Sundarbans—might migrate because of climate-related crises. The forecast in West Bengal is similarly alarming.”
Combating Environmental Damage and Climate Chnage in the Sundarbans
Peter Schwartzstein wrote in National Geographic: ““Despite the challenges, some people here remain guardedly optimistic about the future. The governments on both sides of the border have gotten a grip on the worst of the mangrove cutting, heavily punishing offenders, and they’ve learned from past natural disasters. By building more cyclone shelters and deploying up to 150,000 volunteers before major storms strike, Bangladeshi officials have drastically cut death tolls. In even the poorest parts of the Sundarbans, villagers have displayed an impressive capacity for adaptation. As salinity surges, they’ve abandoned rice farming in favor of shrimping.[Source: Peter Schwartzstein, National Geographic, June 18, 2019]
“But in the battle to preserve the mangroves—and in the long run, perhaps Bangladesh itself—the difficulties are increasing. Dhaka has green-lit the construction of a large, Indian-backed, coal-fired power station at Rampal, on the edge of the Sundarbans, a move that could pave the way for other polluting industries. China is proposing more dams in the Brahmaputra basin, potentially jeopardizing the mangroves’ remaining freshwater supply. And the climate keeps on changing, bringing ever more erratic rains, storms, and temperature swings.
As the troubles mount, some locals wonder: In the land that mangroves built, will climate change be king? “The Sundarbans built this country,” Bulu Haldar said. “Perhaps the Sundarbans”—or the loss of this forested region—“will destroy it.”
Wildlife in the Sundarbans
The Sunderbans contains a rich variety of flora and fauna, including hundreds of species of birds and threatened species such as the Bengal tiger, estuarine crocodile, Irrawaddy dolphin and Indian python.Kennedy Warne wrote in National Geographic: “Sundarbans—literally "beautiful forest"” is the largest surviving single tract of mangroves in the world. In the forest's most luxuriant sections a dozen mangrove species, from feathery golpata palms to the towering sundri tree, form labyrinthine stands up to 60 feet tall. Beneath the sundri, the glutinous mud bristles with the tree's breathing roots. Twelve inches high and as thick as deer antlers, they grow so tightly together there's barely room to squeeze a foot between them. In drier areas, groves of semi-deciduous mangroves blaze red in the months before the monsoon. Spotted deer glide through the filtered shade, stopping abruptly when a troop of macaques shriek an alarm call. Woodpeckers hammer in the high branches, while on the forest floor dry leaves rustle with the scuttling of mud crabs. A butterfly called the Sundarban crow—charcoal with splashes of white—rests on a twig, opening and closing its wings like a prayer book. Evening falls with the junk junk junk sound of nightjars, then all is quiet. Night belongs to the tiger. [Source: Kennedy Warne, National Geographic Magazine, February 2007]
According to UNESCO: “The Sundarbans is the only remaining habitat in the lower Bengal Basin for a great variety of faunal species. Some of this variety, however, has already been lost owing to the reclamation of the broad transitional belt of habitat for agriculture, combined with the higher salinity resulting partly from the large-scale irrigation schemes in the upper reaches of the Ganges. Species include the Javan rhinoceros and water buffalo, swamp deer and Indian muntjac. Similarly, gharial and narrow-headed softshell turtle became locally extinct within the last 100 years. The tiger population is the largest in India. High population density, relative to the availability of prey, and the relatively high frequency of encounters with local people is probably largely responsible for the notorious man-eating habits of the Sundarbans tiger. The only ungulates are wild boar, main prey species of the tiger, and spotted deer, which is plentiful and often seen in association with rhesus macaque. Aquatic mammals that frequent the tidal waters include the Ganges dolphin, Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin, Irrawaddy dolphin and finless porpoise
“The Sajnakhali area contains a wealth of waterbirds, noteworthy residents including Asian open-bill stork, black-necked stork, greater adjutant, white ibis, swamp francolin, white-collared kingfisher, black-capped kingfisher and brown-winged kingfisher. This area is important for waders, a rare winter migrant and marsh birds. The Sundarbans provide important habitat for a variety of reptiles.
“The Sundarbans support a wealth of animal species including the single largest population of tiger and a number of other threatened aquatic mammals such as the Irrawaddy and Ganges River dolphins. The site also contains an exceptional number of threatened reptiles including the king cobra and significant populations of the endemic river terrapin which was once believed to be extinct. The property provides nesting grounds for marine turtles including the olive riley, green and hawksbill. Two of the four species of highly primitive horseshoe crab (Tachypleus gigas and Carcinoscorpius rotundicauda) are found here. The Sajnakhali area, listed as an Important Bird Area, contains a wealth of waterfowl and is of high importance for migratory birds.
“Its exceptional biodiversity is expressed in a wide range of flora; 334 plant species belonging to 245 genera and 75 families, 165 algae and 13 orchid species. It is also rich in fauna with 693 species of wildlife which includes; 49 mammals, 59 reptiles, 8 amphibians, 210 white fishes, 24 shrimps, 14 crabs and 43 mollusks species. The varied and colourful bird-life found along the waterways of the property is one of its greatest attractions, including 315 species of waterfowl, raptors and forest birds including nine species of kingfisher and the magnificent white-bellied sea eagle.
The species listed below represent a small sample of iconic and/or IUCN Red Listed animals and plants found in the property: 1) Buff-Striped Keelback (Amphiesma stolata); 2) Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans); 3) Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea); 4) Chital (Axis axis); 5) Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus); 6) Saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus); 7) Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis tristis); 8) Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata); 9) Red-necked Falcon (Falco chicquera); 10) Swamp Francolin (Francolinus gularis).
Tigers in the Sundarbans
Kennedy Warne wrote in National Geographic: “Evening falls with the junk junk junk sound of nightjars, then all is quiet. Night belongs to the tiger. These forests provide one of the last remaining haunts for the Bengal tiger and its only saltwater habitat. According to local tradition, the tiger's name, bagh, must never be uttered. To speak it is to summon it. So people talk of mamu, uncle. Uncle tiger, lord of the Sundarbans. [Source: Kennedy Warne, National Geographic Magazine, February 2007]
The Sundarbans contains about 400 to 500 Bengal tigers, the largest colony left on the planet. The Royal Bengal tigers found here are unique because they are almost amphibians and spend long periods of times in the saline water, and are infamous man-eaters. A census in 2003 estimated the tiger population was between 260 and 280 in the Indian part of the Sundarbans.
In “Spell of the Tiger,” a book about the Sundarbans, Sy Montgomery wrote: "Here the tigers do not obey the same rules by which tigers everywhere else govern their lives. They hunt people. They take their prey even in broad daylight. They will even swim out into the Bay of Bengal, where the waves may be more than two feet high. They often swim from India to Bangladesh. The tigers are bound by neither day nor night, land nor water; these tigers, some say, are creatures of neither heaven nor earth."
Jeremy Page wrote in The Times: “The Sundarbans is home to 440 tigers, according to a joint Indian and Bangladeshi survey done in 2004. Remarkably, tigers which normally inhabit inland jungle have adapted by learning to swim, catch fish and drink salty water. As fast as the animals have adapted, however, the forest has shrunk further and the human population around it has multiplied to 2.5 million. [Source: Jeremy Page in Munshiganj, The Times, November 3, 2008]
Ari Shapiro of NPR wrote: “Unlike most big cats, Bengal tigers are happy in water and swim for miles from island to island. But they're elusive. "The first time I saw a Bengal tiger in the Sundarbans, it was some 45 years after I'd first been there," says Bittu Saghal, a conservationist and the editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine. "So you only see them when they decide that you're good enough to be given a vision of orange and black." Not everyone wants to see them. People here have been eaten by tigers. The forest rangers who protect this habitat put their lives at risk every day. Locals keep telling me that tigers here are so stealthy that if I see one, it will only be as its jaws clamp down on my neck. They don't smile when they say this.” [Source: Ari Shapiro, NPR, May 20, 2016]
Tiger Attacks in the Sundarbans
About a third of all the tiger attacks in India occur in the Sundarbans. Estimates of tiger victims there range from 15 to 100 a year. There are also many attacks and deaths in the Bangladesh part of the Sundarbans. According to UNESCO: “An average of 45 people were killed annually by tigers from 1975-1982. This has caused certain conflicts with local people who use the adjacent Tiger Reserve for collection of honey and firewood and for fishing.”
Sundarbans tigers have been known to stalk their human prey for days and burst out of the water and snatch people sitting on boats. Their victims are mostly fishermen, honey gatherers and woodcutters who enter the swamps. Most villages in the Sundarbans have at least one tiger widow. One individual tiger, identified by his paw mark, killed at least 14 people.
One 64-year-old woodcutter told Time, "My friend was chopping down a tree while three of us stood guard around him, watching the jungle. Suddenly, a tiger leapt over our heads and attacked my friend at the tree. The tiger was dragging him away...so I grabbed my friend's legs and tried to pull him out of the tigers mouth." The tiger let go but the man died from his injuries and the woodcutter never went back into the jungle. A fishermen said, "I woke up to see the flash of a tiger as it jumped over me to attack the man sleeping next to me. The tiger killed him."
Sundarbans tigers have had a reputation for fierceness for a long time. In the late 1800s, according to British records, they killed roughly 700 people a year. In 1666 a French explorer wrote: "Among these islands, it is in many places dangerous to land, and great care must be had that the boat, which during the night is fastened to a tree, be kept at some distance from the shore, for it constantly happened that some person or another falls prey to tigers. these ferocious animals are very apt...to enter into the boat itself, while the people are asleep, and to carry away some victim."
Tiger Attacks in the Sundarbans in the Mid-2000s
Jeremy Page wrote in The Times: “The dawn mist was still clinging to the mangroves when the maneater struck. Mohammed Rasul Hussain, 45, had left his hut in southwestern Bangladesh at sunrise... with his younger brother, Sheraz, paddled across the river and into the vast Sundarbans forest. They moored their boat and set off on foot to search for crab, wild honey and firewood. [Source: Jeremy Page, The Times, November 3, 2008]
“Armed with only a machete, Mohammed did not stand a chance when the tiger leapt from the undergrowth, knocked him to the ground and sank its teeth into his neck. Sheraz could only scream in horror — and run. They buried Mohammed that evening, minus his left leg. “He knew the dangers of the forest, but he couldn’t do anything else to survive,” said Fatima, 30, his widow and the mother of their three children. “It would be better if there were no tigers here.”
“Maneaters have long been a problem here. Almost every village has its “tiger widows” and a shrine to Bon Bibi — the forest goddess who wards off the big cat. Since a hurricane last November, the conflict between tiger and human has escalated to a new pitch — highlighting the environmental threats to this unique habitat. Tigers have killed twenty people in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans so far this year, compared with six in 2007 and seven in 2006, according to forestry officials.
“Even more worryingly, tigers have started straying into villages on the forest’s fringes. “The situation is quite negative,” says Rajesh Chakma, the head forest ranger in Munshiganj, the worst affected district with 18 fatal attacks this year. “We could see many more attacks before the year’s end, as it’s mating season now and tigers become more aggressive.”
“In the village of Horinagar no one goes out after dark anymore, even to use the lavatory. On June 20 a tiger swam across the river from the Sundarbans and killed three people before villagers surrounded it, threw a noose around its neck and beat it to death with sticks. They summoned the forestry officials, as is required by law, but those who arrived could not provide help as they had no tranquillisers. “The tigers never used to come into the villages, never in my lifetime,” says Shri Poti Mundal, 40, whose father and sister-in-law were killed by the tiger. “If they had captured it and released it, it might have come back.” “Other villages in the area have started lighting fires at night or using loudspeakers from the local mosque to scare off any approaching tigers.”
Tiger Attacks in the Sundarbans in the 2010s
Ari Shapiro of NPR wrote: “An average of 25 people on the Indian side of the Sundarbans are attacked every year by tigers. Some experts warn that climate change will lead to even more tiger attacks... At the Netidhopani camp, on the western edge of the forest reserve, the most recent tiger sighting was just yesterday, around high noon. I meet forest guard Debnath Mondal. A long scar runs from his left ear down his jaw. His mouth is pulled to the right, near his cheek. “"It was the first of June, 2010, at 8:15 in the morning," he says, starting to tell me about how he got those scars.“Two weeks before, a team had gone out to attach a radio collar to a Bengal tiger. Mondal himself put the tracker on the animal. He believes the tiger remembered that, and hunted him down. [Source: Ari Shapiro, NPR, May 20, 2016]
“On that morning six years ago, his team of about a dozen men left the camp to visit a nearby watering hole, intending to take the data card out of a camera trap there. The radio collar on the tiger was sending GPS signals to a tracking center thousands of miles away in northern India. If someone had been watching those signals, he would have seen the blip of the tiger on the screen, slowly creeping through the forest to the watering hole where the men were working.
“The forest guards stood in a circle, facing out, scanning the trees for movement. And then everything happened very fast. "I saw the tiger coming in. Everyone shouted, 'Tiger!' But before I could do anything, it pounced on me. It landed on my thighs and chest and bit my face and head," Mondal says. He takes his hat off and shows me the line on his scalp where the tiger tore at him. "I had 80 stitches in my scalp. I can no longer see out of my left eye or hear out of my left ear."
“The forest guards fought the tiger with their bamboo poles until it ran away, and they rushed their bleeding friend to a speedboat to take him to the hospital, hours away. Three months after the attack, Mondal was back on patrol. He bears no ill will toward the animal that attacked him. "No," he says. "We are here to save the tiger. It gives us life. I have to be careful. And teach others to be careful. But I don't have any anger towards the animal." “The tiger is an integral part of the forest, he says. "I believe that if the forest is destroyed, man will not survive. We have to save the forest, the tiger, the trees are our life."
Why Are Sundarbans Tigers So Dangerous?
"Why the tigers are so different in their view of people," wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, "is subject to various speculations”: they drink salt water and are therefore more irritable; they acquired a taste for humans from eating incompletely cremated corpses floating down from the holy Ganges; the sucking ooze of the swamp makes it difficult for tigers to catch their prey; the dampness of the region discourages normal territoriality and made the tigers more aggressive.
One in every three Sundarbans tiger, Geoffrey C. Ward wrote in Smithsonian magazine "is thought to be an 'opportunistic man-eater,' one that will kill and eat any vulnerable human it happens to encounter. No one is certain why. Some believe the daily tides that wash away the tigers' scent markings force the animal to be unusually combative in order to hold on to their territories. Another possible explanation is that too much salt water might affect their livers, rendering them especially irritable." [Source: Geoffrey C. Ward, Smithsonian, November 1987]
One World Wildlife Fund scientist told TIME, "Every Sundarbans tiger is a potential man-eater. This trait for killing human beings had definitely been passed down to cubs." Efforts to shoot the man-eaters has proved ineffective. See Protection Against Man-eating Tigers Under Tiger Attacks
The people of the Sundarbans worship the man eaters as Dakisn Ray, the tiger god, often depicted as a warrior riding a tiger. Both Muslims and Hindus pay homage to Daksin Ray. "Everyone in Sundarbans knows that Daksin Ray can enter the body of any tiger at will," Sy Montgomery wrote.. "Thus all tigers are scared and holy, expressions of the power of God." People in this part of the Indian subcontinent believe in gunins, specialists who deal with the mystical powers of "tigers, crocodiles, ghost, illnesses and gods."
Jeremy Page wrote in The Times: ““Experts on tiger behaviour are unsure exactly what caused the rise in the attacks as they have not had time to do the necessary research. Most of them suspect that one central factor was Hurricane Sidr, which killed 4,000 people and destroyed 20 per cent of the Sundarbans in November 2007. “Tigers have been displaced to this area – and they are territorial,” Mr Chakma said. Many also blame a “perfect storm” of environmental problems — rising sea levels, the silting up of rivers, annual floods and salination of fresh water supplies. “The Sundarbans is dying,” said Ainun Nishat, the head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Bangladesh office and an expert on the Sundarbans. “The forest is getting degraded, so that means less prey,” he said. “And you must remember that this is not the tigers’ natural habitat.” [Source: Jeremy Page, The Times, November 3, 2008]
Protection Against Tigers in the Sundarbans
Tigers rarely attack an animal or a person that is facing them. To reduce the number of deaths in the Sundarbans, villagers wear clay masks on the back of their head to, theoretically, make a tiger approaching from behind think that the person is facing them. Masks on the back of the head worked for about two years before the tigers wizened to the trick, and attacked anyway.
In another effort to protect villagers in the Sundarbans, clay dummies dressed as farmers, woodcutters and fisherman were electrically wired to household batteries and even car batteries that gave attacking tigers a 230 volt jolt when they jumped the dummies. The plan eventually turned out to be unmanageable. It was too time-consuming and dangerous to change the batteries.
There are also forest guards and patrols. Ari Shapiro of NPR wrote: “In a remote corner of eastern India, far in the jungle and hours by boat from any village, there is a camp with a brightly colored shrine to a forest goddess. Behind a tall fence, a statue of Bonbibi wears silks and garlands, with a gold headdress. She shelters a boy from a tiger. Every day, forest guard Bhabotaron Paik prostrates himself before the goddess and makes an offering of sweets before he goes out on patrol. When he has finished the ritual — the puja — Paik explains that protection from Bonbibi comes with conditions. "We will not take more than we need from the jungle. That is our vow to the goddess." “The goddess Bonbibi — revered by Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike — reminds people here to live lightly on the land. But the landscape is changing, despite the people's small footprint.” [Source: Ari Shapiro, NPR, May 20, 2016]
Living with Tigers in the Sundarbans
Ari Shapiro of NPR wrote: “In the village of Rajat Jubilee, people depend on the jungle for food and income. Sometimes they ply the coastline for crabs or go deeper into the forest for honey. And activities like that can make them vulnerable to tigers. "I've seen my friends being caught by the tiger. And some of the women in this village have been widowed because their husbands were taken away by the tiger," says Arjan Mondal. [Source: Ari Shapiro, NPR, May 20, 2016]
“He has worked as a fisherman here for 20 years. We sit in his dusty courtyard outside a mud brick hut, surrounded by tropical fruit trees and a small plot of vegetables. A line of well-trained ducks from his pond waddles by to eat out of a bowl. Mondal tells us that three times when he's been fishing out in the jungle, a tiger has crept up on him and he's had to fight it off with a pole.
“Over the years, villagers have tried different ways of preventing tiger attacks. At one point, they made special backward-facing masks with a face to wear on the back of the head. People thought this would confuse the tigers, since cats like to sneak up on people from behind. It didn't work.
“Sometimes the animals even venture into this village, searching for a meal. Arati Sardar, who lives in a hut near the river with her children, raises bees for honey and keeps goats and chickens for food. One morning, she woke up to find that a goat was missing. "So when we came out of the house, we saw the track marks and we guessed that it was a tiger," she says. "Later on, people who were near the river found blood, and everybody knew that the tiger had come in to take the goat."
Using Solar Energy to Help People Live with Tigers
Ari Shapiro of NPR wrote: “The World Wildlife Fund came up with a plan to allow people to make a living in the village instead of foraging deep in the jungle — and scare tigers away from villagers' homes. It's a solar energy project, run via a power station on land donated by the local community. "If the people are accessing the clean energy, you have time to spend during the evening and also during the day because it gives you opportunities to do different livelihood activities than they were doing," says Ratul Saha, who runs the Sundarbans program for the World Wildlife Fund-India. "Spending less time inside the forest means less exposure to the tiger." Beyond this, having light deters tigers and other wildlife and means people can see their own surroundings more easily. [Source: Ari Shapiro, NPR, May 20, 2016]
“Renewable-energy experts hope that underdeveloped places like this can skip straight to clean energy without ever relying on fossil fuels, in the same way that they got cellphones without ever depending on landlines — "leapfrogging" technology. Minoti Aulia, 40, runs her village's committee of women — and the solar power station. With electricity, "everything has changed," she says. "From cooking our meals to children studying for long hours to not feeling scared — the fear of darkness. And women have now got engaged in a lot of other work, which earlier they were not able to because there was no light."
“Solar power arrived in this village about five years ago. Until that time, people lived pretty much the same kind of lives their grandparents did. Nighttime lighting has changed everything. The fisherman Mondal no longer has to venture far away from the village. The women in his household make products that they sell at the local market. They don't have to set aside their weaving or embroidery when the sun goes down.
“Before solar lighting came, people tended to stay in their huts after dark. There was nothing to do outside, and you might get bitten by a snake or attacked by a tiger. Now, when the sun goes down and the air has cooled, this little village completely comes to life. Each of these little shacks has opened up for business, each one with a bulb hanging down from the ceiling.
“In one shop, people huddle around a television set. In another, 21-year-old Pintu Mondal is making a sale. "I've got cellphones here, printers — it's a cybercafe," he says. “He says this is like a little city now, it's a business hub. He's wearing a digital bracelet like a Fitbit that sends his health statistics to his smartphone: heart rate, number of steps he's walked that day.
“Mondal says his parents and grandparents don't understand this at all. But they do understand that this shop has made him financially independent, without having to go into the jungle and cross paths with a tiger. “And over at the hut of Sardar, who lost the goat to a tiger, her 17-year-old daughter Ria can now study after dark without having to rely on dim, smoky kerosene lamps, as she used to. "What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you hope your life will be?" I ask her. "I want to serve human beings," she says
Conservation in the Sundarbans
Bangladesh and India are working together under a United Nations plan to protect the Sundarbans and its flora and fauna from problems such as poaching, illegal logging, diminished fresh water flow, increased salinity, oil pollution from the nearby Mongla Port, Bangladesh’s second busiest port, and the top-dying of trees.
According to UNESCO: The property is situated within a larger UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that was designated in November, 2001. It is well protected and largely undisturbed as it is surrounded by three wildlife sanctuaries which act as a buffer zone... However, the salinity of the Indian Sundarbans, largely due to the eastward shift of the mouth of the Ganges, is being influenced by upstream diversion of up to 40 percent of the dry season flow of the Ganges, the repercussions of which are not clearly understood. Oil spills are a potential threat which cause immense damage, especially to aquatic fauna and seabirds and probably also to the forest itself into which oil could be carried by high tides.
“The legal protection provided to the property is adequate. The Indian Forest Act, 1927 with its amendments, Forest Conservation Act 1980, Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and Environment Protection Act 1986 are being effectively implemented, with rules and regulation regarding environmental pollution strictly enforced. The existing laws are sufficiently strict in respect to the protection and conservation of the property.
“The property is currently in a good state of conservation with regular maintenance undertaken according to a set maintenance schedule. There is an approved Management Plan of the property. With the existing infrastructure, the Forest Department is making its best efforts, although there is a need to maintain and enhance the level of financial and human resources to effectively manage the property. This includes an ecosystem approach that integrates the management of the existing protected areas with other key activities occurring in the property, including fisheries and tourism. There is a need to develop alternate livelihood options for the local population to eliminate the dependence of people on the Sundarbans ecosystem for sustenance. Maintenance of participatory approaches in planning and management of the property is needed to reinforce the support and commitment from local communities and NGOs to the conservation and management of the property. Research and monitoring activities also require adequate resources.”
Travel Information for Sundarbans Tiger Reserve
The best Time to visit Sundarbans National Park and Tiger Reserve is September to May. Many people arrange a trip to the Subdarbans through a travel company in Kolkata (Calcutta). The main tourist center in India Sundarbans region is Sajnekhali in the heart of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, where the state tourist department has a lodge with basic amenities. Sajnakhali Wildlife Sanctuary is about 1½ hours by boat from Gosaba. Most tourist boats go past Gosaba. Some tourists travel to Gosaba on their way to Pakhiralay (the home of the birds). Foreigners need a special permit to enter Sunderbans, which is issued in Kolkata by the Department of Tourism, Government of West Bengal. A small Jungle Camp is at Bali island, outside the tiger reserve and Sunderban Tiger Camp at Dayapur, Gosaba.
The entry point to Sunderban Tiger Reserve is either Sonakhali via Canning, or Bagna via Dhamakhali. For visiting South 24 Parganas Forest Division, on the western part of river Matla, the entry points are Namkhana, Raidighi or Jharkhali via Canning/Basanti.. Entry Permits are available at Canning, Sonakhali and Bagna for STR and at Canning, Namkhana and Raidighi for Western part of Sunderban Forest.
Getting There: The nearest town to the Sundarbans is Gosaba, 50 kilometers away. Sundarbans is accessible only by riverine waterways. From Kolkata there are suburban train to Canning and road transport to Namkhana, Raidighi, Sonakhali and Najat from where Motor launch services are available for Sundarbans. By Air: The nearest airport to the Sundarbans National Park is Netaji Subhash International Airport at Dumdum, Kolkata, which is 165 kilometers away from the National Park. By Road: Sundarbans is well-connected to its neighbouring areas and Kolkata is about 130 kilometers away. Above mentioned embarkation points from Kolkata are: Namkhana (105 kilometers), Sonakhali (100 kilometers), Raidighi (76 kilometers), Canning (64 kilometers), Najat (92 kilometers). By Train: The nearest railway station link is Canning. It is approximately 48 kilometers away from the Sundarbans National Park.
By Water : Approximate time taken between various points are: 1) From Namkhana – Bhagabatpur Crocodile Project (2.5 hours) Sagar Island (2.5 hours) Jambudwip (3.5 hours); 2) From Sajnekhali – Sudhanyakhali (40 minutes) Buridabri (Tiger Project Area) (5 hours) Netidhopari (3.5 hours) Holiday Island (3 hours); 3) From Sonakhali – Gosaba (1 hour); 4) From Raidighi – Kalas (5 hours).
Places in the Sundarbans
The Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve boasts three wildlife sanctuaries: the Haliday Island Wildlife Sanctuary, the Sajnekhali Wild Life Sanctuary and the Lothian Wildlife Sanctuary. Haliday Wildlife Sanctuary, also known as Haliday Island, is situated on the Matla river, very close to the Bay of Bengal. One can spot a diverse kind of wildlife here, like spotted deer, wild boar, barking deer and rhesus macaque. Various varieties of birds also live on this island. Tigers are occasional visitors . One can also find plenty of fish swimming in the Matla river. The wildlife sanctuary covers an area of 3.5 square kilometers.
Sajnekhali Watchtower is one of the most popular watchtowers in the Sundarbans and gives one a good opportunity to view wildlife at close quarters. Most of the tiger sightings are done from this tower. Some other wildlife like axis deer, wild boars and crocodiles may also be seen from here. The tower is also sought by birdwatchers, who can catch stunning views of seven species of the kingfisher, plovers, lap-wings, curfews, whimprel, sandpipers, white bellied sea eagle and pelicans. The tower can host up to 25 people at a time and is close by a sweet water pond, where animals come to drink. The expansive land beyond the pond is uncovered by vegetation and gives an easy view of animals. Other attractions within its premises are Bonobibi Temple, a museum and a crocodile park.
Netidhopani Camp has a picturesque location. Most tourists visit at the end of their journey to the Sundarbans delta. The camp is known for a tiger watchtower that is stationed near a pond and can hold up to 20 people. Another attraction nearby is a 400-year-old temple, which is in ruins. There is a popular legend associated with the tower, which goes that a woman called Behula was taking her dead husband's body in a boat and rowing past the bank that is now called Netidhopani. During her journey, she saw a woman, whose child was constantly disturbing her, washing clothes on the bank. Annoyed, she splashed some water on the boy, who suddenly became lifeless. After finishing her laundry, the woman again sprinkled some water on the child while chanting some mantras, and the boy rose to life. Excited and hopeful, Behula went to the lady (Netidhopani) to ask her to raise her husband.
Kalash Island Tiger Project is a part of Sundarbans National Park that lies at the estuary of River Matla. The royal Bengal tigers often come here to drink sweet water from a pond near the camp. During winters, this place becomes the breeding ground of the Olive Ridley turtles that arrive in great numbers on this beach for nesting. Being close to the core area, visitors to this forest are allowed to go to the beach only with armed forest guards. One can also spot a diverse variety of coastal birds on Kalash Island and thus many birdwatchers consider it a favorite site. One can also visit the Crocodile Project at Bhagbatpur from here and see a variety of crocodiles that are housed there.
Bhagabatpur Crocodile Project is the only crocodile project in West Bengal, the Bhagabatpur Crocodile Project and has emerged as an important tourist site. It is located on the bank of the Saptamukhi estuary, adjacent to the Lothian Island (one of the wildlife sanctuaries in the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve). Tourists are drawn to this place not just for the hatchery of estuarine crocodile and Batagur Baska species of tortoise, but also for the amazingly dense mangrove forest at the confluence of Saptamukhi river system. The natural beauty of this place is equally inviting. The project houses crocodiles of varying ages. Though this place is easily accessible through Namkhana, one can also visit it from Sajnekhali. Undoubtedly, it provides one with once in a lifetime experiences that are not easy to forget.
Burirdabri Camp is best known for its watchtower. It is the last location in the extreme southeastern part of the Sundarbans, located near the Bangladesh border. A beautiful spot deep in the forest, it is a lovely point to visit. The camp also has a popular viewpoint called as the Raimongal View Point and one can reach to it through a mud walk and a mangrove cage trail. While taking the mud walk, one can chance upon exciting views of ground fauna like snails, varieties of crabs and mollusc. The watchtower has a capacity to host 10 people at a time and can also be used as a vantage point for the Bangladesh Sundarbans. While going there you can also stop over at Jhinga Khali and other islands.
Looking for a Tiger in the Sundarbans
Todd Pitock wrote in The Atlantic: “In a clearing of dense jungle, near the India-Bangladesh border, I step from my thatched bungalow andam transfixed by a spangled cosmos, a sky lit with sparkling sequins...The night sky, here in the Sundarbans, is something different altogether. I share my wonder with Roy, my guide and caretaker. “It would be better if you didn’t go out at night,” he says, with a polite but reproving smile. “Tigers?” “Well … no. Snakes,” he replies. “And scorpions. It’s not really a problem. Well, but you never know.” [Source: Todd Pitock, The Atlantic June 2012]
“The Sundarbans “is a wild place, populated with fierce animals and dotted with small villages where cattle dung remains the primary source of fuel. Visitors might feel they were stepping into The Jungle Book, except that aside from designated settlements, the mangroves are so thick and dangerous that visitors are forbidden to step here at all. Instead, you move slowly by boat along rivers, canals, and creeks that divide the islands.
“I rode three hours from Kolkata by SUV, past bucolic swampland and rice paddies, before an hour-long boat ride deposited me at Sundarbans Jungle Camp, a low-key resort comprising a few bungalows and an open-air dining room and appended to a village of 6,000 people. Founded 10 years ago by local conservationists, the lodge is now managed by a conservation outfit hoping to use the largesse of tourists to protect the fragile ecosystem and provide a few jobs.When I arrived, the Sundarbans had a lovely calm, making serenity easily mistakable for security. But this place can be perilous, a setting for monsoons and floods, and a home for crocodiles and estuarine sharks. More famously, it is also a reserve of the swamp tiger, a rare feline that subsists on deer but will consume a Sundarbans villager every couple of weeks or so.
“Hoping to glimpse one, I hop a boat with Roy for a marine safari. The waterways widen and narrow as we move between dense stands of trees and broad expanses of sea and sky. Roy and I are joined by the guard-cum-guide that the West Bengal Forest Department required me to have along, as well as the pilot and two deckhands who periodically fetch tea as we drift, all peering into impossibly dense foliage for signs of wildlife. Iam astonished to remember that more than 4 million people live in the Sundarbans — during eight hours plying the water, we see only a handful of fishermen casting nets from their wooden skiffs. What we do see in abundance is birds: kingfishers, egrets, and herons, their wings pulling colorful chests and heads against the sun-bleached sky. A massive white crocodile suns on a bank, and everyone leaps to attention. The deckhands brandish their cellphones to take photos.
“Of course, what we most want to see is a tiger. Tigers grow to nine feet long and rule this jungle like Kipling’s Shere Khan. According to a display at the Forest Department, the local population is down to 70, a 95 percent decline since 2000. (Some people dispute the official numbers, claiming that because no reliable tiger census was taken years ago, the government’s figures for decline are merely a guess.)
“Although spotting tigers is very difficult, their presence haunts the forest. Ignoring the risk, and in contravention of the law, locals sometimes venture into the mangrove forests to gather honey, first offering prayers for the protection of Bon Bibi, the forest goddess, whose devotees include not only polytheistic Hindus but otherwise monotheistic Muslims. For hours, I maintain faith that I will be blessed with a tiger sighting, and when suddenly we spot fresh paw marks pressed into the muddy bank, our hopes soar. The pilot slowly turns the boat and kills the engine. There we sit, bobbing, until I realize that I’ll have to be content seeing only the birds and a few crocs.
“Back in the village, I meet a man who, not long ago, hadn’t wanted to locate a tiger. He was collecting crabs, he says, when a cat sprang and clawed out his right eye. Now his eyelid hangs flaccidly over the empty socket. He unbuttons his shirt and pulls up his pant leg to show scars on his chest and calf; he walks as if his joints were displaced. The man can’t get help for his injuries, because explaining how he got them could invite prosecution. “He talks too much,” says the fellow who has introduced us. “He tells too many people. He’s going to get himself into trouble.”
“Sometimes, though, bad luck can find you even when you do as you’re told to avoid it. Each night, because power from the camp’s solar panels is limited, the electricity cuts out at midnight. At least it’s supposed to. Later that same night, I am woken by a bright light shining through my window, reflecting off the ceiling and illuminating my room. Convinced I won’t sleep until I’ve turned it off, I get up and go outside. This time I don’t gaze at the stars. I look for snakes, scorpions, and you-never-know. The switch takes a while to find. I go back to bed. In the morning, I refrain from confessing to Roy. He has a bemused look on his face, like someone who wants to share something important. “Did you hear?” he asks. “Hear what?”“There was a tiger in camp last night!”“
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020