Living on the edges

Hunger pulls tigers out of the forest and hunger pushes locals into forest. Around 30-40 tiger kills is reported every year but unofficial record multifold. This estuarine delta is blessed with 248 birds’ species, 48 species of reptiles and 58 species of mammals. This photo story kaleidoscope some of the beautiful birds, mammals and reptiles captured while floating through it.

mystical mangrove-the sundarban

Sundarban, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a cluster of 56 low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal, spread across India and Bangladesh covering an area of about 4,267 sq km, famous for its unique mangrove forests. Here, in every ebbs and tides, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide reverberates enthralling the beauties this estuarine ecosystem. This unique ecosystem harbors 248 birds’ species, 48 species of reptile and 58 species of mammal. But most elusive and fierce is the Royal Bengal Tiger, revered as Dakshinray-every boatman has his own narration about its power, ferocity and intellect. 

Life in this is the world’s largest estuarine forest, crisscrossed by hundreds of creeks and tributaries, is very harsh and conflict riddled. The animals in this ecosystem are extremely elusive and display very different behavioural characteristics from their counterparts in other forests. Here is the collection of magical moments of a dozen of frames made through my lens during last my three days’ float in August.2019 through innumerable creeks and tributaries of this estuarine ecosystem. 

Sundarban – the motorized boat at Deol Varani 

In this muddy terrain, the only way to explore the park is by motorized boat. Unlike other national parks, walking in the forest is prohibited, except around the watchtowers. The magical beauty of this estuarine ecosystem starts enthralling, as boat propels deep into Sundarban criss-crossing innumerable creeks and tributaries. Interplay of light and shadow ripping the canopy covered narrow murky creeks and visualization of the possible encounter with elusive Bengal tiger make the float mystic and eerie. Reclining on cot at top of motor boat with Ganesh da’s (our guide) narrative about ferocity and cunningness of Bengal tigers interspaced with occasional encounters with wildlife and Milon da’s (cook of the boat) freshly cached crab and fish preparations made the journey memorable.

Red flash-Ruddy Kingfisher (Halcyon coromanda)

Magical mangroves harbor rich variety of birds. About 7 species of kingfishers are found. Ruddy Kingfisher is usually found during August – September. Since this rust red kingfisher prefers to live in heavily forested areas of temperate to tropical zones, they are more often head than seen. In second day morning, sudden shrill call alerted us and as a brown flash flown across the river-we pursued and found this male Ruddy Kingfisher perching at branch calling at top its’ voice. Soon its pair appeared and then along with call it started spreading and closing its wings to impress its’ pair. We were blessed with the rare glimpse of courtship display of Ruddy Kingfisher.

The whistler-Mangrove Whistler (Pachycephala cinerea)

While deep into Sundarban, one can hardly escape its’ beautiful whistling call but is very difficult to locate. This elusive drab coloured bird easily camouflages in thick canopy. In first day at Sajnekhali, got its momentary glimpse but in third day, found this small whistler hopping in tree branches for insects larvae at Deol Varani. In India, Mangrove Whistler species are found in tropical and subtropical mangrove forests of West Bengal, Odisha and Andaman Islands. These polytypic species are sexually alike and breed during April to July in India.

Little Saint-Great Egret (Ardea alba) 

Murky water of creeks and tributaries of Sundarban is rich in small fish, crustaceans and insects. Elegant Great Egret is a dazzling sight in many of its’ numerous creeks and tributaries. Like a little saint, it waits in shallow water to pierce its’ approaching prey with its long dagger like bill. While propelling through narrow creek further south-east to Dobaki, found this Great egret with its’ beautiful aigrettes-long feathery breeding plumes growing from back and neon green face musk. In late 19th Century, large numbers of Great Egrets were killed for aigrettes used to decorate ladies’ hats. Siblicide is common among great egret nestlings-only fittest survives.

Mother's care-Small Minivet (Pericrocotus cinnamomeus) 

‘Mom! I’m so hungry’ quivered this minivet’s chick flapping its wings. Mother carefully gleaning a yellow caterpillar from the tree bark put it into its mouth. ‘Ohm! Very tasty’- calmed this chick. In August, while floating into a narrow creek of Deol Varani, found a flock with number of newly fledged juveniles and blessed with this drama. Thus life pushes on in Sundarban. This Small Minivet is a widespread and common resident breeding bird in Sundarban. Usually Small Minivets’ flocks are found in tall Keora (Pandanus fascicularis), Garan (Heritiera fomes) trees. These sexually diamorphic species feed on insects in trees by flycatching or while perched.

With kill-Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus)

Bountiful of fishes, crustaceans and refuse thrown out of tourist boats attracts many raptors in this estuarine ecosystem. This majestic bird soars over heads, glides over estuary down to creeks. Often, this white headed chestnut plumaged raptor is seen perch high in al tree. Primarily Brahminy Kites indulge in scavenge feeding mainly on dead fish and crabs, but occasionally hunts live prey such as small mammals and often indulge in kleptoparasitism. In second day morning, found this Brahminy Kite perching at tall tree branch feeding its’ catch, perhaps a Lesser Coucal (Centropus bengalensis). Young birds are playful, dropping leaves and attempting to catch them in the air. Brahminy Kite is believed to be modern incarnation of Garuda, a large, mythical Eagle in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

Ready to plunge-White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster)

Yet another raptor-this large size raptor is quite common in Sundarban. White-bellied sea eagle is generally territorial; some birds form permanent pairs that inhabit territories throughout the year, while others are nomadic. The species is monogamous, with pairs remaining together until one bird dies, after which the surviving bird quickly seeks a new mate. White-bellied sea eagle is opportunistic carnivore and consumes a wide variety of animal prey, including carrion, often catches a fish by flying low over the water and grasping it in its talons. In Maharastra coast, fishermen believe its call indicate the presence of fish in the sea.

Our Komodo-Water Monitor Lizard (Varanus salvator) 

Water Monitor, one of the world's largest species of lizard, is pretty common throughout Sundarbans. Monitors can grow to 3 meters and blend in perfectly with the exposed roots of the Sundarbans' mangrove trees. They are semi-aquatic and opportunistic hunters-thrives on fish, frogs, rodents, birds, eggs, crabs and snakes. Twisted tongue, saliva coming out and it’s walking style-all resembles to Komodo dragon. And even like the Komodo dragon, the water monitor often eats carrion. They have a keen sense of smell and can smell a carcass from far away. They are known to feed on dead human bodies. Tails, claws, and jaws provide powerful defense to them. In first day of our float, found this lizard in narrow creek of Sudhanyakhali gazing at us.

Sleeping monster-Estuarine or Saltwater crocodile (Crocodilus porosus)

‘Jale Kumir Dangai Bagh’ (crocs in the water, tigers on land) aptly describes Sundarbans. Estuarine crocodile is one of the largest living crocodilians. In our third day of float, found this large crocodile at Dobaki, basking Sun blending with the exposed roots of the mangrove shrubs. Males grow to a length upto 6 m weighing about 1,000 -1,075 kg. This large and opportunistic hyper-carnivorous apex predator ambushes most of its prey and then drowns or swallows it whole. Estuarine crocodile feeds on varieties of freshwater and marine fish including pelagic species, invertebrates such as crustaceans, various reptiles, birds and mammals, including humans. It is capable of prevailing over almost any animal that enters its territory.

Always alert-Chital or Spotted Deer (Axis axis) 

Native of Indian subcontinent flocks of Chital or Spotted Deer are abundantly found in Sundarbans foraging under Keora (Pandanus fascicularis) trees. Always alert - when cautiously inspecting its vicinity, the chital stands motionless and listens with rapt attention, facing the potential danger, if any. Soon nearby individuals adopt this stance and at slightest instance of apprehending danger flee in groups (unlike the hog deer that disperse on alarm). Elsewhere in this country, Chitals are very favourite hunts for tigers, but in this terrain covered with peg like pneumatophore of mangroves, Bengal tigers find it very difficult to chase the fleeing Chitals, who sprint at slights instance. Found this beautiful Spotted Deer further east of Dobaki foraging in the shade of mangroves.

Discovering world-Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta)

They have the widest geographic ranges of any non-human primate, occupying a great diversity of altitudes throughout Central, South, and Southeast Asia. Troupes of Rhesus Macaque are commonly found in Sundarbans. While we were reaching to Panchamukhani through a narrow creek, found a troupe of Rhesus Macaque with adults, juveniles and a few new-born. Securely clasping mother’s back, this newborn is seeing the dramas all around-learning to be brave in its world. Rhesus Macaques have special relations with Chital. Up in Keora (Pandanus fascicularis) trees Rhesus eat and litter leaves and fruits and below Chital get to savour. Chital are often found moving with Rhesus.

Piercing eyes-Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis)

Among the lesser cats, Sundarbans harbors Jungle cat, Fishing cat and Leopard cat. The leopard cat is the most widely distributed Asian lesser cat. Leopard cats are solitary and elusive. Some are active during the day but mostly hunt at night, preferring to stalk murids, tree shrews and hares. They are agile climbers and quite arboreal in their habits. Leopard cats are carnivorous, feeding on a variety of small prey including mammals, lizards, amphibians, birds and insects. In early morning of August, we found this elusive cat at Sudhanyakhali under thick foliage of a tree, perhaps to haunt birds or chicks.

Poltu's gaze-Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)

At last ‘Poltu’ - this male adult tiger, fondly called by the photo-enthusiasts of Sundarbans, gave us a momentary glimpse at Pirkhali while crossing the narrow creek. This bold male, on last International Tiger Day, suspected to have killed a fisherman ventured into its territory. In 2019’s census, 88 tigers are recorded in Sundarbans. High and low tides make the area marshy and slippery, further peg like pneumatophores of mangroves, restrict the tigers to hunt their natural prey. Unlike other habitats, here tigers mostly thrive on wild boars, crabs, fishes and of course on human beings. Paucity of sweet water, confusion over its territory as territorial marks are lost due to continuous rise and fall of water level - makes these marsh tigers confused, aggressive and ferocious and attack humans instantly.

Hunter or hunted: Crab-hunters

Human interference hastens thinning of mangroves, consequently shore erosion. The endless ordeal of embankments being built and destroyed by the tide - salt water sweeping over their lands, rendering useless for years forcing locals to venture into the jungles for wood, honey or for catching fish or hunt crabs-often becomes the victim of tiger kill. Here is a tiny boat of crabs hunters. Usually floats for 6-7 days at stretch-cooking, eating, sleeping all happens on boat. Hungers brave them against torrential rain, lightning, whirling waves and kidnap by Bangladasi pirates for ransoms. These crab hunters as they ventures in small creeks are often hunted by Dakshinray- the Royal Bengal Tiger. In Sundarban, if victim’s remains could not be traced, victims’ relatives make an effigy to perform last rites. In this magical mangroves life narrates a different story.

Essentials: Route: From Kolkata drive via Baruipur to Godkhali Ferry Ghat on NH12. Or take the local train to Canning. Train No.34512; 5.45-6.57am; fare Rs15; from Canning, take shared public transport (Rs50). Stay: WBTDC tourist lodge is available at Sajnekhali and several private resorts of varied tariff are available at Pakhiralay. Even some prefer staying at motor boats. Usually motor boat hire charge ranges from Rs.7, 000-7,500 per day meal charges extra. Top tip: The Park is open throughout the year and different seasons provide glimpse of different species. You need a forest department permit to enter the forest area, which is open to tourists from 7am- 5pm. Keeping binocular is essential for enjoying wildlife. For wildlife photography super telephoto lens are recommended. WBTDC and other private tour operators provide package tours. 

Dipankar Mandal

Bird watcher and photographer

An avid birdwatcher and photographer by passion.