With the rapid urbanization mushrooming all over the planet along with growing threat of global warming and climate change the world’s largest tidal delta, in the south Asia area of Bangladesh and India, Sunderban has always been vulnerable. The extremely challenging landscape and limited resources make it an everyday battle for survival for both humans and animals of this part of the world. The unique geography of mangrove forest , surrounded by the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers discharging into the Bay of Bengal along with the stories of ferocious Royal Bengal Tigers and huge salt water crocodiles have make Sunderban one of the most mysterious, difficult and yet a beautiful place and hence one among the most sought after destinations for wildlife lovers and biologists.
Anupa Roy who has been working in the area since decades has shared her experience of this amazing land of Sundari.
A land that is mysterious yet alluring, harsh yet irresistible, a contradiction in itself. Sundarbans, despite being a few hours away from a major city like Kolkata is as yet to be fully understood or be utilized to its full potential. The first time I heard the name Sundarbans being mentioned was in my school textbook, stating it as a UNESCO World Heritage site and that its a fragile endangered ecosystem.
Quite a bit about this land is shrouded in stories and hearsay, even the history of this land is slightly blurred, there being many versions to be found. One of them being that the history of the area can be traced back to 200–300 AD. Apparently the ruins of a city built by Chand Sadagar has been found in the Baghmara Forest Block. During the Mughal period, the Mughal Emperors leased the forests of the Sundarbans to nearby residents. It is also said that criminals used to take refuge in the Sundarbans from the advancing armies of Emperor Akbar and there it has been said they would be attacked by tigers. In time these people built buildings which later fell into the hands of Portuguese pirates, salt smugglers and dacoits in the 16th and 17th centuries. Evidence of the fact can be traced from the ruins at Netidhopani and other places scattered all over Sundarbans.
The legal status of the forests underwent a series of changes, including the distinction of being the first mangrove forest in the world to be brought under scientific management. The area was mapped first in Persian, by the Surveyor General as early as 1769. Soon after that, the proprietary rights were obtained from the Mughal Emperor Alamgir II by the British East India Company in 1757.
The Sundarbans is an archipelago situated in the southern most part of the Gangetic basin and extends between two rivers, Hoogly in the west, in the state of West Bengal, India and river Meghna in the east, in Bangladesh. The word ‘Sundarbans’, which literally means ‘beautiful forest’, is used to denote both the forest and the region. The word ‘sundar’ also comes from the Sundari (Heritiera fomes) tree growing in the mangrove forests of Sundarbans. The entire region spans 25,500 sq. km, two-thirds of which lie in Bangladesh and the rest in India.
Sundarbans is one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in India, known for its mangroves and coastal forests that serve as a buffer between the land and the sea.
Apart from being home to the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger, this unique, fascinating ecosystem is famous for the Gangetic Dolphin and Estuarine Crocodiles. It also has a large variety of birds, fish, reptiles and crabs. You will also find otters, leopard cats, monitor lizards, civet and many other species. Among our winged species, a few to note are the Brahminy kite, Kingfishers in the myriad hues, the white bellied sea eagle and many migratory birds who are seen during certain times of the year.
The ecosystem of Sundarbans is very vulnerable. The impact of climate change can be seen and felt. The salinity profile, which is critical for the existence of mangroves, is increasing and adversely affecting the biodiversity in the region. Rapid urbanization, unregulated tourism, and cement construction on coasts are also taking a toll.
Another interesting feature are the mudflats that are formed by the wave motions, tidal cycles and currents in the coasts. They change with the monsoons and the cyclonic weather patterns that are common here.
Sundarbans is alive with myths, legends and stories of Gods and Goddeses. Like the one of a kind Bonbibi, guardian of the forest, who is revered and worshipped here. People depend heavily on the forest for their daily survival. They go into the forests for honey, wood, fishing, catching crabs. They are never far from danger, considering that these forests are home to the Royal Bengal Tiger. Unfortunately many incidents and deaths have occurred over the years yet the dependency on the forest over rides the risk. It is said that Bonbibi is an Islamic deity and is believed to have travelled on Allah’s orders from Medina to the Sundarbans to protect the distressed residents as well as the animals of the forest. Another popular story is that she was an Arabian Sufi saint’s daughter who came to the Sundarban. Bonbibi battled the villainous Dakhin Rai who killed the locals in the form of a tiger. The arrangement is that Dakhin Rai would not kill anyone who prayed to Bonbibi. So even today, everyone, Hindus and Muslims equally pray and worship Bonbibi to protect them and guide them in the forests.
Inspite of its inhospitable habitat, extreme hardship, inaccessibility, nothing can take away from its stunning beauty.
I remember my first visit to Sundarbans, soon after the devastating Aila, that almost brought the place to its knees. It was not the image anyone wanted to see. Nor would anyone think of Sundarbans at that time, being a place of beauty or as a travel destination. Its been more than a decade now, and Sundarban today is as fascinating and interesting. I think its the enigma that draws one in. Its got so much but it plays hard to get and that is an universally irresistible combination. Yes, the whole area is a challenge, to live in, to earn an income, to sustain, everything is a challenge and life is hard there. However, it is thriving, with all its hurdles, the resilience of the people, the bounty and the absolutely surreal unique universe that exists combines to create a world unlike anywhere else.
Sundarbans is endangered and a lot of effort is being given to maintain its ecosystem. Awareness and sustainable development along with environment conscious practices will go a long way in preventing the destruction of Sundarbans.
Its truly an unforgettable experience.
About the writer
Anupa Roy presently living in Kolkata, West Bengal is an avid nature lover, happiest when somewhere off the beaten track. Loves to travel and write. Works for a wildlife conservation NGO. She has travelled various countries and have been involved with works related to conservation of ecosystem and wildlife protection.