Cruising through the Sundarbans

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In the southeastern corner of West Bengal, where the mighty Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers meet the Bay of Bengal, lies the misty, marshy swampland of the Sundarbans. This is the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest, and the only such forest in the world to provide a home to the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger.

Crisscrossed by river channels, dotted with mudflats and forested islands, the Indian portion of the Sundarbans covers more than 4000 sq km, roughly twice the area of Delhi and Mumbai combined.

This fertile landscape is situated on the Ganga delta – the world’s largest delta – and is home to the world’s largest single populations of tigers. The only way to navigate the marshy wilderness is by boat. Cruise through the waterways, scanning the surrounds for rare and threatened species such as river dolphins, saltwater crocs, tigers, and raptors.

Lay of the Land

Dense mangrove forests, riverine channels, wildlife sanctuaries and protected reserves make up the Sundarbans. A large area within the region forms the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, and at its core lies the Unesco World Heritage Site of the Sundarbans National Park. Enter the national park from the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary on Sajnekhali Island.

Rising sea levels have led to tidal flooding and erosion, rendering a large number of islands uninhabitable. But, flora and fauna have flourished, and with such dense forests and waterways, the region is a hotbed of biodiversity.

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Tiger Spotting

 

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The Royal Bengal Tiger has made the mangrove forest its home, stealthy and rarely seen within the dense foliage. The Sundarbans is the world’s only mangrove habitat for the big cat, and in this unique territory, the creatures have developed rare, almost amphibian capabilities. Spot the regal beasts swim powerfully down the river for long distances and feed on fish.

Fantastic beasts and where to spot them

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Closer to the coast, saltwater crocodiles lurk in the swampy estuaries. As the largest living reptiles in the world, they can be surprisingly easy to miss as they merge seamlessly with the mudflats. As you cruise the waterways, keep your eyes peeled for the endangered Irrawady and Gangetic river dolphins, and the endemic river terrapin, once on the verge of extinction. Marine turtles such as the Olive Ridley come to nest on uninhabited sea-facing islands. Scan the rocks and riverbanks for scuttling horseshoe crabs and perfectly the camouflaged King Cobra and Indian python. Spy on wild boar, spotted deer and monkeys within the thickets of the forest.

Birds of a feather

Look into the skies and treetops to spot more than 200 species of avifauna, drawn by the rich foliage and waterways. Native cormorants, common redshanks, and white storks inhabit the region, along with whistlers, orioles, herons, egrets, and the white ibis. In winter, the region is flush with migratory birds from colder climes, including varieties of the sandpiper and curlew, the white eyed poachard, and whistling teal.

All along the watchtowers

Watchtowers dot the region, and boats dock here for travellers to disembark and scan the surroundings from a vantage point. The watchtower at Sajnekhali is the most popular one in the region, due to its closeness to accommodation facilities. From here, scan the branches for kingfishers and white-bellied sea eagles. Visit the island’s Mangrove Interpretation Centre, for information on the surrounding vegetation, and settlements.

Tiger sightings have been frequent from the Sudhanyakhali watchtower. Don’t miss the pond in its vicinity, a regular watering hole for many animals. Walk across the enclosed walkway of the Dobanki watchtower for a good aerial perspective of the forest.

Best time to visit

The park remains open through the year, but the best time to visit is after the monsoon, from September to February.