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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.