The Bangladesh Sunderbans is spread over 26000 sq kms and constitutes 65% of the total area of the Sunderbans. The Indian Sunderbans is an agglomeration of 102 islands; of which 54 are inhabited and the balance 48 are forests. It spans an area of 9630 sq kms, of which 4664 sq kms is forest. The forest is divided into the tiger reserve and the divisional forest. The tiger reserve, which spans an area of 2585 sq kms, is comprised of the wildlife sanctuary, the buffer zone and the core area. While the wildlife sanctuary is open to tourists and the buffer zone is accessible to dependents such as honey collectors and fishermen, the core area is exclusively the preserve of departmental personnel. The last census of the Royal Bengal Tiger indicated an increase in their population (281). The census is done by identifying and ‘fingerprinting’ the pug marks. The modern method of electronic tagging is yet to be employed.
The name Sunderbans comes from the Sundari tree, which is one of the 64 species of mangrove trees that Sunderbans is home to. The Garjan with its supporting roots and the Pneumatophores or the respiratory roots are more common. A tour of the wildlife sanctuary can be made only with the assistance of a guide employed by the WB Tourism. The guide suggested a different route than the normal one so as to cover a larger area. The chances to see wildlife are better when the tourists respect the silence of the forests. The Sunderbans is a labyrinthine maze of rivers, rivulets and creeks. After a little while I stopped trying to understand the direction in which we were going and trusted the experience and expertise of Tapas Kathua, the guide. The guides – there are 26 of them - are basically graduates who are trained about wildlife, trees and the routes. Tapas bemoaned the fact that there were no inputs given to improve their language skills. Despite his obvious struggle with the English language, he was an excellent guide and I recommend him to those who would be visiting the Sunderbans (09733801235).
The trip through the Sarak Khali creek produced the maximum excitement. While I like to watch birds, I am no good at identifying them, except for the crows and the mynas. Tapas introduced me to the Black Capped Kingfisher, the White Breasted Kingfisher, the Whistling Ducks, the Great Egret, the Little Egret, the Black Cormorants, the Pond Heron, the Little Heron, the Lesser Adjutant Stork, the Brahminy Kite and the Sicra. I took some great pictures of the feathered friends too. As if to prove that the human species is not all that unique, I witnessed two Great Egrets having a major disagreement. A few spotted deer made another photo op possible. The highlight of the tour was a sighting of fresh tiger pug marks. According to Tapas, the tiger must have swum across the creek in low tide about 15 minutes before we arrived, as pug marks could be seen on both sides of the creek. The boatman got as close to the pug marks as was possible for me to take a few photographs. Sightings are normally during the low tide, as there is a difference of nearly 15 feet between the two tides. Tapas mentioned that nearly 50 people fall prey to the wildlife annually – crocs, tigers, snakes, etc. The honey collectors and the fishermen are most at risk. The Sunderbans honey is famous – the bees from Kashmir migrate to the mangroves in the Sunderbans in April/May to provide this delight.
The tour also included a visit to the Sudhayanakhali watch tower. I was apprehensive about it as the previous day’s outing to the Sajnekhali watch tower was a damp squib. The presence of Tapas made all the difference. Despite not being able to see any tigers or such wildlife, he explained the features of various trees that populate the mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans. I got a chance to observe the Fiddler Crabs at close quarter. The female of the species do not have claws – thank God for that; could He have not done something similar with the female of the human species? The peculiar feature of the Fiddler Crab is that they close their crab holes with mud before the high tide brings the water in! They remove the ‘roof’ once the tide recedes. The ‘Mud Skipper’ is another inhabitant of the Sunderbans. This is a peculiar fish that lives on wet mud and trees. They move by jumping from one point to another. Tapas narrated the story of Bonabibi and Dukke – the latter was saved from the tigers upon calling to the former for help. In the Sunderbans, Bonabibi is worshipped by the Hindus and the Muslims alike and this has forged a strong religious bond – a lesson to script a few others?
I visited the Rangbelia Mahila Society in the morning, before departing from the Resort, to buy some more stuff. They open at 6.30 am to service the first wave of customers in the morning. The breakfast at the Resort consisted of Puris and potato curry. When Biren offered me ‘mango jelly’ I readily accepted in the hope of tasting something new. When he spooned a huge piece of mango pickle onto my plate I tried as best as I could to hide my disappointment! The lunch was a lavish affair, on board the boat, of rice, three vegetable dishes and a huge portion of Bhetka fish curry. The resort personnel made my trip to the Sunderbans enjoyable. I recommend the resort for those who wish to visit Sunderbans. Siddhartha Sen, the owner of the resort is available on 098301 43016 and www.bananiresorts.co.in.
I visited Ms. Kaushik Nandi and the kids at their home in Gharia – Gharia was a part of the Sunderbans before it became administratively part of Kolkata - on the way back from the resort. Over two pegs of vodka with Kaushik, I enjoyed fried fish – Top She (fried in suji) and Bhetka - and cashews. Ms Nandi explained in detail an exotic recipe titled ‘Daab Chingri’. It sounded so yummy that I intend to get someone to cook it for me during the course of this journey. Modesty stopped me from asking for another helping of the ‘Paneer Payas’ – outstanding stuff this.
A quick transit by the Metro took me to Park Street, en route to the GR ORH. The evening was still young - at 2145 I ‘shamelessly’ walked into the house of Ajoy Behera for dinner. A couple of rounds of Talisker and a combination of serious conversation with non serious banter preceded the excellent dinner laid out by Ms. Behera. Ajoy is on deputation with CONCOR and is a serious golfer. I expect to meet up with him in Shillong, where he will be defending his trophy. Taking leave of the friends, who have became dearer than before, is never easy.