Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the Sundarban mangroves in West Bengal, India. It was a homecoming of sorts for me, I spent the first two years of my life in Haldia, on the fringes of the Sundarban forest, and my life has now come full circle.
The Sundarban mangroves, spread across the border between India and Bangladesh, marks the confluence of the three mighty rivers, Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna (the largest delta in the world). Intersected by thousands of tidal waterways, rivers, and creeks it is the largest mangrove forest in the world. The Sundarban is over 9,600 km2 (40% in India and 60% in Bangladesh) and is recognised for its value through several distinctions, including as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and World Heritage Site. It is also the only tiger-mangrove habitat in the world.
Over the years, critics have emerged from the woodwork to criticise the state of affairs in the Indian Sundarban, some with very little notion of the realities of life in this unnervingly large wetland. 40% of the Indian Sundarban is inaccessible and remains for all intents and purposes “wild”. Anyone who enters the Sundarban will admit to the primeval feeling of the forest; the kind of place where creatures might have first sprung up from the seas at the dawn of evolutionary processes.
The Sundarban is threatened by a dizzying and complex array of factors. Amitav Ghosh got it right with his title “The Hungry Tide”. The Sundarban tides can reach up to more than 18 feet high in some places, drastically changing the visual aspect of the landscape/seascape. Strange to watch the river flowing from south to north with equal gusto as it was 6 hours prior, from north to south. The cyclic tides daily rob sediment from the islands, reportedly at a faster rate than which they deliver sediment back to the islands. This rapid loss of habitat for deer and other tiger food sources has increased the incidence of tigers venturing into human settlements.
Local traditions and beliefs in the Sundarban are abounding; amongst the most famously known is the tale of Banbibi (Lady of the Forest in Bengali). Legend has it that the powerful demon king, Dokkhin Rai, held complete sway over the forests. He had an insatiable hatred towards humans, whose flesh he craved, and whom he would hunt and prey upon in the form a tiger. Both Hindus and Muslims alike pray to Banbibi, who defeated Dokkhin Rai, before entering the forest. Responding to the sentiments of the people of West Bengal for whom this forest and its deity are deeply ingrained in legend and culture, the forest has always been venerated and protected. However, human-wildlife conflicts are still fairly common in the Sundarbans.
In the short time we were there we heard reports of three wildlife attacks (2 tigers and a crocodile), all resulting in fatalities. All three occurred in the Sundarban Tiger Reserve, a protected area where extraction of natural resources is illegal. The folks at the Forest Department understand the desperation that drives local communities to venture into the forest. They provide monetary compensation to the families to help them cope with the loss of their bread winners. And, they spread awareness of the dangers of venturing into the forest, as well as the importance of conserving the forest and the wildlife within, driving home the fact that without these awe-inspiring predators the ecosystem would be irreparably altered. Very rarely do tigers attack humans in villages, preferring to feed on cattle, but the fear that prevails amongst the local communities occasionally results in brutal tiger killings. The West Bengal forest department captures and relocates tigers back to the tiger reserve on a regular basis, admitting that in some cases tiger management is far easier than people management.
Building the resilience of local communities to the rapidly changing Sundarban environment is necessary to ensure the likelihood that life will continue to exist here. Embankments are being built and mangroves planted to stymie erosion and the ingress of salt water into agricultural land. The construction of jetties and brick roads has picked up rapid pace, to ensure easier connectivity and access to medical and schooling facilities. Solar lighting has been instrumental in enabling children to pursue their education. Each family is being provided with multiple livelihoods; should they lose one to a natural calamity, they have another to bank upon during the recovery period.
The forest department are the keepers of the Sundarban, holding sway over the entire forested dominion. Their field of expertise is seemingly larger than the ecosystem they serve. The list is endless and, in addition to having knowledge of those activities mentioned above, includes estimating the weight gain in chickens and goats by hand, the life cycles of honeybees and commercially important fish, the difference in composition between mud and clay, the design and mechanics of boats and other flotation devices, and meteorology. The affinity they feel for the Sundarban and her people propels them to work 24/7, beyond their mandates, towards ensuring a future for the ecosystem.
We were given the privilege of handing out chickens to 10 families. The 10m long pier, on which the “ceremony” took place, was only 2m wide. Balancing precariously on this were 8 forest guards dressed in camouflage, 2 camera men, 3 bewildered ecologists (a.k.a us), and 140 panicked chickens (half of whom displayed suicidal tendencies in their escape attempts). A young boy and his three goat friends also stopped by to add to the melee. It was not unlike a game of Tetris, shifting and readjusting to find space amongst each other. We left in style on the only operational speedboat in the Sundarban, smelling of chicken in the pouring rain. I resolved to never eat poultry again.
All living creatures in the Sundarban can swim, with the exception of the chickens who are pseudo-Bengali anyway (although it will only be a matter of time before this is no longer true). This is a necessary adaptation for survival. On land, humans mostly use motorised cycle vans (pronounced bhans) to traverse islands. However, in times of flooding, rains, weed attacks, and badly maintained roads (so in conclusion, most of the time) these have to be pushed through slippery knee deep clay and rapidly deteriorating moods. In our case however, our efforts were usually rewarded with tea and food. Bengalis firmly believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with people who dislike deserts, so they hurl sweets at you in alarming quantities! Chum chum, Sandesh, Rasgulla, Pitha! The local communities stuffed us with Jhal Muri and Moa as if afraid we were starving ourselves. I’m not saying we didn’t like it.
I was charmed in an unexpected way by the Sundarban; I think we all changed a little from our experiences there. I have no doubt another (preferably longer) visit is in the cards.
(Interestingly enough the scientific world first found out about the House Crow when Corvus splendens was described from Bengal in 1817; back when they weren’t such a dominant force)