Wild Water Adventure
Sundarbans, the mangrove forests in the Ganges delta in West Bengal in India, promises a tiger trail on boat
Three cubs frolicking around a tigress sprawled under the shade of a Sal (Shorea robusta) tree is one of the many enduring images I have of tigers in the wild. Encounters with big cats are not uncommon in India's 50 tiger reserves, but in the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans, this shy predator remains elusive.
A common refrain from visitors to the 2,585 square kilometre Sunderban Tiger Reserve, comprising the world's largest delta formed by the confluence of three rivers - the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna - flowing into the Bay of Bengal, is that sighting a Royal Bengal Tiger is near impossible.
So against all odds, but with a glimmer of hope, we boarded a taxi in Kolkata for the four-hour drive to Gothkali, the gateway to this unique UNESCO World Heritage-listed reserve, which forms a contiguous ecosystem, extending from the eastern Indian state of West Bengal to across the international border into Bangladesh.
We drove past villages with thatched houses and communal fish ponds, shops selling fresh flowers and latest mobile phones. The narrow highway was crowded: there were people on foot, trucks filled with hay and logs, villagers carrying their fresh catch of bhetki and hilsa fish in large aluminium pots fastened to their bicycles, and improvised motorcycle carriers bursting at the seams with men, women, children and their wares.
At the Gothkali jetty, high tide had submerged the steps visible during neap tide. These tides play a vital role in the lives of the inhabitants and the biodiversity of the Sunderbans. Each day, many of the 102 islands disappear and reappear with the turning tide. The mangroves cope with the tides with pneumatophores, their distinctive aerial roots sticking out like snorkels from the wet ground.
The only mode to ferry visitors and residents to the islands are small and large wooden boats. In a small houseboat, we sailed to Sajnekhali Island to collect the forest permit and hire a forest guide. The Interpretation Centre on the island offers a virtual tour of the reserve with an array of photographs and stuffed creatures on display. The turtle and crocodile hatchery gives a glimpse of the fauna down the food chain that helps sustain the 87 tigers (National Tiger Conservation Authority's 2016-17 estimation) in the reserve.
"One is never far from the invisible tiger lurking here," cautioned our guide as we sailed to Sudhanyakhali and Dobanki Islands, which have watch towers with 360-degree views of the forest canopy. The ambience changed suddenly as we sailed south, past tourist-laden ferry boats and cargo ships with Indian and Bangladeshi flags, towards the Pirkhali forest block. The waterways wore a veil of thick mist with only an occasional boat in sight. In the distance, one could hear the wind and the infrequent chirping of birds and deer calls. There was that familiar ruffle caused by other animals on sensing a tiger in the vicinity.
Our boatman, Mahadev, was confident that a tiger was in close proximity. Suddenly, a loud thumping roar penetrated the silence. It prompted Mahadev to steer the boat in the direction of the sound and switch off the engine midstream, lest we disturb the king of the jungle. My heart was racing with fear and excitement as we strained our ears and focused our binoculars on the path of the sound. It was difficult to spot anything in the impenetrable depths of the thick mangrove foliage, which includes the flowering Sundari (Heritiera fomes) trees that give the Sunderbans its name.
The roar grew louder and more frequent. Our forest guide told us that it was a mating call and we might just be fortunate to see a tiger. Tigers are swift swimmers and our boat wouldn't stand a chance against the stealthy predator. With bated breath, we waited for an hour while the boatman remained on alert to sail away if the tiger made an appearance.
Our hopes were receding and we were about to sail away when, lo and behold, there was a loud splash in the water. A massive majestic head of the tiger appeared above the water, swimming swiftly between the two islets ahead of us. He then stood tall at the edge of the islet, shrugged the water from his body, revealing the black stripes on his golden skin, turned to glare at us, before vanishing into the dense growth of the mangroves.
The tiger's presence triggered birds, roosting on tree tops and semi-submerged branches, to soar high. We spotted bright-hued golden orioles, various species of luminescent kingfishers, egrets, storks and the elegant White Bellied Sea Eagle and a Bahmini Kite. Red crabs on a sandbar began to run helter-skelter.
It was beginning to sink in that we had just sighted the Royal Bengal Tiger in all its glory! An Olive Ridley turtle began swimming beside the boat's belly as we meandered through the creeks and innumerable water channels sighting rhesus macaques, spotted deer and wild boars, a lone monitor lizard lying camouflaged on a branch drooping with the weight of its inedible fruit, and an estuarine crocodile basking on a mud bank.
As the shadows began to lengthen, it was time to return to the secure warmth of our resort on Bally Island, one of the 54 inhabited islands. Lying awake under the mosquito net canopy that night, watching the moonlight illuminate the tiger pictures adorning the cottage walls, I recalled the many sightings of the Panthera Tigris at close quarters.