Royal tiger’s realm: A voyage to Sunderbans

Now a UNESCO Wolrd Heritage site Sunderbans is where land sea merge imperceptibly.

tiger 311 (photo credit: Sara Manobla)
tiger 311
(photo credit: Sara Manobla)
The vast mysterious Bay of Bengal is fed by the great delta of the Ganges. Here the river finally discharges the debris, silt, melted snow and runoff waters accumulated on its descent from the Himalayas. Land and sea merge imperceptibly in a shimmering stretch of tidal waters, mudflats and mangrove forests.
This is the Sunderbans, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, a water mass stretching from India’s east coast south of Kolkata across to the shores of Bangladesh. It encompasses a unique ecosystem, maintaining a delicate balance between the human inhabitants, the rich bird and animal wildlife population and the great tracts of mangrove forest, all in thrall to the whims of tide, storm and hurricane.
It is perhaps the last wild frontier of the Indian subcontinent.
And it is home to the magnificent Royal Bengal Tiger, fewer than 300 of them at the last count, the dreaded man-eating swimming tiger.
Near the mainland the bay is dotted with tiny vulnerable flood-prone islands where tribal villagers eke out a precarious living as fishermen, shrimpers, farmers and honey gatherers.
I learned about the Sunderbans from The Hungry Tide, a novel by Indian writer Amitav Ghosh which marvelously evokes the place and its people. Searching for a way to visit the area, I found there were several lodges and camps offering different levels of accommodation for tourists.
Most provide transfer from Kolkata, bird and animal watching cruises and an introduction to the local village population.
Leaving behind the frantic chaos of the city, we travelled by car to the coast through rural wetlands – rivers, fish ponds, rice paddies, mangrove forests and poor villages of reed or straw thatch huts. Sonakhali jetty is a makeshift transit point for the boats carrying people and cargoes to and from the Sunderbans islands. Here our own private vessel and two-man crew were waiting to sail with us to the Sunderbans Jungle Camp on the island of Bali. This is a model project, set up by Help Tourism, to ensure the development of the local community through carefully planned tourism, as well as the conservation of the wildlife and flora. Except for the project coordinator, all the staff and guides at the camp are from the village of Bali. They receive training in tourism hospitality basics, and are permanently employed. Housekeeping, laundry and the supply of local organic vegetables to the camp are managed by a local ladies self-help group.
It was high tide when we arrived, and the mangrove trees were deep in the water. The Jungle Camp and the village are below the high-tide level.
Each inhabited island is surrounded by a high built-up embankment, meticulously maintained. This serves as a perimeter road and as a barrier against the sea – and against the tigers. Man and beast are carefully separated. Further to the south where the Bay of Bengal meets the Indian Ocean, some of the uninhabited islands are a designated nature reserve, enclosed with netting to protect the tigers, and landing is forbidden.
And the more distant islands remain a natural wilderness.
There are six thatched cottages for visitors at the camp, with large rooms, simple and clean, and decent bathrooms, all well-maintained. No air-conditioning, but a ceiling fan is switched on at night. There is no mains electricity, no telephone, no television and power only when the generator operates. Solar panels provide lighting in the bedrooms. Mosquito nets and coils are provided, but it’s always a good idea to bring your own repellent and flashlight. The dining area is outdoors, under a thatched awning beside a fish pond, with fan coolers. The buffet-style meals were excellent, with a wide choice of tasty Bengali dishes using local products – fish, chicken, seafood, vegetables, honey.
Each morning, while it was still cool, we set out on our cruise, with breakfast cooked and served on board by the crew (pancakes with honey, fruit and coffee or tea). Our boat was small and quiet, with room on the shaded upper deck for four passengers. Drinks and snacks were at hand at all times.
The Sunderbans is a bird-watcher’s paradise. We were provided with binoculars and bird guide books to help us match the amazing birds to their no less amazing names: whitebellied eagle, rose-ringed parakeet, snake-bird darter, jungle babbler, mangrove pitta, drongo bronze, lesser adjutant stork. Apu, our guide, was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, a specialist in recognizing bird calls.
We cruised through the islands, up narrow creeks shaded by mangrove trees and across stretches of open water where fishermen sit for hours under the blazing sun in narrow wooden boats, waiting for the catch.
We landed at designated spots in the nature reserve, and climbed the lookout towers and platforms for an elevated view of the landscape and the wildlife. In addition to the birds, we spotted dolphins, deer, crabs, lizards and huge lazy crocodiles stretched out in the sun.
But alas, no sighting of the great tiger – only a fresh imprint of his paw marks glistening on the mudflat leading down to the water. Although rarely seen, the tiger’s presence is felt everywhere, and the tension between man and beast is palpable.
The man-tiger relationship is central to village life, with many resulting ambivalences. The tiger is worshiped as a god. The locals are in awe of the animal, they respect and admire it, tell endless stories and ambivalent jokes about it, even love it.
The tiger is a protected animal that may not be killed. Much effort has been invested, at both local and national levels, in preserving the dwindling tiger population of the region, decimated by hunters over the years. But when attacked, men must protect their families, take revenge. Poachers still break the law.
Fishermen and honey gatherers risk their lives when they venture into the tiger reserve. The threat to the villagers is a very real one.
After dinner one evening, the dining area was cleared and turned into a stage. A group of villagers, actors and musicians, performed for us a play based on the traditional legend of Bonbibi. The performance was surprisingly good, partly sung, partly spoken, with moments of comedy, drama and horror. The villain of the tale, a demon, who is finally vanquished by Bonbibi, the goddess of the islanders, turns out to be none other than a tiger in disguise. Next day, from the safety of our boat, Apu pointed to a long stick swaying in the water near the shore, with a white triangular flag attached. “In memory of a fisherman killed last month by a tiger, when he was fishing in the area reserved for tigers,” he told us.
PRACTICALITIES: Help Tourism,, based in Kolkata, made all arrangements. The cost of our three-day Sunderbans package for two, was 18,900 rupees per person, everything included except the cultural show. In addition to running the Sunderbans Jungle Camp, Help Tourism organizes tours in the eastern Indian states, all with an emphasis on ecology, conservation, local culture and heritage.
(Note: NIS 100 is the equivalent of about 1,200 rupees.)