On the Wild Side: SUNDARBANS, WEST BENGAL

The home of the Royal Bengal tiger, many reptiles that are unique to this delta and even the Olive Ridley turtle, the Sundarban National Park located in the cusp of West Bengal in India and Bangladesh is where nature is free to show its wild side…

WORDS BY- AMOG

APART from being a unique largest mangrove eco-system of the world, the Sundarbans is home to the world’s largest deltaic mangrove forests and offers the most optimum habitat for India’s most iconic wildlife species – the Royal Bengal Tiger. It is also the world’s largest estuarine forest, criss-crossed by hundreds of creeks and tributaries, intersected by a network of tidal waterways, small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests and mudflats.

The amazing network of waterways makes almost every nook and cranny of the forest accessible by boats or rafts making navigation through the forest a walk in the park. Explorers have come back and called it an undiscovered paradise and one of the most alluring places on the planet.

The Sundarbans also serves as a crucial protective barrier for the inhabitants in and around Kolkata against the floods that result from the cyclones, which are a regular occurrence. No wonder, the Sundarban National Park has been enlisted amongst the finalists in the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located at the Southeastern tip of the 24 Paraganas district, about 110 km from Kolkata.

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And is said to have got its name from a mangrove plant known as Sundari. And true to its name, the Sundarbans are a beautiful jungle. The park is a part of the world’s largest delta, formed by the mighty rivers Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna. It spans a vast area covering 4264 sq. km in India alone. It is the largest Tiger Reserve and National Park.
This beautiful land is home to more than 250 tigers. The Royal Bengal Tigers have adapted themselves very well to the saline and aqua environs and are extremely good swimmers. Swimming in these waters adds on extra game of fish, crab and water monitor lizards to their diet. They are also renowned for being ‘man-eaters’, but that’s most probably due to their relatively high frequency of encounters with local people. As you enter the adventurous wild land of the Sunderbans, there’s a fair chance to spot the chital deer and rhesus monkey.

In the waters of this forest, you can find a variety of fish, red fiddler crabs, and hermit crabs. And then there are the crocodiles, which can be often seen along the mud banks. Sunderban National Park is also noted for its conservation of the Ridley Sea Turtle. An incredible variety of reptiles are also found in these dark woods. These include king cobra, the rock python and the water monitor. The endangered river terrapin, Batagur baska, is found on the Mechua Beach. And if you are on Haliday Island, you might hear a bark that belongs to the barking deer that are found only here. The Sajnakhali area, listed as an Important Bird Area, contains a wealth of waterfowl and is of high importance to migratory birds.

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The islands are also of great economic importance as a storm barrier, shore stabilizer, nutrient and sediment trap, a source of timber and natural resources, and support a wide variety of aquatic, benthic and terrestrial organisms. They are an excellent example of the ecological processes of monsoon rain flooding, delta formation, tidal influence and plant colonization. Covering 133,010 hectare, the area is estimated to comprise about 55% forestland and 45% wetlands in the form of tidal rivers, creeks, canals and vast estuarine mouths of the river. About 66% of the entire mangrove forest area is estimated to occur in Bangladesh, with the remaining 34% in India.

Habitat of wildlife is maintained through eco-conservation, eco-development, training, education and research. Ten Forest Protection Committees and 14 Eco-development Committees have been formed in the fringe of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve to help with this. Seminars, workshops and awareness camps are organised near the park to educate the people on eco-conservation, eco-development and such other issues. Mangrove and other plants are planted in the fringe area to meet the local need of fuel wood for about 1000 villages and to conserve the buffer area. Conservation of soil is done to maintain the ecological balance. Several sweet water ponds have been dug up inside the park to provide drinking water for the wild animals.

Best time to visit this natural wonder is just midway through November and all the way to February. Other months are too hot and humid for you to enjoy your time there. But the Sunderbans are not easily accessible. To get to here, you could take a flight or a train. The nearest airport is Kolkata, the nearest railway station is Canning, and the nearest town is Gosaba. And from there you might have to look for a private cab to take you to the Sundarban jetty from where you could hire private boats to look around. But spotting a tiger and other wildlife in their true spirit and in their natural habitat is pretty much worth the visit.