Sunderbans Trip Report
by Sumit Sen
21st -23rd January 2006
I visited the Sunderbans for a few days in late January with friends and to many of us it was a regular pilgrimage of sorts to Nature's shrine. The Sunderbans is the largest delta and the largest mangrove forest in the world. Huge, magnificent and foreboding, the allure of the endless stretches of water and mangroves is magnetic.
Much has been written about the Sunderbans and Amitav Ghosh's beautifully descriptive "The Hungry Tide" has enticed many a visitor to this magical place. In this report I have chosen to present "The Sunderbans" visually, through images.
Most trips to the Indian Sunderbans begin at the Sonakhali jetty. Sonakhali (on the River Hogol) is 90 kms from Kolkata ( 2.5 hour drive) and is the start of the chain of waterways that are a feature of the land of a hundred islands. Opposite Sonakhali is the town of Basanti. From Sonakhali, a slow and comfortable Motor Launch carries you down the Durgaduani Channel past densely inhabited islands ~ former forests tamed by man with the blessings of "Bonobibi", the resident deity. Durgaduani connects Sonakhali to Gosaba and continues to meet the River Gumdi - the start of the 'Land of the tigers'.
[Author's update 2017: Trips now start from Gadkhali Jetty which is connected by road to Kolkata. Gadkhali is opposite Gosaba town]
A bend on the Durgaduani channel
In tide country birders are never far from their binoculars and photographers from their cameras ~ even on a family holiday! The 4,000 sq. km of mangrove forests in the Indian Sunderbans is host to eight of the twelve species of kingfishers found in India. The Pied was the first of the six species we saw on this trip.
The stunning Collared Kingfisher is a mangrove resident, and rare in India. Widespread over the entire area in summer, in winter the larger and more aggressive Black-capped Kingfisher invades the area in great numbers pushing out the Collared to the forest fringes. This one seemed a trifle out of its depth to be hunting on the Durgaduani.
The battered hoarding at the junction of the Durgaduani and the mighty River Gumdi welcomes you to "Tiger Land".
The 'Sunderban Tiger Reserve' starts on the opposite bank of the Gumdi and stretches south till land meets the Bay of Bengal. We have now entered wild Nature's domain. Here both land and the water are controlled by 'Dakshin Roy', the Tiger God and enemy of Bonobibi, the protector. You step on Dakshin Roy's territory at your own peril!
We reached Sunderbans Jungle Camp, the rustic and quaint resort run by Help Tourism at mid-day. The journey took us under 5 hours from the time we left home. The resort is located on the island of Bali ~ one of the southernmost inhabited island in the Indian Sunderbans. Bali is bordered by the Gumdi on the south, the mighty River Bidya on the north, Khanakhali on the west and the Duragaduani on the east. The resort is located on the banks of the Gumdi and overlooks the Sunderban Tiger Reserve and National Park.
Bali is home to 40,000 residents who constantly struggle against the elements to eke out a living from agriculture, fishing and collection of forest produce.
Traditional welcome, Bali Jungle Camp
While the rest of the group stretched their legs, the intrepid photographer scouted the area around the Jungle Camp for avian subjects. Bird number 1 on Bali was a fine Indian Silverbill - a species not previously reported from the area. A good start to the trip!
Common Kingfisher, Green Bee-eater, Jungle Babbler, Oriental Magpie Robin and Plain Prinia were also in evidence around the Camp.
Post a memorable lunch we headed for the Sajnekhali Forest Office to get our first taste of wild Sunderbans and, more importantly, to pick-up our Forest Guide. Leaving Bali we crossed the Gumdi heading east meeting boatloads of very cheerful holiday makers on the journey. A short halt at Sajenkhali and a chance to say hi! to the rather touristy Rhesus Macaques thronging the jetty. Next stop was the Sudhanykhali watchtower. Sudhanykhali is usually a nice place to see Water Monitors, Spotted Deer, Red Junglefowl and the occasional tiger (a tourist saw 4 a couple of days before our visit). We were looking forward to spending some quiet time in the forest as the sun set around us.
But that was not to be! On the day of our visit, the jetty was blocked by an invasion of tourist boats and we decided to stay away from the crowds and enjoy the serenity of the ride instead.
As the boat turned from the jetty, a flash of orange and red caught our eye on the opposite bank. Here was a chance to see one of the most enigmatic kingfishers in India, the threatened Brown-winged Kingfisher. This large Kingfisher is a mangrove specialist and can be found in places as far as Lankawi (Malayasia), Bhitarkanika (Orissa) and the Sunderbans. Nowhere is it seen in large numbers and nowhere is it common. So a boatload of us had the rare treat of watching this beauty taking its evening bath - a truly memorable moment!
Coastal areas are renowned for the beauty of their sunrise and sunset. Sunderbans, to me, is a sunset place. At this time the sky assumes myriad hues which reflect on the calm waters creating brilliant sparkles which are framed against the backdrop of dark and silent jungles.
Back to base for the night, but the birding never stops, even after sundown! Bali island, like most areas of the Sunderbans, has no electricity. Help Tourism uses solar lights at Jungle Camp. The only bright light in miles is a surefire invitation to insects and inevitably to those creatures of the night who live off insects. The Spotted Owlet watching us with a certain amount of disdain is thus a regular at the Camp ~ keeping the mice down and the visitors entertained
Day 2 started with a bit of early morning birding on Bali island. Plain Prinias and Purple-rumped Sunbirds were noted to be abundant around camp and Chestnut-tailed Starlings seemed to have replaced the Common Ioras seen on earlier visits.
Our primary aim on this visit to the Sunderbans was to enjoy the feel of the place. One way to do this is to take a day long cruise through the numerous channels and creeks which are typical of the landscape. These channels eventually connect to great stretches of open water where many rivers meet. Confluences like 'Panchmukhani' gives one the feel of being out on a calm sea without any land in sight ~ a place to appreciate the size and scale of the Sunderbans.
After a quick breakfast we got aboard M.V. Sundari. Our destination ~ the watchtower at Netidhopani. Netidhopani is some distance away from Bali and is the southernmost point we will visit on this trip. Our journey to Netidhopani will take us over the Khanakhali River and then through the many channels which crisscross the Sunderbans. We will eventually connect to the vast stretches of the Goasaba River on the banks of which lies Netidhopani Ghat.
River Gumdi meets the River Kharakhali
Black-capped Kingfishers are much in evidence in the Sunderbans at this time of the year. We counted over forty of these brilliant kingfishers on the trip.
The Sunderbans is the land of the tiger, crocodile, shark and venomous snakes. This juvenile Estuarine Crocodile, spotted by Kevin, was one of the few that we saw on the way to Netidhopani.
On a previous visit Bikram Grewal and I spotted an over 18 feet monster - one of the largest photographed in India.
Fishing is a way of life for the inhabitants of tide country. Many fishermen travel for days in search of catch in dangerous country using these small boats (see image) as a home.
Fishing Boat, Khanakhali
While the men face the many hazards of the the open spaces in search of ever dwindling prey, the women endlessly trawl the river banks in search of Tiger Prawn fry. A normal catch fetches Rs.20-25 ($0.50) - the effort of many hours in dangerous waters.
Intensive fry fishing is devastating the ecology of the area as the non-commercial catch is destroyed and countless marine species have been put at risk of extinction as a result.
The large Whimbrels and Eurasian Curlews are the most conspicuous birds on the extensive mudflats of the Sunderbans.
The Tiger is elusive in the Sunderbans. Though its presence is felt, it is rarely seen. Telltale signs are a reminder that the guardian of these mangroves is always around, watching but unseen!
In tiger country, the beast is never called by its name. Locals refer to the striped feline as "Mama" or uncle from fear and reverence.
The mudflats support a variety of marine forms adapted to the changing water levels which dictate every aspect of life in tide country. The mudskipper, an air-breathing fish of the Goby family, is a good example of such adaptability. It is equally at home in land and water and can use its fins as limbs to crawl and climb.
There are 15 species of raptors in the Sunderbans checklist. We added a new one at the Netidhopani watchtower, a Changeable Hawk Eagle. More importantly, the bird was a dark morph specimen, the first of the type recorded in India. A star bird and a star record for the trip!
Changeable Hawk Eagle
Other raptors seen on the trip included a solitary White-bellied Sea Eagle, Ospreys, Brahminy Kites, Oriental Honey Buzzard and Shikra.
Netidhopani has mystery, myths and folklore. The ruins of a 400 year old temple point to the presence of humans in the area before the land went back to the forest. Little is known about the original inhabitants and work is just beginning to start on unraveling the mystery surrounding those who were the first to tame the Sunderbans.
The folklore based on Netidhopani relates the touching tale of eternal love between Behula and Lakhindar. Manasha, the goddess of snakes has a feud with Chand Sadagar, a merchant. In an act of vengeance she kills his only son Lakhindar on the wedding night. Behula, the child bride, puts Lakhindar's corpse on a raft of banana stems and travels to the court of the gods to pray for her husband’s life. On the way, she passes Netidhopanir Ghat, where Neti, a washerwoman, is plying her trade. Neti’s little son disturbs his mother at work and she picks him up and bashes the child on the washing stone, dropping him dead in the process. Washing finished, Neti calmly picks up her son and restores him back to life before heading home. Inspired by Neti's prowess, Behula seeks her help in restoring her husband's life. Neti helps Behula find the court of the gods. As with most folklores, the tale has an inevitable happy ending.
The journey back from Netidhopani takes the boat through some of the largest river systems in India. Miles and miles of water stretch to the horizon at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal. This is the land of sharks, dolphins and crocodiles.
One of the most enigmatic residents of the Sunderbans is the Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), a greatly threatened estuarine species found in small numbers in dwindling habitat. Made famous in 'The Hungry Tide', this beauty was spotted by Sudeshna on the River Matla while it was fishing in the golden light of the setting sun.
A small detour on the return trip took us to the Dobanki watchtower, where a short canopy walk is the main attraction. A particularly tame Hoopoe was the birding feature. The bird refused to fly till you literally stepped on it! Other birds at Dobanki included a wire hopping Dusky Warbler and an Osprey
The evening at Camp was devoted to a performance of folk-theatre ('Jatra') featuring the tale of Bonobibi. Interestingly, Bonobibi has Islamic origins but is worshipped in the form of an idol by all inhabitants of the Sunderbans, be they Hindu or Muslim by faith. The story of Bonobibi's travels from Saudi Arabia with her brother Shah Jungli to the forests of the Sunderbans and the vanquishing of the evil Dakshin Roy while protecting the faithful 'Dukhey' is a much adored village theatre in these parts, bearing endless repetition.
The last day of the trip was devoted to bird watching.
The morning hours were spent on Bali and the posing Common Kingfisher provided a nice start to the day.
Other birds around the village included a Verditer Flycatcher at the extreme south of range, the rather common Greenish Warbler and the smart Green Bee-eater
As we left Bali island in search of waterfowl on the River Bidya, the last kingfisher species seen on the trip made an appearance and a pair of delicate Little Terns bade us goodbye.
The endless stretches of water in the Sunderbans should be the ideal place for wintering waterfowl. But repeated searches in the past had not successfully located significant concentrations in the area. Small flocks, like the Eurasian Wigeons seen flying over Khanakhali, had been noted in the past, but sizeable flocks had eluded observers. We had been tipped-off by locals and a group of birdwatchers who visited the area recently that the River Bidya held ducks in some numbers. Our target was to locate these flocks.
The area we were visiting was to the north of Bali island. The Bidya passes past uninhabited islands which are completely inundated at high tide. The mudflats on these islands held a significant number of waders including the rare and threatened Grey-headed Lapwing and numerous Pacific Golden Plovers. We counted over 30 lapwings and many more plovers.
Pacific Golden Plover
First set of waterfowl sighted on the Bidya was a medium size flock of Lesser Whistling-ducks seen with a pair of Common Shelducks. We were despairing of seeing any more ducks as the river looked empty for miles. Our able guide, however, persisted and we continued further down the river.
As we turned the corner at the confluence, we suddenly came across one of the most significant concentrations of Gadwalls and Wigeons Bikram or I have ever seen. There were literally thousands of birds and the flotillas stretched endlessly. Perhaps the biggest flock recorded in this area in recent times.
Part of the flock of waterfowl
This trip was organized by Mr. Bikram Grewal in association with Help Tourism. Participants included Ms. Alpana Khare, Ms. Sudeshna Sen, Mr. Kevin Fitzgerald, Dr. Sekhar Raha, Sumit Sen and Mr. Asit Biwas (on behalf of Help Tourism).