What to See in Sundarban

The other day I met a newly-arrived diplomat. Our conversation turned to tourism and he seemed surprised to learn that foreign tourists visit Sundarban. “I understand tigers are very difficult to find, so what is there to see?” he asked.

His question startled me as I find Sundarban extremely beautiful. But after some reflection it occurred to me that his query was genuine. Not everyone knows what you can see in Sundarban. With this in mind, I have made a top-ten list.

1. Birds. Sundarban is home to numerous species. For example, it has nine species of kingfishers: four or five are easy to see. There is also a secretive but beautiful duck, the masked finfoot, which is critically endangered. It is uncommon, but I have seen it in two trips. There are majestic eagles in the air, such as the white-bellied sea eagle and the crested serpent eagle. Along muddy banks are shorebirds such as curlews (with long, curved beaks) and redshanks. Inside the forest are songbirds including colourful minivets, leafbirds and various bulbuls.

2. River dolphins. Bangladesh has several types of river dolphins, of which the gangetic dolphin (shushuk) and the irrawaddy dolphin (iraboti) are easy to see in Sundarban. The former has a long snout; the latter has a rounded one. You can see them very briefly when they come up for air.

3. Crocodiles and otters. Estuarine crocodiles, both large and small, can be seen sunning themselves in the riverbanks. The small-clawed otter moves in families and can be spotted on the undergrowth near banks.

5. Deer, monkeys, wild boars are the common wildlife. The axis deer are spectacular and I never tire of them. Monkeys coexist with deer. Wild boars may be seen in several types of habitats.

6. Mudskippers and fiddler crabs. Mudskippers are mangrove fish that move faster in land than in water. They have beautiful turqoise dots on their body. The red crabs can be seen on beaches.

7. Monitors and snakes. Water monitors – large lizards – can be on land or water, sometimes swimming across canals. If you have a good spotter in your group, you might find some camouflaged snakes as well.

8. Riverine life. Many people make their living in Sundarban from fishing and collecting forest products such as nypa palm leaves (golpata) and honey. You can get a glimpse into the spartan life of these brave people which is dictated by the forest and its tides.

9. Trees. Sundarban has several large mangrove species as well as smaller plant species and grass, each with its unique features. For example, nypa is the only trunkless palm.

10. Mind-bending scenery. Sundarban is achingly, hauntingly beautiful.

Four years ago I published a photo-book called Sundarban: A Photographic Journey to show what a normal tourist (not a National Geographic expedition) can see while touring Sundarban with a commercial travel company. This year, I returned with Bengal Tours. I am happy to report that I found Sundarban as beautiful and exciting as ever. You can join a tour from Bengal, Guide or others, or, if you have a large group, rent your own launch such as the Tanguar Haor or the Mahirah.

(Note: As with any wildlife, luck and perseverance plays a big part. Some sightings are fleeting. To get the most from your trip, stay alert on the deck of your launch and use binoculars or a big telephoto lens with your camera.)

Source: The Daily Star. Date: February 13, 2016