Sunderbans National Park
Steamy, untamed Sunderbans National Park is a place of wild superlatives. It is part of what is probably the largest single block of mangroves in the world, covering some 6,120 square miles (16,000 km2) of mangrove forest and water, 40 percent of it in India, the rest in Bangladesh.
It is in the largest tidal delta in the world, almost 50,000 square miles (130,000 km2) of alluvial sediments draining three great rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna, in waterways ranging from barge width to a mile (1.6 km) or more across. Tides up to seven feet (2.15 m)—or on coastal islands, 18 feet (5.6 m)—sweep over it twice daily from the Bay of Bengal. Cyclones and enormous tidal waves periodically rearrange its topography and waterways.
At night it comes alive with magical luminescence. Trees glitter with fireflies summoning mates with individual dot-dash light signals. Rivers and channels glow with plankton.
Amidst all this natural chaos tigers hunt for wild boar, spotted deer, and sometimes rhesus macaques—and occasionally, for humans. Especially vulnerable are fishermen and gatherers of honey and wood who eke out a livelihood in the reserve buffer zone (no one is allowed in the core wilderness area). It is the only place where tigers routinely stalk humans, probably because of frequent encounters in secluded situations and past successes. However, so secretive are these stealthy animals that locals say the only time you see a tiger is when it’s too late.
This is where woodcutters and honey-gatherers started wearing face masks on the backs of their heads after learning tigers prefer not to attack from the front. Some tigers caught on quickly, and most did eventually.
Tigers’ numbers here have increased in recent years due to ample prey base including spotted or chital deer (though poaching is a problem), and dense, remote, albeit watery habitat (tigers are cats that don’t mind, even seem to enjoy, swimming).
Aquatic life is lush and abundant. Fishing cats and small-clawed otters make a good living along creeks where some 90 fish species spawn along with 48 species of crabs and a huge variety of mollusks. It is the main shrimp nursery on the Indian east coast.
Three kinds of dolphins frequent tidal waters, including the Gangetic, Irrawaddy, and Indo- Pacific. So do finless porpoises.
A wealth of water-oriented birds are here—several kinds of storks, including the Asian openbill, black-necked, and greater adjutant; swamp francolins; among kingfishers the black-capped, white-collared, and brown-winged. Birds of prey include formidable Pallas’ fish-eagles, whitebellied sea eagles, Oriental hobbies, northern eagle owls, and brown fish owls.
Rare olive ridley sea turtles nest, and Sunderbans is important habitat for huge estuarine crocodiles, Indian pythons, monitor lizards up to nine feet (3 m) long, and 18-foot (5+ m) king cobras, world’s largest poisonous snakes.
But water buffalo and Javan rhinoceros are no longer here, nor are swamp deer, muntjac or barking deer, or narrowheaded softshell turtles. Indian gharial crocodiles, once considered holy and protected, recently have been hunted for their skins. Even in this wild, remote place, denominated a U.N. World Heritage Site, they were not invulnerable to threats from poaching and agricultural reclamation, which continue.
Best times are December–mid-March. Monsoons are mid-June to mid-September, when humidity averages over 80 percent and violent storms may occur, sometimes becoming cyclones with huge tidal waves.
The tiger reserve is 998 square miles (2,585 km2) of which 513 square miles (1,330 km2) is a core national park and wilderness area. Only accommodation has been Sundar Cheetal Lodge at Sajnakhali (visitors are not allowed inside the core national park). (Respect signs prohibiting “movement after evening”—tigers sometimes jump fences at night.)
A nearby heronry can be visited by boat, and there are watchtowers. Launches can be hired (warning: tigers have attacked boats in narrow channels). Permit required. Threats include siltation, agricultural reclamation, potential oil spills from passing tankers, and a proposed fertilizer plant that could discharge harmful pollutants.
ALSO OF INTEREST
The tiny island of Narcondum was set aside for the Andaman teal and Nicobar pigeon and is sole habitat of Narcondum hornbills.
Mahuadaur, 24 square miles (62 km2), was established to protect the once abundant, now rare, gray wolf.
Pirotanis a marine national park for corals, along with green sea, leatherbacked, and olive ridley sea turtles.
Valley of Flowers is an extraordinary Himalayan locale with huge masses of vivid wild flowers.
International travelers can fly to New Delhi or Bombay (Mumbai), with lodging, rental cars, guides, and connecting internal jet air to most cities.