India and Bangladesh’s mysterious mangroves: The Sundarbans

A trip into the Sundarbans, which is one of the last natural refuges of the royal Bengal tiger.

Sunrise in the Sundarbans, which is the world’s largest mangrove forest, straddling India and Bangladesh. Getty Images
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The Sundarbans – the world's largest mangrove forest, straddling India and Bangladesh – is ground zero for royal ­Bengal ­tigers, fearsome beasts that swim, drink saltwater, and occasionally catch fish.

With such a skill set, it’s unsurprising that for many years, the Indian state of West ­Bengal made the tiger the face of its ­Sundarbans advertising campaigns. But a decline in numbers, exacerbated by difficulty tracking them in a 10,000-square-­kilometre area accessible only by boat, means few short-term visitors ever see the creatures.

The state has recently decided to demote the elusive tiger from its perch as brand ambassador, and instead promote the many other attractions of this unique ecosystem, situated in the delta formed by the confluence of four mighty rivers – the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Meghna and Padma. Both India and Bangladesh have created protected sanctuaries here, and Unesco has designated two separate world heritage sites.

One sunny Sunday morning, I find myself boarding a comfortable, air-conditioned bus in central Kolkata. Our destination: Gosaba, the embarkation point for boat trips into the Sundarbans on the Indian side. After a pleasant three-hour journey through verdant tropical countryside, I board our double-deck boat, mount stairs to the covered upper deck, and take a rail-side seat. This is my fourth such excursion.

Welcoming us aboard is the boat’s captain, Balaram Mondal. We push off and begin our journey, entering a broad channel, framed on each side by villages housing some of the more than four million people who live in the part of the Sundarbans not off-limits to human habitation.

On the right bank, I see a Bengal monitor lizard basking in the afternoon sun. Widely but wrongly believed to be venomous, this specimen is about a metre long, and looks more threatening than it is. This is the first of several such clear sightings I have over the next couple of days.

After two hours of cruising past seemingly limitless mangroves clustered on small islands, we arrive at the Sunderban Tiger Camp resort, and are soon enjoying a buffet lunch of Bengali specialities – including bhetki, a local fish cooked in a pungent mustard sauce.

We soon assemble again for our afternoon cruise. I notice tiny mudskippers launching themselves along the dull, muddy banks. After pushing off, we soon approach a troop of fawn-­coloured, pink-faced rhesus macaque monkeys patrolling the water’s edge. The alpha male struts, apparently mugging for our cameras. I wonder what they’re doing here, because the water is saline and unfit to drink. I soon get my answer, as I watch a tiny monkey yank a plant out of the mud and munch on its succulent roots.

As the captain pilots our boat, I chat with him about the wildlife he has seen during more than 20 years cruising these waters. The delta is home to many types of endangered wildlife, including the endemic Sundarbans river terrapin – once thought to be extinct – and also provides nesting grounds for olive ridley, green and hawksbill marine turtles.

Two types of dolphin also live here. The smaller, Ganges river dolphin is more commonly found in the northern part of the protected habitat. Most of the world’s remaining Irrawaddy dolphins – a larger species – thrive largely in the southern part, where the water’s more brackish, especially where the delta spills into the Bay of Bengal on the Bangladeshi side of the border.

“I saw some Irrawaddy dolphins three days ago, near Five River Junction,” says Mondal. I spotted the Irrawaddy variety on a previous visit two years ago, and hope to get another sighting this time. Estuarine crocodiles are also common, although Mondal says: “November, December and ­January are the best months for seeing crocodiles.”

We putter back to the resort, docking as the sun begins to set. The evening’s cultural programme – local dances, unexplained and mechanically performed, leaves me unmoved, so after another pleasant meal, I call it an early night.

An insistent rap on my door awakens me at 5.45am on Day 2. I open the door, and receive a flask of steaming sweet masala chai. I walk through the resort, joining other passengers for a cruise into the heart of the national park.

“Low tide time is the best time for the Sundarbans,” says Mondal. We glide along, the steady thump of the boat’s engine punctuated by an occasional bird call.

The Sundarbans experience four tides each day, on a six-hour cycle. At this time, the water level at low tide is five metres lower than at high tide, and the receded waters underscore the striking beauty of the mangroves.

Slate grey, spiky pneumatophores – aerial roots – poke through the mud, rising to a height of about 15 centimetres. Resembling a fossilised army of multiple standing stones, rather than something organic, these tubes allow mangroves to take in oxygen from the air, despite frequent tidal flooding. Rising out of that mud above the skewers are architectural arches of tangled roots, forming an unending series of organic buttresses supporting living cathedrals of leaves: one-third root, crowned by two-thirds greenery.

Birds are active this morning, and we soon see common, collared, black-capped and white-throated kingfishers, iridescent plumage shimmering in different shades of blue. I pull out my bird book, and fellow passengers are soon enthusiastically spotting species. We pass a gangly Indian pond heron – moving slowly and deliberately, before a lightning-quick strike as it spears a fish with its bill.

As we turn away from the main channel into Sharak Khali – ­Canal Road – a flock of chattering, bright-green rose-ringed parakeets passes to the right. To the left, four hours away, says Mondal, lies Bangladesh. Another monitor lizard loiters on the shore. A whimbrel announces itself overhead with its distinctive laughing call, before disappearing into the distance.

It’s warm, but not hot, as the sun begins to ascend rapidly. A steady breeze moderates the ambient temperature. Such breezes continue throughout the year, says Mondal, making it pleasant to visit the Sundarbans in any season. The monsoon, from mid-June through August, offers its own delights – including a chance to sample succulent hilsa, Bengal’s most celebrated fish. Although visibility is often limited, and during stormy weather, the water must be treated with respect.

Mondal notices a small herd of spotted deer in a side channel, their presence obscured by thick vegetation. He stops the boat, reverses, then hovers in place to allow the group a better view.

We move forward again, and the main channel narrows to 20 metres across. A brown-winged kingfisher whizzes by, heading left before stopping to perch, allowing us an unobstructed view of its rich cinnamon feathers and striking red bill. Then a changeable hawk eagle, a magnificent raptor, the first we have seen, soars overhead, its wings held flat.

The channel tapers to less than 10 metres across. “It becomes mesmerising, this scenery,” says Vanessa Graham, a visitor from London. “It provides a curious sense of tranquility.”

The mangrove forest’s limited colour palette creates this soothing effect. The sun’s harsh light bleaches the sky to the palest of blues, mottled by even paler white cumulus clouds. Against this backdrop, we see silvery green, lime green, a darker green, exposed banks that appear khaki in this light, and olive drab water. That water is now impossibly still, perfectly reflecting the subtle colours surrounding us.

Lulled by balmy weather, the engine noise and hypnotic scenery, I find it hard to credit this area’s fierce reputation for harbouring predators – until I spy two jellyfish swimming alongside our boat. I’m told a plethora of endangered lethal reptiles, including king cobras and Russell’s vipers, also lurk underfoot. Thankfully, these pose little danger to tourists safely ensconced in tour boats or segregated inside fenced resorts.

But that’s not the case for locals forced to enter the heart of the forest to eke out a living by fishing or collecting honey or firewood. As we boarded the boat this morning, I noticed two sari-clad women, immersed to their waists, dragging nets behind them to trawl for tiger prawn seedlings. Such activity is unhealthy and dangerous. Long-term immersion in saline water causes skin problems, and the women are also attacked by crocodiles, sharks and even tigers. Tigers still feature vividly in local nightmares. Even in reduced numbers – last surveyed at 75 on the Indian side and about 100 on the Bangladeshi – they still kill dozens of people each year.

Onshore, on the starboard side, looms one of the many makeshift temples dedicated to local goddess Bonbibi. Regardless of religion, locals typically visit her shrine to ask her protection before venturing into the forest. Honey collectors – mouley – take additional precautions. Since tigers attack from behind, mouley wear human face masks on the back of their heads, hoping to confuse tigers who won’t know which of the two faces to attack.

We return to the resort for a final meal there, and I purchase some local honey. It’s the least I can do to compensate the collectors who run such risks to gather it.

During the return journey, I notice signs of spring: occasional flashes of crimson blossom against the ubiquitous mangroves. We pass a flock of lesser whistling ducks off the port side. As the boat pulls into the dock, a pair of pied kingfishers – black and white – criss-cross quite close to the boat, one from the left, the other from the right.

“The Sundarbans remain a place of mystery. We still have little idea about what occurs during high tide in the mangrove forest. Where, for example, do the tiger cubs go? Or, for that matter, the spotted deer?” asks Tushar Roy, a Kolkata native and frequent visitor to the area for more than three decades. While tigers and crocodiles make it dangerous for naturalists to explore the area, and answer these and many other questions, these hazards pose little threat to casual sightseers.

Indeed, for this repeat visitor, the mysteries concealed among the mangroves only deepen their mesmerising pleasures.