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Missing tigers in Sundarbans

11 October 2010

Back from Sundarbans in one piece  and peace.

We left Kolkata with a bus full of modern Indian tourists of middle and upper class allure and no westerners around, so it was to be a real India holiday experience. The road to the  Sundarbans was interesting; as we dashed out of the city smog we quickly came into sunny spheres of the green and wet pastures of the southern delta. So that’s where the sun was hiding! We first passed some clandestine recycle centers with stacks of assorted plastics, leathery goods and whatnot, collected and cared for by people living in the outer slums. Conveniently close, we could see a huge mountain of garbage (the city’s main dump!) on which there was lively action, probably 24/7.  In Indian reality, such a setting makes perfect sense and feeds communities that depend on it to survive, how depressive  it may sound but such is life for the lower castes.  We came more into real nature where water was the prime landscaper of the villages and their industries. Mud walled and straw roofed huts were built around large ponds and all sort of waterways. Water is everywhere in rural West Bengal. On one side there were small brick oven factories with piny chimneys and on the other side there were a lot of big squared aquaculture ponds for the huge gamba and shrimp industry of West Bengal. I imagine it to be like similar aquaculture places elsewhere in South East Asia.

Getting out of the bus at Sonankhali to take a ferry to the nature reserve, the Indian tourists were heavily flocked by chocolate or paisa begging kids. Normally that always happens to us (or any other foreigner) at every bus, train or other vehicle descent, but our simplistic backpacker look versus rich upper class Indian made us for once invisible. As a well classed Indian from Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore you are just as prone to be seen as ‘foreign’ and a moneybag than any other  foreigner, so it surely is not a skin color thing, just a matter of class.

On the boat we floated past small villages of the same mud walls and straw roofs combination, built behind raised embankments and earthen dams as good protection against floods which surely must happen a lot. Sundarban village life seemed simple and natural. Except for some motor boats with a lot of people waving to us, there were no other motorized vehicles and gave the place a more serene and quiet atmosphere. We soon got into a green watery world without any villages (as humans are not permitted to live inside the park, not wise anyway) where only mangroves ruled, making the area the biggest mangrove forest in world.Such a beautiful area where nature was at peace, as there weren’t much humans to disturb it. Only local fishermen on thin and non powered boats who fished the mangroves with danger for their own lives, as every night sleeping on the water close to the shore was a chance to be killed by a swimming tiger (who can easily swim up to 5 km’s if they want to, crossing the waterways).

We spent the night on the boat in broad midstream and were protected by a guarded park ranger boat nearby. Not against tigers necessarily, but mostly against pirates from Bangladesh who apparently like to come and raid tourist boats or come as poachers to kill and take tigers from the Chinese magic medicine market. We just missed sunrise at 5:30 am when the boat started moving again, but saw the crisp pink orange light that it brought.  We didn’t see any tigers (we knew there was only a small chance), nor crocs or Gangetic dolphins, but we did see a lot of spotted deer (the main tiger food), two water monitor lizards inside a fenced pond of a watchtower spot (of which a big one escaped and came close to us when walked back to the boat, fun indeed), a head of one turtle popping out of the water and some brightly colored birds (yellow orioles and the green bee eater). Lots of special insects too, beetles, moths and more. I guess that seeing a lot of wild animals from a watchtower is almost impossible when you are in the company of loud Indian city folks, who probably expected that all the shy animals would wait and pose for them and that silence was not a virtue needed here. For this, we didn’t get the needed luck from Dakhin Rai, the tiger god. At least the kind nature guide that was on our boat, a local man from a nearby village, told us about the Sundarbans and the many times he had seen tigers, even in his village as they swam (and still swim) over to snatch the occasional cow(!), goat, dog and sometimes a human too.

The Sunderbans logically is a ‘No Plastic Zone’ which means no plastic may be thrown into the water (duh) and our boat had a few of these big signs on the inside of the open upper deck. It still didn’t stop one ‘sophisticated’ elderly Indian man from trying to throw a plastic cover of a bottle into the water. Just then the wind blew it back on our deck, by the power of Bonobibi, the local goddess and caretaker of the Sundarbans forest, hah. We returned back to the Sonankhali dock under a scorching sun, drunk a palm nut and got back in the overheated bus. Back to the city, past the nice green watery fields. I saw a few young boys and a man standing next to a rice field, trying to scare something away with bamboo sticks, perhaps a cobra or another snake which like scour the paddies. Upon rolling into the outer reaches of Kolkata, the sun got shrouded in clouds again, or just smog? Who knows.


Bonobibi & Dakhin Rai shrine on mangrove island


here an awareness video about the Sundarbans

At the end of every post, we’ll also insert a special local dish that we enjoyed .

Food at special Bengali restaurant; Aier fish with banana flower curry. Bengali fish cuisine is delicious stuff, even the rat that ran out of the kitchen into our sight couldn’t kill our appetite. (and the proprietor who saw the rat too and saw that we saw it, didn’t even blink an eye)

We’re gonna lay low in Kolkata a few days and enjoy the Durga fest and some entertainment before we go to the state Jharkhand.  I will post up some local folkpop music in the next one.

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