Deep in tiger country: On a boat in the Sundarbans sanctuary
The Sundarbans National Park is not the nearest biosphere for enthusiasts to access from South India. As annual wildlife census operations are underway closer home, at the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve in the Erode district of Tamil Nadu, for instance, droves of campers are setting out to scour the forests of Thalamalai, Asanur, Bhavanisagar, Thalawadi, TN Palayam and Germalam, in the hope of tracking the big cats, while doing their bit for conservation.
Similar activities are being conducted at the Anamalai Reserve in the Western Ghats, in the hills of Pollachi, Valparai and Udumalpet taluks of Coimbatore and the Tiruppur District of Tamil Nadu. While Periyar in Kerala, Nagarhole in the Kodagu and Mysore districts of Karnataka, and the former royal hunting grounds of the Mysore Maharajas, Bandipur, are favoured destinations — especially to observe International Tiger Day on July 29.
The most popular of the country’s 50 sanctuaries are arguably in the heartland of Madhya Pradesh, at the parks of Kanha, Satpura, Pench, Panna and Bandhavgarh, apart from Ranthambore and Sariska in Rajasthan, and the one named after Jim Corbett, in Uttarakhand (the conservationist and author’s 142nd birth anniversary was celebrated on July 25).
The Sundarbans, meanwhile, is the largest expanse of its kind, rivalled only by the Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam Reserve in Andhra Pradesh, and the Manas National Park in Assam. As the world’s largest mangrove rain-forest, one of extreme levels of salt tolerance in the water and trees, the Sundarbans also make for the harshest, most inhospitable environments in which you can hope to spot the Royal Bengal Tiger — or, if you’re really lucky, the rare sub-species of the white tiger.
Despite the uncertainties of our quest, the excitement was palpable in the air that rests like a heavy, impermeable cloak over the saline, unpleasantly brackish waters of the Sundarbans delta, nestled between the river basins of the Padma, the Meghna and the Brahmaputra, spread across West Bengal and Bangladesh.
With the promise of live Baul music and spreads of seafood, a handful of us had embarked on this journey in the wee hours of a blazing, humid summer morning, scuttling our way over the platforms of Kolkata’s Sealdah Railway Junction.
The spirit of adventure, or "romancho" in Bengali, led us on board the first train out to the town of Canning, in the South 24 Parganas district, and then on to the Gadkhali ferry ghat, where our motorboat, the MB Tuhina, awaited us. (Sonakhali is a similar boarding point.)
Along Canning’s streets, a row of sites sit shrouded in "khabra jaal", or improvised angling nets — an uncomplicated set-up, unlike the Chinese fishing nets of Kerala. Nevertheless, the prospect of fresh crabs with golden claws for lunch was very real, we were assured.
The Tuhina, for a note, was spacious, if not as luxurious as the houseboats in Kerala’s backwaters, or the shikaras of Srinagar’s Dal and Nagin Lakes, in Kashmir. The difference, of course, was that the Tuhina was taking us down some of the most dangerous waterways in the world — as treacherous as of the Amazon, and as mystical as of the Mississippi.
The gods of the swamp
Soon, with the Tuhina’s two-cylinder, ~95cc diesel engine at maximum rev, we were chugging along at the speed of a blubbering mouthful of sputters per minute, heading directly into the largely unexplored 10,000 sq km domain of the Sundarbans.
In a snapshot, it’s a dense, uncharted cluster of islands, small and large, covered in mangrove forests that rise and sink by 30-50 ft with the tide every day.
At the docking point of every island stands a shrine of the Bonbibi deity, worshipped as a saviour and protector by the baulis (woodcutters), maules (honey collectors) and fishermen, each time they enter the forest.
The Bonbibi idol, worshipped by Hindus and Muslims alike, is arranged with a tiger on one side, representing Dakshin Ray ("dokkhin-raai"), the Tiger God, and deities such as Ma (Mother) Narayani, Kalu Khan and Gazi Saheb.
The Tiger Reserve covers over 2,500 sq km of creeks, channels and rivulets, some a few feet apart, others a few kilometres wide. We made quick stopovers at the islands of Pakhiralay, and Gosaba, the last inhabited village at the edge of the Sundarbans, for supplies — fresh fish by the kilo!
The catch of the day included native varieties of amodi, paira-chanda, bhetki (barramundi), bou-maach (loach), magor or pabda (catfish), crab (kakra) and duck eggs (haansher dim) – all for an over-generous meal prepared by Raju Mollah, our mild-mannered, yeti-sized on-board cook, standing tall in the boat’s snug, smoke-filled kitchen area, tucked alongside the steerage.
Raju Mollah also gave us our sailing rule #1: absolutely nothing is to be tossed into the waters; littering of any manner is strictly penalised in the Sundarbans. Let’s not forget, it’s a UNESCO world heritage site. Also, definitely no spitting in the swamps.
Call me to the mohona
The setting conjures visions from Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, of what he calls "bhatir desh", or land governed by the un-tameable ebb and surge of the sea. Quite like Ghosh’s character, the defiant scientist Piya Roy, we too harboured the hope of tracking Irrawaddy dolphins.
As for witnessing the great wild cat in its natural environs, the chances were statedly slim. At the very least, we were looking forward to filling our heads with terrifying tiger tales.
We had to make quick time to get to Netidhopani, the farthest point on our route, by sundown, as we coasted down River Matla, heading towards the Panchamukhi, a confluence of five rivers — the
Bidya, Pirkhali, Khonakhali and Hedobhanga, apart from the Matla.
We’d later head back down the Bidya. Google Maps, on my phone, showed us beeping down a trickle in a crowd of widening streams, like a sweat bead trapped in a continent-sized geographical armpit.
The Sundarbans is full of confluences, or mohona, of clusters of six or more watercourses. Other rivers that we boated past included the Hogol, Gomor, Durgaduani and the Gumdi.
The delta forms a super-confluence of the Ganga, Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna pouring into the Bay of Bengal. As a result, the waters are an indistinguishable mix of freshwater from the rivers and the saline waters of the sea.
Our tour also took in stops at the island reserves of Sajnekhali, Sudhanyakhali and Dobanki, for watchtower views and walk-throughs of museums, fossilised remains of past excursions, and
turtle and crocodile hatcheries.
Cats in the crossfire
The Tuhina’s clattering engine was cut off every now and then, allowing us to drift quietly along the hostile swamps. There’s no question of stepping into the marshes, or even of the boat getting too close to the waterline.
Crocodiles, monitor lizards and snakes are constantly within snapping distance in the murky waters. Expertly navigating his way through the choppy waters, the Tuhina’s sareng (captain), Pallon Mollah, casually briefed us about the uninhabitable territory we were sputtering through.
The salty air in these water-logged jungles inhibits the avian population, said the captain, as do the many poisonous fruits found in the Sundarban’s largely barren, unyielding tracts of land. What made the hairs on our neck stand on end was his word of advice for the night, “Keep the windows shuttered”. A full-grown tiger could shred through the tinderbox of the Tuhina within minutes.
The forest department has begun working with local communities to form response teams for human-tiger encounters, informed our captain. Local volunteers, nearly 500 of them, are equipped with basic medical kits, and trained to save tigers that might have strayed into a village.
They put in added hours to prevent poaching and increase awareness, given the region’s history of floods and cyclones, coupled with severe erosion.
The bottomline, underscoring all the census efforts, is disconcertingly of an ever-increasing loss of natural habitat — both for humans and the tigers. The most common sightings happen during the rains, said our tour guide, Manas Mondal, as the cats swim from one island to another; these sightings are either of single cats or of family units, of a male, female and cubs.
The Sundarbans (Shundôrbôn in Bengali, literally “beautiful forest”), named after the native tree sundari, is no playground for rookie thrill-hunters, noted Manas, not merely as each of the Royal Bengal Tigers is rumoured to be a man-eater.
The Bengal tiger fears three things: nets, fire and human voices, said Manas. The cats are generally shy and actually stay away from humans, he insisted, despite uncountable incidents of humans and livestock dragged away or gone untraceable.
Some of these cases are attributed to crocodiles, said our guide, even as rumours abound of entire villages inhabited by women widowed by tiger attacks. Pretty much every home in these parts has lost someone to the man-eaters, said Manas.
Many of the cats are known to be deaf, he added, due to constant exposure to the sounds of the sea. The Bengal tigers aren’t very good high-jumpers, but are phenomenal long-jumpers, he said, adding in jest, “One jump from here, and it will reach Barisat [in Bangladesh]”. Weighing in at roughly 120-130 kgs, the cats are natural swimmers, accomplished in riding tall waves.
Our hopes of spotting a Bengal Tiger in the wild ultimately ended with little more than a sighting of fresh pug marks, spurring us get back with more time at hand (not to forget extra antacids).
While our objective of adventure was met in a raucous night of Baul renditions by the Tuhina’s cabin crew, gently rocking to the water lapping against the boat’s wooden boards, we did manage a prized glimpse of the dolphins early on the morning of our return home.
Numbers: In the cradle
Official figures from the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum place the number of wild tigers in the country at 3,891 (as of 2016), with stated plans to double the population by 2022. While a comprehensive tiger population estimation is conducted once every four years, the ongoing countrywide census will conclude in December 2018.
Until then, the 2016 census revealed an estimated number of 136 tigers in Kerala; 167 in Assam; 190 in Maharashtra; 229 in Tamil Nadu; 308 in Madhya Pradesh; 340 in Uttarakhand; and 408, the country's highest count, in Karnataka, apart from a total of 182 (across India and Bangladesh) in the Sundarbans. Visit projecttiger.nic.in
How to get To the Sundarbans
Sundarbans is roughly 100km away from Kolkata, about two hours by road. Local trains ply between Canning and Sealdah (South) and take about an hour and a half. Shared vans are also available from Canning to Godhkhali Jetty. Public transport can be easily hired from Sonakhali (100 km), Namkhana (105 km), Raidighi (76 km) and Najat (92 km) — all at motorable distances, with access to waterways.
How to volunteer
Play your part to save the tigers
WWF India Join activities to mobilise, coordinate and aid communications activities. volunteers.wwfindia.org
Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) A charitable trust in Bengaluru, CWS facilitates long-term research and conservation. cwsindia.org
Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) WTI is dedicated to conservation and the protection of wildlife and habitat. wti.org.in or email email@example.com
Last Wilderness Foundation (LWF) Help create awareness among forested communities. thelastwilderness.org
Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) Open for short-term volunteer or intern positions. wildlifeconservationtrust.org
The Corbett Foundation (TCF) Focus on critical corridors in north, central and north-east India, and the Rann of Kutch. corbettfoundation.org
Green Guard Nature Organisation Based in Assam, engaging locals communities in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. Email Rituraj Phukan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Wildlife Conservation and Development Centre (WLCDC) Umred-based NGO founded by Honorary Wildlife Warden Roheet Karoo, working in the Tadoba landscape of Maharashtra. Email email@example.com
Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society (HTCS) A voluntary group focusing on tiger and leopard conservation in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, in the Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Anamalai Tiger Reserve Volunteer Team Undertake eco-awareness projects for the forest department at Anamalai Tiger Reserve. Find the page “ANAMALAI TIGER RESERVE — Volunteers” on Facebook.
Parambikulam Tiger Reserve Apply online to volunteer at Parambikulam in the Nelliampathy-Anamalai landscape of the Southern Western Ghats, in the Palakkad District of Kerala. parambikulam.org