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Published: October 16th 2008
The Sunderbans is a strange place and quite unique really. We decided to visit the protected forrestry because of its location to Kolkata and because of the high concentration of Bengal tigers. The Sunderbans are made up of mangrove forest that are separated by a large network of channels and rivers that make up part of the worlds largest river delta. The reserve also crosses over into Bangladesh and is said to be home to over 270 tigers. Due to the vast amounts of water that ebbs and flows with the tides the tigers are well adapt to swimming, much more so than their inland relatives. They have been known to swim great distances and even board fisherman's boats in search of a tasty snack. Typically Tigers are shy creatures who would rather steer clear of humans however at the Sunderbans this is not entirely the case; there is a great deal of literature regarding tiger attacks in the area and even though we came across some conflicting reports there was no mistaking that some of the tigers of the sunderbans are man eaters with a reputation that is less like tiggers and more like shere kan's.
We left for
the tiger reserve on Thursday after our night out at Puja festival. The coach journey to Canning was fine although I couldn't help thinking that our group was somewhat on the large side, particularly for a wild life tour, we were nearly 40 in number. The drive took nearly three hours and through several villages where we experienced our first taste of rural India. At canning we met a large boat that took us up stream to our resort, the Sunderbans tiger camp. The accommodation was really nice and although we were advised that we would have to share our 'tent' (it was more like a chalet than a tent, its large bamboo frame was covered in canvas and had an attached bathroom.) with others it turned out we didn't, well humans at least. There were the obvious geckos who had politely left a present in the form of some poo on our bed and a small frog who decided to take a shower with me in the morning but other than that we spent most of our time at the tiger camp in relative comfort. Once we had dropped off our bags we ate lunch and then set off
A tiger had been here and probably quite recently.
for the tiger reserve museum and watch tower.
It was at the tiger reserve centre where my suspicions about the size of our group were confirmed. I have been on safari's and wildlife walks etc.. before and with never more than 10 or so people. This is for obvious reasons but mostly because large groups of humans don't attract wild life they scare it away, especially when they are talking at the tops of their voices. I was dumbstruck when we climbed the viewing platform, not only was everyone allowed on it at once but no one was told to be quiet and carried on their conversations and occasionally shouted 'look a tiger' that was followed with bellows of laughter. Naturally I found this hilarious. It was only the Indian families doing this which unfortunately forced me to take an instant dislike to them. One family even thought it was appropriate to fit their children out in shoes that squeaked as they ran along the floor! Sadly this behavior continued without objection from our impotent tour guide, at one point I even ended up having a go at a group of lads who were carving their names into an
6 foot tall aloe plant. They ignored me and just carried on. This attitude really has infuriated me and has discouraged me from considering further visits to India's national parks. There is no doubt that Indians are loud people - I guess when you live in a country with over a billion people you need to speak up, but the selfish, demanding behaviour I witnessed at the Sunderbans wasn't about being Indian or about a different culture it was about being wealthy. And as it tends only to be the wealthy that can afford holidays in India and now it is holiday season I think it best I keep clear of India's national parks. Aside from the annoying habits of some of our tour we did actually have a good time and meet some very interesting people. I also felt I learnt a great deal about tigers and the unique environment that is the Sunderbans.
The range of wild life at the reserve is extensive, some of the most appealing for me were the Irrawaddy and Gangetic dolphins, the mud skipper's and fiddler crabs. There are also hundreds of species of fish and birds, crocodiles, spotted deer and of
course tigers. Many of the animals have adapted to the harsh environment of the Sunderbans, the deer for example are able to excrete salt from their glands due to the high salinity of the water. Considering the inconsideration of some of our tour group we did see quite a bit of wild life including king fishers, sand pipers, a small croc, a gangetic dolphin (apparently! - the guide said there was one but I don't think anyone else actually saw it), we also saw storks, herons, fiddler crabs and loads of mud skipper's. The latter two were my favourite and I sat watching them on several occasions. The male fiddlers have one huge claw that they use to attract females and just bolster around displaying it as if to say 'I've got a big one, don't mess with me' or 'look at my big claw, fancy popping round to mine?' Their eyes sit on top of stalks which make them look like aliens. As bizarre as they are they were a pleasure to watch scurrying around. And then there were mud skipper's, literally skipping between the crabs which were as a child one of my favourite animals. They are equally
as bizarre as the crabs, they are like a cross between a fish and a newt, almost prehistoric. They have such simple little faces with big bulbous eyes that look set to pop that you couldn't imagine an ounce of malice in their bones. We had set out on a big cat safari and there I was excited about the tiny little creatures filtering out mud on the bank. I guess sometimes the detail really is in the little things.
Our evenings at the camp were kept busy with performances from the local people and locally made film about the Sunderbans. The first performance was a series of songs and dances that were filled with energy and were very good. The second performance was a pantomime that told the story of Bon Bibi, whom the people of the Sunderbans highly revere. Bon Bibi is the forest goddess who protects the people of the Sunderbans, it is said that when a tiger or wild animal attacks a human then it is because the spirit of the evil Dokkhin Rai has inhabited it and the only chance of survival is to call out Bon Bobi's name. It seems that this is
widely believed throughout the land and small shrines dedicated to the forest protector are dotted around the landscape, some of which are tucked neatly away on small islands and mud banks. The pantomime was great fun with fantastic costumes. However it was acted out in Bangla which meant that we wouldn't of understood it without having read the script prior to the performance.
The play and generally being at Sunderbans was even more compelling because we had been reading 'The Hungry Tide' by Amitov Ghosh. Reading it helped shed more light on the importance of Bon Bibi to the people of the area. It turned out it was also being read by most of the other members of our tour and one of them was even writing a review of the book. The novel gave us some unique insights into the Sunderbans and is a book I would certainly recommend having been to, or going to Sunderbans or not. Ghosh writes beautifuly and so accuratley about the environment commenting on its every aspect with fantastic detail. And of course she mentions the tigers, how could she not with such a title? She writes that the tigers of Sunderban's are
like 'ghosts' and that 'they are so rarely seen that to behold one, it was said, was to be as good as dead.' Scary stuff. If this is true then I am grateful that we didn't see one, although with 40 of us on the boat the odds weren't that bad and frankly there were a couple who I would of gladly pushed over board but alas it was not be. And so we left Sunderban's having not seen the great striped cat but so much more the wiser about them and the fantastic habitat that is the Sunderban's.
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