"Nothing exists for itself alone, but only in relation to other forms of life" ~ Charles Darwin


Captive in Sundarban

Subhasish Chakraborty describes a visit to the Sundarban Tiger Reserve in West Bengal, home of the Royal Bengal Tiger.

Last December we embarked on a wildlife trip to Sundarban Tiger Reserve in West Bengal. I went on the invitation of a group of French tourists who came to visit West Bengal as part of a French Community Welfare NGO by the name of "Asian Connexions". They were on the lookout for a French speaking guide. Since I speak French fluently, they decided to add me to their party.

Along the southern tip of West Bengal stretch the magnificient Sundarban, a 4,262 sq. kms of watery wilderness of which 2585 sq. kms are devoted to the tiger reserve. With an intricate pattern of creeks and narrow channels, open muddy beaches and densely canopied forest, one is acutely aware of the possibility of a lurking tiger or a skulking crocodile, Sundarban has several notable features. Apart from being a UNESCO declared World Heritage Site (Natural) it is also a National Park and part of the Project Tiger.

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The wide expanse of deltaic estuary where the sacred flow of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra river systems mingle with the saline waters of the Bay of Bengal is popularly known as the Sundarban. Of about 10,000 square kilometre of the estuarine mangrove of undivided India, 2,585 square kilometre have been brought under Project Tiger as Sundarban Tiger Reserve.

Over the centuries, the flow of the Ganga gradually turned eastwards and drained through river Padma in Bangladesh, resulting in complete disappearance of fresh water flow through the Tiger Reserve except a trickle in the east in the form of Kalindi.


The journey from Calcutta to Sonakhali was in a luxury bus operated by the Sundarban Tiger Camp and was a an exhilarating 3 hour drive. The Bengal countryside looked lush green and we could see farmers with cows ploughing their paddy fields, a simple and very charming sight. A huge 36 seater motorised fibre glass boat was waiting to pick us up at Sonakhali, from where we journeyed through the backwaters and creeks. The canopied forest cover of Sundarban is so dense that it gets dark even in the daytime. It is a fact that the face of Sundarban changes dramatically with the diurnal tides, because of which the Sundarban forests are in perpetual flux. At peak high tide more than half the land is submerged and the forest seems to float. Life is sustained through a dynamic cycle in these waxy mangrove forests where the leaves which fall into the water are at the base of the ecological pyramid with the mighty tiger at the apex.

This year we were greeted by a spanking new Wildlife Resort - the Sundarban Tiger Camp which is aesthetically appealing. We were served with a welcome drink on our arrival at the Camp. The Tiger Camp blends perfectly with the surrounding lush greenery and the dense canopied mangrove forest. There are a number of tastefully decorated cottages with an eco-friendly feel in the sprawling 9 acre wide resort area. There is 24 hour hot and cold water, separate Western and Indian toilets for ladies and gents. Apart from the cottages, there are twin-bedded Swiss tents and motorised fibre glass boats to visit some of the strategic islands of Sundarban.

A little distance apart from the Sundarban Tiger Camp are the Mangrove Interpretation Center and hatcheries. At the hatcheries, the near extinct Olive Ridley Turtles and the rare River Terrapin (Batagur Baska) are being guarded. Eggs are collected from the wild areas, reared in safe place and then the young ones are released back into the wilderness.


Man first came to live in Sundarban about six centuries ago from the time of Raja Protapadittya's son. Mr.Hamilton, a greatly respected name in Sundarban and a pioneer coloniser came somewhere around 1903. He had leased three islands of Sundarban viz. Rangabelia, Satjelia and Gosaba, from the Viceroy. For sheer survival, he cleared the forests infested with snakes, tigers, crocodiles and spent nights in machans or branches of trees. Mr.Hamilton established a religious center, co-operative societies and dispensaries for the poor. To facilitate local commerce, he was the first to print the one rupee currency note in this area.

The livelihood of around 5000 fishermen is dependent on the saline waters within the reserve. Fishing is allowed only in the buffer zone with valid permits. Narrow water courses are ideal for fishing. During the low tide, when the water recedes, they collect their catch. Similarly honey hunting is allowed in the buffer zone only during the months of April and May. The honey collectors, before the start of their actual operation, fine tune their reflexes to respond promptly to the dangers of a lurking tiger while combing the forest for honeycombs. The hay bundles to smoke out the honey bees and the equipment to collect honeycombs are their only defence weapons. Their knowledge about the behaviour of the tiger is almost instinctive, and developed through long years of actual exposure.

Our sojourn began after breakfast with a boat ride. Within 15 minutes the haunting beauty of Sundarban began to unfold like a veil slipping from the face of a beautiful woman. We could see the lush green mangrove forests on either side of the bank. The scenery became hauntingly wild with the increasing silence. We could see the occasional Dalmatian Pelican and the Giant Heron making their rhythmic flights across the water to the mangrove forests on either side of the bank.


An SLR (single lens reflex) camera with a zoom lens, such as a 70 to 210 mm lens, is probably the best option for shooting a moving subject. The more common "point-and-shoot" cameras are too small and may give you disappointing results. The Indian sun provides excellent lighting, but using larger lenses will require faster film, especially in early morning or late afternoon when the light is softer. In this case, 200-400 ASA film is recommended. A lens hood and ultra violet filter are advisable.

Only the lucky ones sight the elusive tiger. We did spot a lone Royal Bengal Tiger, courtesy our jungle guide Deepak. Sunlight was filtering through the leafy canopy in a harlequin pattern of light and shade. We heard muted curses as the park ranger directed his team of trained trackers, to push their way through dense bamboo. Somewhere a tiger, satiated after a kill, was sleeping after his meal.

We hoped that in slinking away, the cat would head in our direction where a 3 feet barrier of white cloth was strung taut across the bushes. Although the 500 lb, lethally armed predator could effortlessly rip through the flimsy stockade, the stark white cloth against the green jungle would make him wary, and he would be apt to search for a another way. If the plan worked, the tiger would eventually emerge through a 50 feet opening in the quarter mile long tunnel beneath the leafy canopy. This is what tiger tracking is all about: to find answers to basic questions like, how many can live in a particular forest? What kind of prey do they feed on ? How long do tigers live and above all, how are they responding to man-made changes in their environment?

The avian fauna is rich and varied with more than 100 species here. Some of the resident bird species of Sundarban are the Giant Heron (Ardea Goliath), Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus Philippensis), Lesser Adjutant Stork (Leptotilos Dubius), Whitebellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus Leucogaster), Osprey (Pandion Haliaetus), Shaheen Falcon (Falco Peregrinus).The evening was spent marvelling at the sights and sounds of Sundarban which is a bird watchers delight, like all tiger havens.

Getting There
Getting to Sundarban National Park is not a problem at all as it is located close to the city of Calcutta which is well connected to the rest of the country by air, rail and road. If travelling by your own transport, it might be advisable to leave your vehicle at a safe place in Calcutta and use the public transport system or the STC run transports. If you choose to drive all the way to Canning, you might have to leave your vehicle unattended for the period of time you spend inside the park.

There are Forest Lodges, Government and private hotels as well as tented accommodation.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.