The eerie feeling as you step into Sunderbans is that of being watched all the time! And why not! Unlike in other forests where tigers seldom hunt men and that too only when there is territorial conflict, it is only in the mangrove forests of Sunderbans that one can find over 100 man-eating tigers that kill almost 50-70 men every year. These tigers are are difficult to spot in the inhospitable terrain but since they hunt men, the sense of being watched is in a sense a feeling of being preyed upon!
It was certainly a desire to see, but not preyed upon by these elusive tigers that took us to Sunderbans. A short 3 hour drive from Kolkatta, Sunderbans National Park can be entered via the Gadkali point. Sunderbans literally means beautiful forest and oh boy!, what a beauty it was! Sunderbans is a declared UNESCO world heritage site, it being the largest coastal mangrove forest in the world, 40% of which falls in India and the rest in adjoining Bangladesh. The marshy delta is formed because the world’s largest rivers, Ganga & Brahmaputra along with Hooghly, Padma & Meghna rivers drain into the Bay of Bengal. The delta consists of a network of rivers, channels and islands and it undergoes a daily tidal grind where large parts of the islands and forests submerge and re-emerge from the highly saline water, making it a highly inhospitable terrain. Even so, the tidal saline ecosystem is home to hundreds of species of plants, birds & animals all of whom have adapted to the harsh natural conditions here. Mangrove plants grow aerial & support roots to enable them to breathe & grow in the daily tidal grind. All animals, including tigers, monkeys, deers etc. have learnt swim across water canals and channels as it is the only way they find food distributed across large swathes of the mangrove islands.
We boarded a small motored boat from Gadkali and this was to be our safari vehicle and home for the next 4 days. We spent nearly 13-14 hours on the boat from dawn to dusk and only retreated to a village resort to have dinner and sleep at night. In a sense the safari at Sunderbans is much more enriching as one is on the field all day unlike other forests where one can enjoy a safari for 2-3 hours in the morning or in the evening. Here, we focussed our eyes on the river banks all through the day! We often passed through a large river channels mistaking it for the sea and then entered narrow water channels, passing through the serene and picturesque mangrove forests and on the lookout for the birds, animals and of course the tiger!
Large part of the forest delta is open for safari where as there is a core area where boats are not allowed to enter. There are viewing points and watchtowers on some permitted islands where one can learn more about the forest ecosystem and its fauna at Sajnekali or see the conservation efforts to breed turtles, crocodiles at Sudhanyakhali or walk through a raised forest canopy at Dobanki island to see some animals come to drink freshwater which is a rarity in this world.
Our safaris started at 6 am every morning and as we set out from our village into the forest, the sight of villagers catching fish by throwing nets on the river banks against the rising sun made it a glorious sight to see. We also passed by small fishing boats with men out to catch fish and seafood from the water. Over the years, the population of Sunderbans has expanded and the harsh terrain also causes man and animal to tread into each other territories for food. To make their ends meet, the villagers increasingly dare to go into prohibited areas to catch bigger crabs, collect honey etc. Difficulty in accessing food, encroaching humans and lack of fear for humans make humans a good target for the Tigers. Sometimes Tigers enter villages and kill humans and livestock and as boats enter parts of the forests where they shouldn’t, men become easy targets for the tigers.
Home to more than 85 species animals and 270 species of birds, we were able to spot 35 birds and few animals. (See more pics here: Fauna of Sunderbans). The most common birds were the Drongos, Minivets and Kingfishers and we are able to spot 6 types of kingfishers – Collared, Common, Black Capped, Brown headed, Pied & White Throated. The area was also dotted with some majestic birds of Prey like Osprey, Crested Serpent Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, Shikra, Brahminy Kite and the rare Peregrine Falcons. There were many water birds like Egrets, Cormorant, Eurasian Curlew, Common Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Whimbrels, Black headed gulls, lesser Adjutant, Striated Heron, etc. that feed on the small crabs, insects and fishes by the banks. We were also able to see many spotted deers, River Otters etc. We saw many Estuarian crocodiles lazing on the banks and very shy of human presence for the moment we used to go anywhere near 30 ft of them, they would slink into the water! The sighting of the trip for me was the Red-tailed Bamboo Pit Viper; it looks quite small harmless, but is one of the most venomous snakes in India.
The tiger, sadly, remained elusive!
How to reach there: Nearest airport is in Kolkatta, 2.5 hrs drive to Gadkali which is the ferry point to Sunderbans
Where to stay: Many decent options to stay the night exists in Sunderbans Villages. Sunderbans residency is a good option
What to do: Boat safari with a good government guide.