Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sunderban - Journey to nowhere

Land of the Royal Bengal Tiger

Largest Delta in the World

The two great rivers, Ganges 2,510 km. (1,560 miles) and Brahmaputra 2,900 km. (1,800 miles), are born in the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. On the last lap of their long journey, just before they enter the Bay of Bengal and merge with the oceans, they meander through the plains of Bangladesh and West Bengal (India) creating the largest delta in the world.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra delta covers an area of 80,000 sq. km. (30,800 sq. miles) and comprises of 54 inhabited and 48 uninhabited islands, mangrove forests, swamps and mud flats. The delta is approximately 350 km. (220 miles) wide at the Bay of Bengal.

Mangrove forests of India and Bangladesh in Sunderban Region

The Sunderban region encompasses 10,262 sq. km. (3,950 sq. miles) of reserved mangrove forests. 4,262 sq. km. (1640 sq. miles) of the mangrove forests are in India (West Bengal). The remaining 6000 sq. km. (2310 sq. miles) are in Bangladesh.
Sunderban is the only mangrove forest in the world which is home of the tiger.

Indian Sunderban - 9,692 sq. km.

Another 5,430 sq. km. (2,090 sq. miles) of non-forest, inhabited region in India, to the north and north-west of the mangrove forests, is also known as the Sunderban. The combined forest and non-forest area in India totalling 9,692 sq. km. (3,730 sq. miles) is known as the Indian Sunderban region.
This region is criss-crossed by an intricate maze of rivers, tributaries, streams, channels, estuaries and creeks. Life is extremely difficult in this region because 70% of the area is covered by saline brackish water. The environment is made more hostile by the diurnal rise and fall of water caused by the tidal waves.

Sunderban region has about sixty per cent of the total mangrove forests of India.

Sunderban Tiger Reserve

In 1973, the Government of India notified 2585 sq. km. (995 sq. miles) of the area as the Sunderban Tiger Reserve under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and brought it under its Project Tiger Scheme. In 1977, the Reserve was elevated to the status of Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Project Tiger has brought in much needed funds and support from the Government of India and the State Government. But the Sunderban needs still more funding.
The Sunderban Tiger Reserve has more tigers than any other Tiger Reserve in the world. The following are the figures of tigers in the Sunderban:
1972 1979 1984 1989 1993 1995 1997 2001-02* 2004
60 205 264 269 251 242 263 245 274

The majority of the four million people who live in the Sunderban area are poor and live below the poverty line. They lack access to proper roads and health care facilities.

Therefore, in spite of the presence of the tigers, many of whom are man eaters and sometimes kill animals and humans, the local villagers venture into the forests to collect honey or to cut wood.

The local villagers worship Bonbibi (the local forest deity) and Dakshin Ray (a demon who is believed to assume the shape of a tiger) to protect them from the tigers. Tigers generally attack from the rear. For this reason, while moving inside the forests, the villagers wear bright coloured face masks behind their heads in the hope that the tiger will be fooled by this trick. In spite of this, sometimes they are attacked by tigers.

Sunderbans National Park

On May 4, 1984, Government of India elevated a core area of 1,330.10 sq. km. (510 sq. miles) to the status of National Park. In 1987, UNESCO recognised the Sunderbans National Park as a World Heritage Site. No commercial activity is permitted in the core area. Visitors are not allowed inside the core area. This is to ensure complete privacy to the tigers.

Some facts about the Sunderban Tigers

· The tiger is the top predator of both aquatic and terrestrial eco-systems in the Sunderban.
· A tiger requires 7.5 kilograms of meat every day.
· About 17.5% of food for the tiger comes from aquatic sources.
· They drink saline water, perhaps the only example of this kind in the world.
· A wild tiger requires 10 sq. km. of area to roam around.
· The female takes care of her cubs for as long as 18 months. The males are usually tolerant of their own cubs. But may kill the offspring of other males.
· During the two peak tidal periods of February and May, territorial markings by tigers in Sundarban get obliterated by the daily tides. During that time, tigers are often found swimming across rivers and creeks, crossing up to 8 km. wide rivers.
· During the paddy ripening time, tigers enter several kms. inside the paddy fields and prey on the cattle there.
· The easiest quarries of man-eating tigers/victims are wood cutters, fishermen and honey collectors.
· Fishermen are the worst sufferers.
· But only 5% of the tigers are man eaters.

Tiger attacks

There is not a single instance of a tiger attacking a human being (even if it has strayed out of the forest) unless it is cornered by people. Normally, it kills cattle as its prey.
All cases of tiger killing humans occur only when a man enters the forest. If we look from the tiger’s point of view, a man inside his forest is simply another legitimate prey, which is easily available and easier to hunt than deer or wild boar.

The Mangrove Biosphere

In order to coordinate and integrate conservation, research and training activities in the Sunderban region, on March 29, 1989, the Government of India notified the entire 9,630 sq. km. region as the Sunderban Biosphere Reserve. More than four million people live within the Biosphere Reserve.

In November 2001, UNESCO accorded recognition to the Sunderban Biosphere Reserve area under its Man and Biosphere (MAB) programme.

Unique Habitat
The water in the numerous rivers, creeks and canals rises and falls in tune with the tides. Salt water from the sea rushes in and out - twice every day - making the region one of the most difficult terrains to live in. Most of the creatures here - both animals and plants - land and aquatic - have developed unique adaptations to survive in this peculiar environment.

For instance, the tiger has become a strong swimmer. It has learnt to catch fish. It even drinks saline water.

Throughout the mangrove forests, at the water’s edge, you will find the unique mud skipper, a fish that walks on land and even climbs trees. Its fins have evolved into two small arm-like flippers which permit it to move about on land. There are numerous blood-red fiddler crabs and other crustaceans.
The mangrove trees have developed strange aerial roots and unique propagation mechanism.
Sunderban has 84 species of mangrove and mangrove-related plants.

Animal Life

According to Hunter’s Account of Sundarban written in 1878, there were numerous tigers, leopards, rhinoceros, wild buffaloes, wild hogs, wild cats, bara-singha, spotted deer, hog deer, barking deer and monkeys in the Sundarban.

Over the last 130 years, leopards, rhinoceros, wild buffaloes and bara-singha have vanished. The animal life has been reduced to the tiger, deer, wild boar, monkeys, jungle cats and fishing cats.

Aquatic Life

There are a number of aquatic mammals - the Ganges dolphin, Indo-pacific hump-backed dolphin, Irrawaddy dolphin and the Finless porpoise.

There are several species of reptiles - Olive Ridley turtle, the river terrapin, estuarine crocodile (the largest crocodile in the world), monitor lizard, water monitor, chameleons; and a varied assortment of snakes - King cobra, common cobra, Banded krait, Russell’s Viper, Python, Chequered Keelback, Dhaman, Green Whip Snake, Indian python and a number of water snakes. There are skipping frogs, common toads and tree fogs.

The numerous species of fishes include the Saw fish, Butter fish, Electric Rays, Silver Carp, Star Fish, Common Carp, several species of sharks, prawns and shrimps.

Bird Life

The area is rich in bird life. There are over 200 species of birdsincluding plenty of water birds - Asian open bill stork, black-necked stork, greater adjutant stork, egrets, herons, swamp francolin, white ibis, white-collared kingfisher, black-capped kingfisher, brown-winged kingfisher, spotted billed pelican, etc.

A number of migratory birds come from far off places. You can see the Asian dowitcher (Limnodromus semipalmatus), a rare migrant bird, during the winter months.

There are also a number of birds of prey - white-bellied sea-eagle, grey-headed fishing eagle, brahmini kite, herring gull, osprey, Pallas’s fish eagle, peregrine falcon, Oriental hobby, northern eagle owl and brown fish owl.

Plant Life

The most important trees are the mangrove trees. The name Sunderban meaning Sundari forest comes from two words Sundari (a species of mangrove tree - Heritiera fomes - one of the larger mangrove trees here) and Ban (forest).

There are several other species of trees. Genwa which has flaming red leaves in April and May. The Kankara with its crab like red flowers. Khalsi with its dazzling display of yellow blooms.

Stay - Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge

The only place to stay inside the forest area is the Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge (also known as Sunder Chital Tourist Lodge) in Sajnekhali maintained by the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation Ltd. It is rustic and simple. There is no electricity. A generator gives just enough power to run the fans and lights during the late evening and night.
There is a watch tower here, a crocodile pond and a turtle pond. There is also an artificial hatchery for hatching eggs of Olive Ridley turtles. Turtle eggs are collected from the wild and hatched under human supervision.
There is a Mangrove Interpretation Centre here where you can see films on wild life and get you doubts cleared.

If you want luxury, you can stay at Sunderban Tiger Camp just across the river - opposite Sajnekhali.
The Sunderban Tiger Camp has four A/c double bed and three Non-A/c double bed Cottages; 4 bed huts and 4 bed Swiss tents. All the rooms are simple but spacious with 24 hours electricity and running water and good service.

A third place to stay is the Sunderban Jungle Camp at Bali Island also opposite Sajnekhali. There are also a few private hotels and resorts in Pakhiralay area.

You can also stay on board the launch which has cabins, toilets, running water and arrangement for meals. In fact, the Government of West Bengal and the West Bengal Tourist Development Corporation Ltd. both organize excursions into the Sunderban where you spend the nights on board the launch. You can even hire a private launch and plan your individual itinerary.

Places to see

Piyali, situated 72 km from Kolkata, is a gateway to the Sunderban. It is a beautiful resting place. Here the small river Piyali mingles with Matla river.

Sajnekhali Bird Sanctuary
The Sajnekhali Bird Sanctuary situated on the confluence of Matla and Gumdi rivers is a part of the Sunderbans National Park. You can see a variety of birds. This is a bird watcher’s paradise.

Has a man made Mangrove Park and a watch tower. The Sunderban forests have about 84 species of plants. You can see most of them here. From the watch tower, you can also see deer, water monitors, etc.

On the way to Sundarbans, you can visit Kaikhali Island. This is an ideal picnic spot.

Bhagabatpur Crocodile Project
The Bhagabatpur Crocodile Project is a hatchery and rearing centre of the world’s largest estuarine crocodiles. You can reach this place through Namkhana.

You can see the the ruins of a 400 year old temple at Netidhopani and listen to ancient legends from the locals. There is a watch towers here.
Halliday Island & Lothian Island Wildlife Sanctuaries
These two sanctuaries lie to the south of the Sunderban and are not part of the Tiger Reserve.
Halliday Island is considered the last retreat of the shy barking deer.

This is the nesting place of Olive Ridley turtles who spend most of their lives in the far away seas and oceans. These turtles travel long distances to shallow coastal waters to breed - often travelling up to 100 km from the sea into the rivers.

How to reach Sunderban

The islands Goasaba, Sandeshkali and Basanti form the northern boundary of the Sundarban. On the south is the sea. To the west are the Matla and Bidya Rivers and to the east is the international boundary with Bangladesh.

For visiting Sunderban, the starting point is Kolkata (Calcutta). From Kolkata, there are two routes. One goes south towards the South West; the other goes south towards the South East. Either way, you have to drive about 100 km. The road is very good.

The South West route takes you to Namkhana (105 km - via Diamond Harbour and Kakdwip). If you like a longer river journey, you can take a boat from any of these places or from Gangadharpur and visit Sagar Island, Lothian Island and surrounding areas.

The South East route is more popular. You drive through 100 kms of picturesque wetlands, agricultural fields, fish hatcheries and rural Bengal to reach Sonakhali. From here, you can take a 3 hour launch ride to Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge.

If you are more adventurous, you can travel on to Basanti by road (which is just across the river from Sonakhali) and drive on to Gadkhali (11kms). At Gadkhali, take the ferry and cross the Bidya river to Gosaba. A cycle rickshaw will take you to Pakhiralaya in about half hour. Sajnekhali is just across the river from Pakhiralaya.
During the launch ride, you will pass a number of villages of West Bengal. Most of the village people are engaged in some sort of fishing. You will see ladies and children dragging fishing nets to catch tiger prawn fry from which they earn about Rs. 50 per day. But this damages the eco system very badly.

Fact File

The nearest airport is Kolkatta - 112 kms.Railway Station
The nearest station is Canning - 48 kms. from Kolkatta
Road transportation is available from
Kolkatta to Namkhana - 105 kms.
Sonakhali - 100 kms.
Raidighi - 76 kms.
Canning - 64 kms. and
Najat - 92 kms.

Best time to visit
September to April.

Foreigners need special permits

Foreigners need special permit to enter the Sunderban.
Permit to visit Sunderban Tiger Projects is issued by Field Director, Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, PO Canning, District 24 Parganas, West Bengal.
Permit to visit other areas of the Sundarbans is issued by the Jt. Secretary, West Bengal Forest Department, Writer’s Building, Kolkatta – 700001.
In order to save time, foreigners should request their travel agent to obtain the permit before hand.


A Sunderban trip is a unique and exciting experience. A journey to no where. Far away from civilization in the mysterious land of the mighty tiger.
Chances of sighting a tiger are rare. But the area has a mysterious, indescriptible charm. You will thoroughly enjoy a few days stay here. It is totally different.

Some related web sites:
1. Map of the region is available at: 2.Map of the Sunderban region is available at: 3. Web site of the West Bengal Government: 4. Web site of the Sunderban Tiger Camp: 5. Web site of the Sunderban Jungle Camp: 6. Addresses of offices of Govt. of India & W.B. Tourism Development Corp. Ltd., in Kolkata:

(2576 words) Binoy Gupta

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