We set sail in Sundarbans from Godkhali around 10.15 in the morning. Sky is overcast and uniformly grey. It’s warm and humid. On the boat it is me and four staff members – boat supervisor, driver, cook and an assistant. I change to comfortable basic – vest, short and slippers and take it easy. Around 1 pm the cook announces lunch. The spread covers the whole table in dining room in lower deck. Slight sweet touch is added to all the curries and vegetables. Of course, there are hard core sweets – famous Bengali Misti Dahi and Rosogulla also. We have been sailing smoothly for about four hours. I am slightly sleepy with heavy meal. But I wake up when I notice the boat is heading towards a camp. One more departmental boat is parked here, probably for foresters to petrol the area. I look through a binocular. Sign board reads Netidhopani Camp.
First thing I see at the entrance of the camp is a temple. It carries idols of Bon Bibi and Dakhin Ray. It has been built by the Forest Department. This is a paradox since temples are difficult issue in wildlife management across the country. Anywhere you go, Ranthambhore, Sariska, Kanha, Pench, Gir, Kalakad, Periyar…, there are old temples in the forests to which over the years, with increase in population, visitors and pilgrims have increased drastically, running into lakhs. People create disturbance in the whole forest – vehicles, camps, trample across and litter. These occasions provide opportunity to criminals to make hay while sun shines i.e. timber theft and animal poaching.
Local people in Sundarbans have great faith in goddess, Bon Bibi, who is worshipped as savoir and Dakhin Ray, who is worshipped as the tiger god. Local people dependent on forest e.g. baulis (wood cutters), maulis (honey collectors) and fishermen do not enter forest without praying to them. One of the reasons is persistent tiger-man conflict.
Sundarbans is known for honey. Come April-May, the honey season, local honey collectors, the ‘Maulis’ are all set to take plunge. Honey is reported to be extracted from forested and inhabited islands of Sundarbans to be tune of tens of tonnes! But honey is also cause of death of many collectors who illegally enter the forest and tiger poaches few of them, now and again. Man and animal are both stressed for resource – local are stressed for livelihood and tiger is stressed for prey. In fact, to avoid man-animal encounter, the forest sides surrounding the fringe villages have been fenced using nylon nets.
In Sundarbans, the forest department has fallen back on goddesses and gods to have respite from man-eating tigers. I ask the camp in-charge to open the temple gate and I pray as I too have put my foot on tiger land. I do not feel any threat, rather pray to have an encounter with tiger (of course, from safe distance and safe ground).
As I walk around the camp, local myth and mythology is explained on several boards. Sundarbans gets the highest national importance as a protected area. It’s a national park as well as tiger reserve. It’s global importance is depicted here in displays e.g. signage on Man & Biosphere Reserve declaration, and monument for Park’s status as a World Heritage Site (as recognised by UNSECO). There are few animals e.g. tiger chasing spotted deer; fishing cat with prey; etc have been depicted in action to create excitement for visitors, though artificial. Real action is difficult to see in thick mangrove forest.
Sundarbans management has taken a major conservation initiative to revive the population of the northern river terrapin, Batagur baska. This ‘is a large critically endangered river turtle that previously occupied most rivers and estuaries of South Asia (India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar)’. I see a fresh water tank dedicated to the species to breed.
Now, the best part of the camp – the watch tower. I have been watching the mangrove edge along the river channels for last four hours. It is for the first time, I get to see forest from top. Swampy soil is expected. The forest is thick and green. The tree line is uneven.
I am pleasantly surprised to see a group of five Lesser Adjutant Storks – guard and boat assistant with me shout together – madantak, madantak. It’s after long time I have seen this huge bird. They are huddled together at one spot in a clearing. They appear to be taking afternoon nap. Wonderful. I see one Brahminy Kite – a really colourful bird. The bright rust and pure white make it real conspicuous. I do hear a kingfisher and see a drongo. I later notice in the photo another Brahminy kite in the tree, maybe, it has been a pair.
Fresh water is hard to come by in Sundarbans. A tank has been developed which captures rain water just outside the fenced camp area. It is fully viewable from the tower. This is a temptation which I suppose no animal would resist. Willy-nilly, the animals in the area must be visiting the tank. Forest Guard, who is camp in-charge also, tells me spotted deer, wild boar, water monitor lizard are occasionally seen at the tank.
I notice tiger sightings by staff have been jotted down on a white board. I can see five of the six recorded sightings are from the tower and one is actually at the fresh water pond, mentioned as ‘sweet water pond’. So sweet.