Dr. Prasanna Sriya is a dentist from Chennai, India. She writes on Wildlife and related issues, as well as short and simple poems for children.
The Sunderbans are believed to have evolved over a period of 6,000 yrs. The Bengal Delta was originally occupied by vast stretches of grassland filled with saline marshes and tropical wetlands containing one of the worlds’ largest stretches of biodiversity-rich forests – the Bengalian Rainforest. These forests were one of the richest wildlife areas of the world, holding elephants, tiger, gaur, leopards, wild buffaloes, three species of rhinoceros, seven species of deer, and a wide variety of other fauna.
Our guide Vikas talked about the Sunderbans, its struggle, its population, and its wild life with great passion. The word Sunderbans in Sanskrit and literally means Sunder – Beautiful; Bans – Vanam (forest in English). It has about 102 islands, some of which are so difficult to approach that it still remains unexplored and unexploited by humans.
The most important aspect is that the total area is 26,000 square kilometers, making it the single largest stretch of mangrove vegetation in the world. India has about 9,630 square kilometers total, and about 4,263 square kilometers of that is the reserve forest.
The Sunderbans National Park was declared as a biosphere reserve and a World Heritage Site by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and UNESCO.
Day 1 (Thursday, January 21, 2010)
Our team consists of Dean of Research Professor Reginald Victor, from Oman. He is a freshwater biologist and a biostatistician. He is an authority on the Freshwater Ostracoda of the Oriental Region. He wrote the first monograph on the Freshwater Ostracoda (Crustacea) of India. We were also joined by his wife, Ms. Jayanthi Victor, Vikas Madhav (my 11-year-old son), and Dr. Prasanna (BDS – Dentist). Our tour guide was Vikhas Mehera, a pleasant person.
The Tiger camp is located in a village called Dayapur, which is one of the villages on Sharjalia Island. This was where we were going to stay. After a 2 hour boat ride, we reached STC (Sunderbans Tiger Camp).
The Sunderbans is an intriguing place and attracts tourists from all over the world. Despite being inhospitable, it has a population of 4 million. Can the place sustain such a huge human presence?
After checking in, we had a quick hot late lunch. Then we decided to go for a walk along the village. Here are some of the striking features that we observed:
- Houses were simple. They were made up of mud, brick and clay.
- Every house had a pond, which it used as the source of its day-to-day water.
- The houses were small and clean.
- The cooking was done outside of the house.
- Bicycles and motorized fish carts were the only modes of transportation, as there were no proper roads.
- There was no immediate medical help in Dyapur; one has to travel to Gosaba, the largest island, or Kolkata on the mainland.
- Each house had its own small garden where cabbage and other vegetables were grown – they were self sufficient houses.
I liked their way of simple life. It is not out of choice, though.
- There was no TV and no electricity – only solar-powered lights.
- People didn’t like to be photographed and were curious as to what we were doing in their village
By 5:15 it was almost the end of twilight, so we hurriedly found our way back to STC (our guide Vikas Mehra was with us the whole time).
Back in STC we were shown a short film on the tigers and the people of the Sunderbans. Nowhere in the world do tigers live in such unfavorable and harsh conditions. It is estimated that there are approximately 250 to 300 tigers in the Sunderbans – one of the largest single populations of tigers.
They are stealthy, agile, great long distance swimmers, and have adapted themselves perfectly well to the salinity, harsh weather, and terrain. Their victims are humans and live stock, because they are easily accessible. Tigers are referred to as “Man Eaters!” The Sunderbans tiger has no natural predator. They are elusive, stealthy killers, excellent swimmers, and, last but not least, they have learned to survive a harsh climate and ecologically unfavorable conditions.
The movie showed how the bee collectors and wood collectors venture into the treacherous terrain to collect honey and wood. This is their livelihood. I was able to reflect the life that we had in the urbanized and protected area called the concrete jungle.
“Life is not a bed of roses.” This was true in the Sunderbans. Both humans and animals struggle.
The struggle for a peaceful co-existence was seen throughout the Sunderbans Islands. On the night of January 19, 2010, a tiger entered Dyapur village and left with a villager’s livestock. The only evidence that the culprit was a tiger was a fresh tiger track (pug mark) that was found as the day broke.
Day 3 (Saturday, January 23, 2010)
Today we heard the strangest story that binds and bonds the people of the Sunderbans, which has surpassed caste and creed, where people see one another and relate to each other as humans. Bonobibi, the forest Goddess, and Dakshin Ray, the tiger god, together protect the Sunderbans and its animals.
The story of Bonobibi is about a pregnant lady who ventures into the forest to collect wood and delivers twins – a girl and a boy. The lady decides to leave behind the girl child and returns back home with only the male infant. The female child grows up in the mangrove with nature acting as her guardian. Dakshin Ray becomes the king of the forest. He allows the people to collect timber, wood, and forest products that suffice their needs and not their greed. If he finds someone taking more from the forest, he kills them in the form of a furious tiger. Bonobibi, the female child who was left in the woods, is the only person who can control Dakshin Ray. Dakshin Ray subdues to Bonobibi only after a futile confrontation with her. He decides the best way to live in harmony is to befriend her.
Today, Muslims and Hindus here venerate idols like Bonobibi and Dakshin Ray. Be it a fisherman, a honey collector, or anyone who ventures into the forest or water – everyone pays respect to Bonobibi and Dakshin Ray. The practice of worshipping nature is still in existence!
This is a place like none other in the world, a place where rising water is the one great reality around which everything revolves. Man is no longer Master of his Destiny. That honor belongs to nature, or as it often seems, the Royal Bengal Tiger. The lives of the five million-odd people who inhabit 40 of the 102 islands are at the mercy of the tide as much as the fearsome tiger that devours scores every year. And the tiger, long adapted to clawing up tree trunks, looks ever less majestic by the year, as the sea–ever warmer, ever rising–threatens to close in the Sunderbans.
The tiger, wild pig, and spotted deer survived the mass species extinction because they learned to adapt to a life in the deep tidally active mangrove forest spread.
Points to Ponder
Man made the land unfit for cultivation and difficult to access, and has exploited nature to its threshold. The extent of the Sunderbans forest area and the mix of its fauna has changed. What is left for the wildlife of the Sunderbans is island-based tidal forests toward the south of the Sunderbans – a habitat not suitable for sweet water-dependent grazers like wild buffalo, rhino, and swamp deer. They have been simply pushed over the edge and into extinction. Overall, during the course of a century from 1880 to1980, about 8,270 square kilometers of wetlands and woodlands were lost forever in the Sunderbans.
We were moved by what was happening around us day in and day out. A tourist visit is typically one week, but to live here f
or 365 days requires endurance. I dedicate this to all the living beings of the Sunderbans.