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38. Journeys (7): The sensational Sundarbans

Last week, over the Eid ul-Fitr break (see post 37), I took a four-day trip to the Sundarbans National Park. Because of the logistical difficulties of travelling solo in Bangladesh, particularly in the Sundarbans where there are added security issues, I joined a group tour organised by Riverain Tours, and escorted by its affable, attentive proprietor Syed Mahbubul Islam, known to his friends as Bulu.

The Sundarbans: A UNESCO World Heritage site

I have heard three different explanations of the term ‘Sundarbans’ (pronounced locally as Shundorbun): the first is ‘beautiful forest’ (‘sundar’, ‘ban’), the second is ‘forest of sundari trees’ and the third is ‘sea forest’. All are appropriate: it is a beautiful, sundari, sea forest. The best way to describe the Sundarbans is by way of the map below (click to open larger, clearer version in new window). It is a vast, cross-border, intricate network of rivers, canals and creeks in south-western Bangladesh (and south-eastern West Bengal), flowing through waterlogged forests and subject to tidal action. Covering 3861 sq. miles (10,000 sq. km) of land and water, it is part of the world’s largest delta formed from Himalayan sediment, deposited by the great Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghna rivers. The entire area is constantly being moulded and reshaped by tides and rivers and is a tapestry of waterways, forested chars (sand/silt islands), mudflats and grassy islands. It is the largest littoral mangrove belt in the world, stretching 50 miles inland. The trees are specially adapted with aerial roots to help them breathe during high tide. These roots trap sediment that would otherwise be washed away. Every source that I have consulted gives different area measurements for the Sundarbans. Almost all agree that Bangladesh has the larger portion at 60-62% (though the UNESCO website states that more than half is in India.)  It is widely agreed that the Sundarbans today is half the size it was 200 years ago. In addition to subsidence, the projected sea level rises associated with climate change would be devastating for this fragile ecosystem (see post 53).

The dense jungle environment is a haven for wildlife, some unique, the rarest of which are the endangered gigantic estuarine crocodile and the Bengal tiger. Plant species, bird life, reptiles and fish abound. You will see on the map that there are three wildlife sanctuaries, and we were bound for the reserve furthest east, the ‘Katka-Kochikhali Tiger Point’ sanctuary. The Sundarbans have been a wildlife sanctuary since 1966 and a World Heritage site since 1997.

While the forest trees are commercially exploited for timber, the Sundarbans are not inhabited, except for a few scattered patrol posts where government appointed guards keep watch for illegal loggers, river pirates and fishermen without permits. About 2.5 million people live in small villages surrounding the forest e.g. Chandpai, Sarankhola, Khuriakhali, Burigoalini and Naianala. An estimated 300,000 people from these villages make a seasonal living from the area, through activities such as wood, leaf and reed collecting, fishing (often with the help of a tame otter) and honey-collecting.

Life on the river aboard the M.V. Kokilmoni

One third of the Sundarbans is water, making the waterways the only means of entering the forests. One of the things that attracted me to this trip was the fact that we would be making the journey to the Sundarbans by boat too. I joined the group in Dhaka and we boarded the M.V. Kokilmoni in Pagla Jetty in Narayanganj district, about 20km southeast of Dhaka. The M.V. Kokilmoni is an 85-ft. boat built for tourist cruises and named after a place in the Sundarbans of the same name. I was allocated cabin no. 14, next-door to Sulav and Sagor, two brothers from Dhaka. They are travelling with a friend, Rafique. I don’t think I’ll be spending too much time in the cabin: it’s quite cramped, rather noisy and very hot. We were welcomed by Bulu and the crew, after which breakfast was served below deck. This was a typical Bangladeshi breakfast, though there was toast too and honey from the Sundarbans, so I was happy.

Travelling on water sets the imagination free, and as the day unfolded I felt myself beginning to unwind and relax. I got to know my fellow travellers and made new friends amongst our Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan group. The Sri Lankans are living in Dhaka where they work in the garment industry. Most people are travelling in small family groups or as couples. We travelled down the Meghna River to where it meets the Padma River and at their confluence, the border between the two bodies of water was clearly visible. After some time, we diverted into narrower rivers near Barisal. The Barisal division is luxuriously green and river-braided, with much of the land subject to continuous change through erosion and accretion. However, beautiful though it may be, the Barisal division is also amongst the two most disadvantaged divisions in the country, the other being Rajshahi (see poverty maps at end of  post 30). Throughout the day, we were joined on the rivers by other vessels of different shapes and sizes, from large commercial boats to local fishing boats to small skiffs being rowed by children. There were endless scenes of interest on the riverbanks and friendly smiles and greetings from locals – whether on land or on water.

By late afternoon I was immersed in the rhythm of life on the river. It felt good to be under open skies, drifting through lush, green landscapes. All through the day there were sudden light rain showers. As evening approached we watched the light change in the build-up to a spectacular sunset. We docked in the dark at a little village on the river called Hularhat in the Pirojpur district. I went ashore with Bulu to explore: we walked though a row of small shops along a red-brown dirt road. At a tea shop we met others from our group. The proprietor put a handful of sticks into the base of a mud stove to boil water for our tea. Meanwhile, he adjusted a small black and white television on which a snowy film eventually appeared for our entertainment. We walked back to the boat in the moonlight, stumbling frequently on uneven ground.

The Bay of Bengal: Katka and Kochikhali

On our second day, we continued our laid-back river journey through yet more spectacular scenery on the Baleswar River, before entering the Bay of Bengal between the Barisal and Khulna divisions. Here, the fresh river water meets the salt, sea-water. We rounded Tiger Point on the open sea and travelled on to the remote forest post of Katka, staying close to the coast. The forests are truly beautiful. The day was extremely hot, punctuated by frequent, short, rain showers. The positive side of being here at this time of year is the lushness of the vegetation. Apparently, in winter it’s not quite so luxuriant. There are only a few places to get out and walk around in the Sundarbans and Katka is one of them. We transferred to two smaller ‘country boats’ to take us ashore, where we were accompanied by an armed escort: two forest guards in beige uniforms, brandishing rifles and along for our protection. We followed a trail through the forest at dusk along a rather precarious elevated boardwalk.  In one section, all of the boards were missing and we had to walk across a narrow concrete beam with a drop on either side. Not having the best head for heights, I don’t know if I would have made it without the encouragement of one of my Sri Lankan friends. We didn’t see any tigers, although we saw footprints and claw marks. It was all a little unnerving, though exciting too. We saw a lot of spotted deer through the trees, but on the whole it was relatively quiet on the wildlife front. The highlight was reaching a long, deserted, white-sand beach at sunset.

Back on the boat, we ate dinner and sat around up on deck afterwards, chatting and watching the milky way in a clear, royal-blue sky. And so ended a perfect day – anchored off Katka in the stillness of the night, watching the moon reflected in the water of the Bay of Bengal.

On our third morning we woke early (5 a.m.) to pouring rain, which meant, unfortunately, that we had to postpone our early morning boat trip inland. For any kind of lengthy trip, it would be necessary to leave as early as possible so that we would enter during high tide. Otherwise, we would have to push our boat through the mud. I was wide awake so I stayed up to watch the sun rise, obscured by haze. I saw a herd of spotted deer through the mist on the nearby shore: they had come to the edge of the woods to feed. After breakfast, we went ashore near Katka for a hike, accompanied again by our trusty armed escort. We squelched through quite a bit of mud and got up close and personal with the mangrove trees. We saw mushrooms and lichens and heard a lot of birds, though it was difficult to see them. Apart from deer we didn’t see any animals, though we did see another tiger footprint.

In a large field, we climbed steps to the top of an observation tower from where we could see land and trees stretching as far as the eye could see: this must be a large island. For me, amongst the most beautiful things I saw here were the stands of wild sugar cane (saccharum spontaneum) or kans grass, known locally as kash-phool (literally, grass-flower). This is a tall, willowy, silvery, pampas-like grass. Like pampas, it is very invasive and can be problematic: it quickly colonises silt floodplains created by the retreating annual monsoon floods. It is said to have traditional medicinal properties and is used to make brooms and dusters. I later read that it is viewed as a symbol of autumn in Bengal, as it ‘flowers’ for a short period after the rains. It crops up in Bengali literature too. Rabindranath Tagore (see post 29) wrote an amusing song featuring the grass: ‘Amra bedhechhi kaasher guchchha…’ meaning ‘we have bound bunches of saccharum spontaneum…’. Later, after I had returned from the Sundarbans, I saw an exhibition of photographs of kash-phool in the Drik Gallery in Dhaka.

Another highlight today was a swim in the Bay of Bengal from a white sand beach, that we reached at the end of our hike. I had hesitated at first about getting into my swimsuit, but with the reassurance and encouragement of my fellow travellers I decided to go for it. Some of the other women swam too but with all their clothes on. It felt so liberating being in the ocean and swimming again. I could feel the lovely silky smoothness of the silt beneath my feet and between my toes. The water seemed clean but was cloudy, as would be expected from all the sediment. Somebody had a football and I played catch with Sagor, Rafique and Bulu – it was fun! Getting out and dressed was a bit uncomfortable: a group had formed on the shore to watch my exit. Where did they come from?! However, Bulu got my towel and waded out towards me so that I had some cover. It was worth the discomfort though to have been able to swim in the Bay of Bengal.

After lunch, we started cruising towards Kochikhali Wildlife Sanctuary. Sulav did some fishing en route with a piece of string and successfully caught fish. At Kochikhali we went ashore for another forest hike. There were quite a few people living here. A group of men emerged from a small prayer house wearing distinctive hats that I hadn’t seen before. On this reserve we saw another tiger footprint, wild boar, more beautiful kash plants and some beehives. Again, while we heard a lot of birds we couldn’t see them. As our walk ended, the sun was setting and the light on the water was spectacular.

Back on the boat, anchored off Kochikhali, the Sri Lankans invited me to join them for pre-dinner drinks. We had whiskey and coke and it tasted good: I realised that I hadn’t had alcohol since March last. I was conscious though of my fellow Muslim travellers: I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. We had a fabulous barbecue tonight on the top deck under the stars. The food was delicious and the atmosphere party-like.

Our three landing points in the ‘Katka-Kochikhali Tiger Point’ sanctuary: Katka Forest Station (far left), the Watch Tower and Kochikhali Forest Station (right). (You can see the silt pouring into the Bay of Bengal too.)

Navigating narrow jungle creeks at Kochikhali

On our fourth morning, we awoke early once again for our excursion at dawn and this morning, thankfully, conditions were perfect. We set off in the dark in two small wooden ‘country boats’. These boats are small enough to navigate the narrower channels. They have no motors so noise pollution is minimised. As we slowly and quietly entered the channel there were glimpses through the trees of the rising sun, veiled in haze. The early morning light revealed a ghostly mist floating above the water. There was total silence apart from the lapping of our boatman’s oar and the occasional explosion of birdsong. I felt as though I was in a truly special place and found myself holding my breath. Drifting surreally through these jungle creeks as sunrise evolved reminded me of Heart of Darkness. These steamy, sediment-laden channels looked a lot like Conrad’s Congo – though without the eyes peering at us through the dense tangle of trees. We paused periodically to look and listen.  There were animal footprints and trails in the mud along the banks and between the trees.  In small clearings we spotted deer – well camouflaged by the trees. With each small gap in the foliage there was the hope – and the fear – of seeing a tiger. I desperately wanted to see one, but yet if one had actually come crashing towards us through the mangroves I might have had a heart attack. While our trip was relatively quiet for wildlife – apart from deer – I saw a lot of birds. There were majestic kites and kestrels soaring overhead, and regal eagles lording it over us from treetops. My favourites though have to be the many kingfishers glimpsed briefly in flashes of bright colour, or momentarily perched on mangrove branches before darting away, defying my futile attempts to photograph them. Gently and quietly floating through this unique and beautiful landscape is a memory that will long linger.

The elusive Royal Bengal tiger

The chances of seeing the majestic Bengal tiger in the wild on trips like mine are slim. The tigers are paradoxically revered and feared, threatening and threatened. The Sundarbans is home to one of the largest populations of wild tigers in the world, and therefore their protection and the protection of their habitat is critical. You can read about conservation activities on the website of the Sundarbans Tiger Project (re-named ‘The Wild Team’ in 2012).

The Bengal Tiger has a notorious reputation as a man-eater amongst those living in villages bordering the Sundarbans. Because of its potential size – up to 10 feet in length and weighing 500 lbs – and its ability to swim and climb aboard fishing boats, it has long been an object of terror.  I have read many reports in the papers of tiger attacks.  For example just last month (August 2009) a headline in the New Age read:

‘Tigers kill 23 in Sundarbans in 7 months: Forest resource collectors’ lives insecure’.

The article went on to say that these incidents occurred in the Satkhira range of the Sundarbans and that the victims were fishermen, wood and palm-leaf cutters and honey collectors. Details followed about each of the victims. In many villages there is a woman (and less frequently a man) who is commonly referred to as a ‘Tiger Widow’. If you would like to learn more, you could read this photostory from ABC news. Honey collectors – mawalis – are most vulnerable to attack. In April and May they go deep into the forest, in search of rock bees that are attracted to the flowers of certain mangrove trees.

There are regular reports in the papers too of tigers venturing into villages in search of food. As the top predator in the Sundarbans, the tiger is particularly vulnerable to changes in that system e.g. reduction in populations of its main prey – wild boar and spotted deer – due to poaching. The tiger’s habitat is further degraded by cyclone activity, which diminishes forest cover and reduces its freshwater food supply. Often, the villagers leave bait for the unwelcome tiger and kill it by clubbing it to death with sticks. The tiger may have killed a villager by this time. The survival of the endangered tiger, and the livelihood of the villagers, are inextricably intertwined and dependant on the health of the Sundarbans ecosystem. With regard to seeing the majestic Bengal Tiger, for now I will have to be content with my sighting of one in Dhaka Zoo. (There too, according to newspaper reports, animals are not safe.)

Forest management: local traditional knowledge and wisdom being ignored

Because the biodiversity of the forests and the livelihoods of the villagers are dependent on the Sundarbans system as a whole, the way in which the forests are ‘managed’ is critical. Unfortunately, as in many spheres of life in Bangladesh, management is frequently characterised by corruption, weak governance and a lack of any measure of participatory development. The following video clip from The Ecologist highlights some of the problems.

Homeward bound via Karamjol

All too soon it was time to leave the Sundarbans and begin our return journey towards Khulna, from where we would take an overnight bus to Dhaka. It would, of course, have been preferable to continue all the way to Dhaka by boat, but we didn’t have time on our side unfortunately. The journey upstream to Khulna by river was equally as entrancing as our downstream trip. There were fantastic shifting cloud formations against a clear, blue sky and Sagor and I compared photographs of billowy clouds. I wished I’d had my Cloudspotter’s Guide with me. One of the things that I miss, living in Dhaka, is a changing cloudscape, but this one made up for all those I had missed. Before we left the Sundarbans, we made a stop at a wildlife sanctuary in Karamjol, about an hour south of Mongla. As well as a miniature zoo, there is a ranger station and a breeding centre here. I am not a huge fan of zoos but at least the animals here seemed a little happier than those in Dhaka Zoo. We saw spotted deer, monkeys, snakes, birds and crocodiles, all native to the Sundarbans. There was a lookout tower nearby with good views over the surrounding area.

Back on the boat, we had our final barbecue on the top deck against the backdrop of yet another striking river sunset, and we shared our impressions of the trip. Somewhere near Khulna we disembarked and said farewell to the crew of the M.V. Kokilmoni, who had looked after us so well.

Most people slept during the bus journey but I stayed awake. We had a brief stop on the way to look at a Durga Puja pandal in a Hindu temple (see post 37). Out of context, deserted and brightly-lit in the middle of the night, it looked strangely garish. There was a long queue of buses and trucks waiting for the ferry between Kaorakandi and Mawa ghats, and the area was full of life at this early hour. (It was still dark.) This was my third time crossing the Padma River (see post 34) but this time I was further downstream. Once aboard the ferry, I got out of the bus and was immediately surrounded by a curious and attentive crowd. I found a railing to sit on and eventually things settled down. I had a very interesting conversation with a guy who was in the army and had good English. He had served in Africa on peace-keeping missions and was now on his way to a new posting in Sylhet, where he hoped his wife and daughter could join him shortly. I felt a little sad saying goodbye knowing that I’d never meet him again: it had been one of those conversations where a real connection had been made. Back on the bus, everybody was still sleeping. Shortly after we disembarked, day began to break and it wasn’t long before we reached Dhaka.

Final thoughts

My journey to the Sundarbans, one of the great wild places on our planet, has been a magnificent experience. I would love to return again someday and spend more time navigating the smaller channels. I only saw a fraction of the flora and fauna of the area: I dream of seeing tigers in the wild. I would love too to visit some of the villages on the edge of the forest, and meet those who rely on its resources for their livelihood. I have read about the ornate, vividly-painted houses of Hindu families, replete with Hindu shrines, in these hospitable villages. I have read too about interesting religious rituals, involving both Muslims and Hindus, invoking the essentially Hindu goddess of the Sundarbans, Bon Bibi (Lady of the Forest). Before entering the forest, men and women seek protection from Bon Bibi, who is often depicted sitting peacefully on a howling tiger. What is interesting about this ritual is that both Muslims and Hindus can make sense of it within their respective religious worldviews. Another event that I would love to attend is the annual three-day Hindu Rash Mela festival held in Dublar Char (island) – south of Katka – in November. You can see some photographs of the 2009 festival, taken by Bangladeshi photographer Shabbir Ferdous, here.

On every journey, there’s always more to see and always too little time. But for all that, this has been an interesting and memorable journey in the company of good people. Today, commuting to work in Dhaka’s chaotic traffic, I felt a million miles from the easy rhythm of life on the river.

Some photographs follow. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (110 photographs in all). Enjoy!