Sundarban, India – The Forest Beautiful
Sundarban National Park is one of the most famous wildlife sanctuaries in India and around the world. A trip to India is incomplete without a visit to this beautiful piece of wilderness that is located in the state of West Bengal. The national park is famous for its success story of efficiently managing and conserving the population of the Bengal Tiger that was tottering on the brink of extinction in the 1970’s. The success of conserving this ecological niche can largely be attributed to the locals who despite being attacked, killed, and mauled by tigers, continue to revere and worship it. This is the only place in the world where man eating tigers roam free in the inaccessible mangrove jungles that this forest is made up of.
The nearest town is Canning located 64 kilometers away from Kolkatta (Sealdah) and can be reached by train. From Canning a boat can be boarded which then takes the tourists to Sajnekhali which is five hours away. Boats as well as guides can be hired from Sajnekhali mangroves which then take you in the heart of the jungle. Unfortunately it is not possible to avail of a jeep ride or an elephant ride since the forest is very dense and one third of it is marsh land. A boat ride is the only way to explore the place; however it offers a good opportunity for game spotting. Having said that, Bengal Tigers can be rarely seen in this densely forested mangrove jungles since they are very shy and wary of humans. For permits and further information contact – The Joint Secretary (Forest), Govt. of West Bengal, 4th Floor, G-Block, Writers’ Building, Kolkatta- 700 001, Tel: 225-5601 Ext: 411/754.
Sundarbans are located in a secluded place and have a unique landscape that is carved by the monsoons and the river Ganges. Tourists can explore the forest independently but hiring a guide is advisable since the boatmen are hell-bent on swindling unsuspecting foreigners by literally taking them for a “ride” by roaming around in the labyrinth of mangroves without bothering to venture deep into the forest. The cost of hiring a boat is more than INR 2000 per ride and can even cost more since prices may have increased. Another way of getting around the park is to opt for an organized tour from Kolkatta. The permits and other requirements are taken care of by the travel company and spare the tourist from the hassle of getting these permits and negotiating with the guides.
The Sundarban sanctuary is home to almost 500 Royal Bengal tigers and many other species including the Gangetic Dolphin which is only found in the river Ganges. However, it is almost impossible to spot a dolphin and folklore has it that it is a very good omen to spot a dolphin in this sacred river. Other animals include the saltwater crocodile, spotted deer, king cobra, Indian cobra, wild boars, monitor lizards, jungle cats, the Chital, flying fox, pangolins, macaques, various turtles and sea snakes. In order to enjoy sightseeing in this park, it is important to stay there for at least a week since the jungle is dense and the animals, shy. Some of the endangered species include the Gangetic dolphin, the Royal Bengal Tiger, Olive Ridley Turtle, Ground Turtle, River Terrapin, and King Crabs. The trip is worth the time, money, and effort if you happen to spot even one of these species in the wild.
The Man Eaters of India
This park is notorious for its man eating tigers and 50- 250 people are killed by Royal Bengal Tigers every year. However, no action can be taken against the tigers as it is an endangered species and is also worshipped by the locals. People are often stalked and hunted by the Bengal tiger when they venture into the forest for felling trees or for chopping wood. The Rat-a-tat of axes on wood attracts the tiger and many survivors have borne witness to this unique and sometimes lethal phenomenon. Villagers now adopt various techniques to prevent tiger attacks such as wearing masks (human faced) on the back of their heads which prevents tiger attacks from behind. Local authorities have tried their best to keep the tigers in the park and the villagers outside it but to no avail; the poverty in neighboring villages forces nature to organize lethal rendezvous between man and beast that usually have a grim outcome.
Other Places Of Interest
Some of the other places of interest include the Bhagatpur Crocodile breeding center where you can see the Estuarine Crocodile (endangered/must see) and Ghariyals (long nosed crocodiles). Another place of interest is Sagar Island that is located 80 nautical miles from the city of Kolkatta. This island is 300 square kilometers in size and is a tiger haven as well as a pilgrimage site for Hindus. However, the area is not developed even though it is habitable and has a population of around 160,000. There is no electricity supply for 20 hours in a day and staying here would not be a very good idea. The Netidhopani Watchtower is another place that is frequented by ornithologists, tourists and animal lovers since it provides a safe and high point to watch animals in their natural habitat.
It is impossible to find a luxury hotel in this wilderness; however lodges are available for tourists and provided by the Bali Nature and wildlife conservation society in the Sundarban Jungle Camp. It is also possible to stay in one of the two trawlers that are available for exploring the mangroves. The two small boats are named MV Chitrarekha and MV Sarbajaya which are bigger than the other boats but not very luxurious. Furthermore, forest lodges and forest rest houses are available in Sajnekhali, Bakkhali and Piyali. However, tourists need to get a special permit from the Field Director, Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, PO Canning, District 24 Parganas, West Bengal in order to extensively explore or stay in the reserve.
General Information and Tips
The ideal time to visit the park is between November and February when there is an opportunity for spotting a tiger near the river banks. The nearest airport is Dum-Dum which is located 110 kilometers or seventy miles away from the park. The nearest railhead is in Canning which is 48 kilometers or thirty miles away from the reserve. Road transport is on hand from Kolkata for Namkhana (105 km), Sonakhali (100 km), Raidighi (76 km), Canning (64 km), and Najat (92 km), which are all in the vicinity of Sundarbans and have access to the mangroves.
Equipment & Essentials
The reserve is almost inhabitable during the monsoons so avoid exploring the mangroves during the rainy season. It is important to be careful and not get swindled as people are poor and con unsuspecting foreigners who do not have a guide with them. Never venture into the jungle on foot, which is not permitted, and avoid traveling alone (especially women). Bring a mosquito net, a mosquito repellent, water purification tablets, and a first aid kit. Malaria and Dengue are not uncommon in this area and the best option is a mosquito net that provides protection against mosquitoes and don’t let the jungle bugs bite.