Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sunderbans Tiger Reserve – of man-eating tigers, mangrove forests and the largest estuarine delta in the world in West Bengal, India

Of days gone by...this March during my solo all India motorcycle journey

After my visits to Agra and Varanasi, I went to the small industrial town of Jamshedpur to relive my childhood memories. The city hadn’t changed much. Though, I got an opportunity to meet folks and family from days gone by. After spending a good 4 days at Jamshedpur, I was plonked at my school friend’s residence(s) at Kolkata. It was a great relaxing week after nearly 4 months of non stop travel. That one week, I was back to being a normal human being – checking my email, visiting pubs, watching movies, going out shopping and being in the company of a lot of friends. But soon, I got fidgety again and the time had come for me to go to my next destination – Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. Since, the Sunderbans tiger reserve is deep inside the estuarine delta, I decided to leave my motorcycle behind at my friends place in Kolkata and opt for the 2 night/ 3 day wildlife package offered by the Sunderbans Tiger Camp, a lovely and well run resort in the village of Dayapur and bang opposite to the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary – the tourist part of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. If I remember right, the entire package costed me Rupees 4,430, which included accommodation in a ethnic hut, all meals and multiple boat safaris – the only way one can explore the Sunderbans.

So it was one cloudy morning that I got picked up from Priya Cinema, Deshapriya park on Rashbehari Avenue in the heart of Kolkata. I was joined by a backpacker from Bangalore, a couple from England and a student couple from Germany. So off we went in a Tempo Traveler (a 12 seater van) to the last drivable point of Gosaba. The entire road journey took us close to 2 and a half hours. We were treated to some snacks during this journey.

Once we reached Gosaba, we found that there was a large 30 seater launch boat that was waiting to take us to the Sunderbans Tiger Camp in Dayapur. I was amazed at the expanse of the mighty waterway at Gosaba. It was so wide that I could not make out the other shore. The trip down the river was poignant and unforgettable. As we neared Dayapur, there was a dramatic change in the surroundings with huge tracts of mangrove forests coming into view. During the cruise, I spotted tiny fishing boats that were there to trap the bounty of the rivers. During the cruise, our guide let us know that traditionally the locals have lived off the river as well as the forest, by trapping, felling, hunting and collecting honey and wax as the common sources of subsistence. But, after these activities were banned by the forest department in 1978, people have managed with fishing, basic farming and occupations with the various tourist camps.

We reached Sunderbans tiger camp after the 3 hour long boat cruise. The tiger camp resort is set in a great location and offers great value for money. Post lunch, we went on a short boat cruise into some minor water channels and into the Sajnekhali tourist enclosure to get more knowledge on the Sunderbans before returning to the camp to watch a movie on Sunderbans and to bear the wrath of the unusually huge mosquitoes here.

It was an early wake up call the next day as it was time for our morning boat safari into the interiors of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. The mist and the refracting early morning sun gave us a great reception. As the cruise started our forest guide let us know that it is very difficult to spot the Royal Bengal Tiger in the Sunderbans and this message became true when I didn’t get to spot a tiger in my 3 days here. He also let us know that the tigers in the Sunderbans have learnt to survive in this extremely hostile territory – they are expert swimmers, drink salty water and feed on fish and crabs and this is primarily the reason why the tigers of the Sunderbans are dubbed as “Man Eaters”. It is this extremely hostile territory – lack of fresh water, high and low tides, slippery and slimy mud that allows the prey to slip away, short, but hard mangrove plants that cause pain to the soft and sensitive feet of the tiger, the periodic effect of cyclones, heavy winds and monsoons that make the tiger to scout for easy food. And this comes begging with the close by villages and settlements and their livestock, cattle and the human babies. And there is bound to be a confrontation with the human when this proximity increases.

Over the 3 days, we went on 4 boat safaris into different creeks, channels and waterways, took a canopy walk in the south-west of the sanctuary, climbed multiple watchtowers and all those led us to see and appreciate the rich ecosystem (mangroves, estuarine delta system, aquatic species, birds and large mammals) of the Sunderbans. The ne thing that amazed me the most was the variations in the water levels in the estuarine system due to the tides. At some times, water level went up/down by as much as 25 feet. At one point, when we disembarked from the boat, the water level was pretty high. 6 hours later, I had to climb down 20 steps, climb a ladder to reach the boat and to avoid all the slush of the tidal mud flats.

Following is the rich wildlife and plant life that I got to see at the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. Basically, a great place to spot fish eating birds, some very rare birds and estuarine aquatic species apart from the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger.

Birds Black Capped Kingfisher, Indian Pond Heron, Little Egret, Little Cormorant, Common Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, Little Green Bee Eater, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Common Myna, Chestnut headed Bee Eater, Jungle Crow, White-Bellied Sea Eagle, Large Egret, Black Drongo, Lesser Whistling Duck, Osprey, Spotted Dove, Green Imperial Pigeon, Red Vented Bulbul, Lesser Adjutant Stork, Iora (A rare one), Small Blue Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher, Whimbrel, Dunlin, Brahminy Kite, Pallas’s Sea Gull, Purple Sunbird, White-Bellied Fantail (A rare one), Rufous Woodpecker (Again, a rare one).

Mammals Spotted Deer, Wild Boar

Aquatic Species
Red Fiddler Crabs, Mudskipper, Large Edible Crab

Monitor Lizard (a couple of huge ones), Estuarine Crocodile, Olive Ridley Turtle, River Terrapin

Hental, Pneumatophore and others (don’t remember their names, but I guess I could identify at least 10 different varieties)

Overall, a great 3 days for me and when I reached my friend’s house at Kolkata, I was very happy with my wildlife and nature experience at the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. It is definitely on my all time favourite list and I will always visit this place when an opportunity comes my way!!

To see India through the eyes of a motorcyclist’s lens, visit the album below.
my solo all-india motorcycle journey

About Sunderbans Tiger Reserve
Sunderbans is the largest single tract of a unique mangrove ecosystem in the world, and spreads over 26,000 sq km. It forms the lower part of the Ganges delta, extending about 260 km along the Bay of Bengal, from the Hooghly river estuary in India to the Meghna river estuary in Bangladesh. About 9,630 sq km of the ecosystem falls in India, and the reserve forest sprawls across 4,263 km of this expanse. About 60 percent of the total area of the ecosystem falls in Bangladesh.

The Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, created in 1973 was part of the then 24-Parganas Forest Division. In 1985, the National Park area of the reserve was included in the list of World Heritage Sites and the entire Sunderbans area was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1989. The origin of the name Sunderbans is linked to the Sundari trees (Heriteria fomes) typical of the region. There are 64 plant species in the Sunderbans suited to survive in extreme conditions and saline inundation that occurs as a result of tidal effects. The Sunderbans is one of the world’s largest and most unique wetlands. Every 12 hours, high tide inundates the mangroves spread along either side of the network of water channels here. At low tide, one can see expanses of exposed mud ‘flats’.

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