Sunderbans East National Park


Sunderbans East National Park is part of the world’s largest mangrove forest, laced with a maze of rivers and inlets flowing into the Bay of Bengal, subject to some of the world’s most destructive cyclones, floods, earthquakes, and tidal waves.  It is famed for its Bengal tigers. Often more than six feet (2 m) long, not counting a three-foot tail, weighing up to 660 pounds (300 kg), with extraordinary stre ngth and agility, the rare, powerful cats in this reserve look, it’s been noted, “as if they know they are at the top of the food chain.”

Bangladeshi fishermen, woodcutters, and honey-gatherers enter this forest at their potential peril. It was here that workers discovered tigers are reluctant to attack humans face-to-face, so for a while they were safe wearing face masks on the backs of their heads. But tigers are alert, intelligent animals and many quickly caught on. Electrified human-like decoys may also have helped, but since no systematic tests were made, the effect of both efforts is uncertain. Woodsmen also rely on priests who pray for their safety; even so several die from tiger attacks each year.

The Sunderbans is one of the last great remaining wild areas in the world, a mangrove ecosystem stretching 50 miles (80 km) inland from the coast, covering more than 6,000 square miles (16,000 km2), 60 percent in Bangladesh and the rest in adjoining India. It is part of a vast delta draining the Ganges (Padma in Bangladesh) and Brahmaputra rivers and their tributaries in channels ranging from a few yards wide to three miles (5 km), all of it subject to seasonal and tidal inundation, sometimes in spectacular waves up to 250 feet (75 m) high.

In these mangroves lives a wildlife spectrum—rare smooth-coated otters; leopard cats and fishing cats; beautiful axis or spotted deer which with wild boars and rhesus macaque monkeys are main tiger prey species; estuarine crocodiles basking on riverbanks; Indian pythons; and some 400 fish species. Over 270 kinds of birds include white and gold herons, four kinds of eagles—golden, Pallas’ fish-, white-bellied sea, and gray-headed fish-eagle—great flocks of migratory Siberian ducks, 22 kinds of woodpeckers, eight kingfishers including brownwinged, white-collared, and black-capped, rare ruddy swamp francolins, and black-necked and worried-looking mandan-taks or adjutant storks.

Creeks at night come magically alight with glow-worms, fireflies, and millions of bioluminescent microorganisms, food for some 90 fish and 48 crab species which spawn here.

Since 1966 the Bangladesh Sunderbans has been set aside—now as a national park—in three separate reserves with hunting prohibited. Access is not easy. Permits must be obtained from the forestry division office in Khulna, and guides hired (a necessity here). Tigers are not easily seen unless they want to be (often, it is said, too late)—but visitors occasionally tell of one swimming alongside their boat. It’s believed that only old or otherwise weakened tigers that have lost their canine fangs attack humans—but local people prudently fear them all. Threats to tigers include poaching both directly and indirectly, through loss of prey animals. Threats to area habitat include illegal logging and shrimp farming—all uncontrolled by an ill-equipped forestry department—as well as pesticide use on surrounding agricultural areas. A proposed fertilizer plant could allow damaging pollutants to enter the water system, and restriction of fresh water from river regulation could threaten mangrove health and regeneration.

Dry season November–mid-March is best for visits.

International jets as well as local airlines fly into the capital city, Dhaka, which has hotels. Here trips to the reserve can be arranged by air, road, or paddle steamer. This can be done also at Khulna, which is closer to the reserve. Guesthouses with more limited facilities but where motor launch trips and guides can also be arranged are at Kotka and Hiron Point, where there are observation towers.
 

Visitors should realize that wildlife viewing can be chancy in dense jungle—but there’s always the possibility of spotting a tiger from a tower with a spotlight, especially on a moonlit night. Be aware also that ground can be muddy and slippery, boatmen often speak little English, and twice-daily tides can come in quickly at 30 miles an hour (50 kph). Drinking water must be carried into the park.

ALSO OF INTEREST

  This tropical lowland country, roughly the size of England and Wales combined, has, perhaps because of population pressures for land, relatively few designated parks and reserves. Others worth noting, however, include:

Madhupur Forest Reserve, about 80 miles (130 km) northwest of Dhaka (three hours by car)—mixed forest rich in various wildlife species, notably owls—dusky, brown fishing, spotted eagle,and brown wood (unfortunately its area has been cut in half over the past 20 years).

Lowacherra Forest Preserve is similar to Madhupur, about five miles (8 km) east of Srimangal.

Telepara/Satcheri Forest Preserve, about 37 miles (60 km) southwest of Srimangal, with a sandy basin attracting many birds, also numerous woodland species.

 Crested serpent eagles’ crests rise and fall with their feelings of excitement, over danger, mating, prey possibilities. Otherwise they are almost invisible except for bright yellow eyes, legs and feet, as they perch quietly in the forest, waiting for a snake or lizard to slither along. It’s a taste they acquire when young. One nestling only eight inches (20 cm) long was known to swallow a snake three times its length, taking an hour and a half in the process. When not foraging, they can soar for hours over home territories in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, giving a variety of clear, ringing whistles and screams.

Crested serpent eagles’ crests rise and fall with their feelings of excitement, over danger, mating, prey possibilities. Otherwise they are almost invisible except for bright yellow eyes, legs and feet, as they perch quietly in the forest, waiting for a snake or lizard to slither along. It’s a taste they acquire when young. One nestling only eight inches (20 cm) long was known to swallow a snake three times its length, taking an hour and a half in the process. When not foraging, they can soar for hours over home territories in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, giving a variety of clear, ringing whistles and screams.

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SUNDERBANS EAST NATIONAL PARK as well as...

Madhupur Forest Reserve

Lowacherra Forest Preserve

Telepara/Satcheri Forest Preserve

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