This post is the work of 17 year old Sanjith C, who has visited different national parks of India, experienced their beautiful landscapes, learned about the unique flaura, fauna of our jungles and prefers to spend time tracking, watching and photographing wildlife.
The Shy Mangrove Tiger
“Tiger, Tiger baitha hai”, our guide Nithyanand shouts. Two solid hours of intense tracking in the sweltering heat of Sunderban wilderness had finally paid off.
It was just after lunch that our guide had spotted pugmarks of a mother and her cub, hardly a few days old our guide said. The bigger surprise is how he managed to spot these pugmarks in between the water and slush. Was it a pugmark or was it just marks made by the tides? To the untrained eye it was indistinguishable, but to our guide who has lived here his entire life, the difference was clear as day. This was just one of the many things that made tiger sighting in the Sunderbans more challenging than any other forest in India. No alarm calls, limited visibility as thick mangroves made it impossible to see even a few feet into the thickets, limited mobility amidst narrow waterways, and pugmarks being washed away by the tides are some points that made tiger tracking harder in Sundarbans. Sherlock Holmes would have had to work extremely hard to track down his striped suspect.
Following the pugmarks, we slowly made our way checking every canal and keenly scanning the banks for any signs of the feline. After an hour of waiting, tracking and waiting, we decided to give up on the mother and her cub and move on. The initial excitement of seeing the pugmarks had worn off, just like the relentless erosion of mangroves by tides, and we were once again left sitting peacefully amidst the vast expanse of water and mangroves, only occasionally changing seats to escape the burning sun which had moved westward by now.
The sky had slowly started to change colour with just a tinge of orange on the horizon, harsh midday sun had eased to a gentle warm touch on our face and the cool sea breeze whistling past our ears almost lulled us to sleep. I was awakened by excited chatter between our guide and the boat driver in Bengali. He had managed to sight another set of pugmarks, this time of a male tiger. He was more excited than before; and he later told us that the pugmarks had water right in the middle, which had dripped down from the tiger’s body -which meant that the big cat was somewhere close. He was probably watching us and wondering what in the world are were doing here, barging into his home.
Once again, we made our way downstream and every time we passed a canal I would unknowingly hold my breath, forget to blink, stare towards the canal, excited to see what lies in the unknown, what creature lies in wait; secretly hoping that it would be a tiger. As an empty canal came into view of the boat, with a slight sigh my heart would slow down to its usual rhythm. Perhaps this was what brought me to the forests time and again, the excitement, the fear, the adrenaline rush, the peace and tranquillity. There were moments where I would feel one with the forest, one with God.
Just as we were passing another canal like the several we had passed before our guide was standing at the stern, binoculars in hand. As the boat crawled forward, the muddy mound in front of us slowly revealed the canal inch by inch, in what seemed to take forever. As soon as we had full view of the canal, our guide leapt with excitement on seeing the tiger. For a second, I could not believe it. Had we actually spotted a tiger? The salt water, swampy land and unforgiving weather had drained off my optimism that we could spot anything, let alone a Bengal tiger.
But lo and behold, to my amazement it was actually a tiger basking in the evening sun, his coat shining a bright golden, majestic as ever. The joy of having finally spotted the tiger seemed to overcome logical thinking and I jumped from the upper deck to the stern – a good five feet down – leaving behind my camera. If the tiger had wished, we were hardly a few leaps away, but it was just something which made me believe that it would do no harm. The guide and I were left staring at this elusive creature, awestruck at its magnificence. The tiger looked into my eye and we seemed to have a moment, a thousand emotions had swept through my mind a minute before, but for a second it was just me and the tiger without a care in the world. By the time the driver could start reversing, it vanished into the thicket. It didn’t bother me for a second that I couldn’t get a photograph, the sight of him sitting in the canal is etched into my memories, clear as day. What seemed to be another normal evening had completely changed in the blink of an eye, all thanks to this creature who was Gods beautiful creation.
There is just something about this creature – a divine aura if you would call it, that just sucks you in every single time it appears and we are left wanting for more. The gold and black stripes bring with it a sense of fear and excitement in the hearts of everyone who is witness to it. It is at times like these that we are left wondering in amazement at the beauty of God’s creation. The tiger is the true “King of the Jungle” I would say.
Feared, revered and worshipped-it is called “Dakshin Rai” in the local dialect. Tigers in the Sunderbans have killed hundreds of humans through the years and has infamously earned the Man-eater tag. But is it truly a man hunting machine, that remains to be seen. This was another reason which adds to the mystery of the deep and unexplored Sunderbans. Our guide told us numerous stories of how his relatives had been victims to tiger attacks. Ironically, we had set out to catch a glimpse of this elusive predator and when it did appear we could understand why the locals considered it so sacred and mystical.
Once the tiger had vanished into the mangrove thickets, we were left reeling in excitement, replaying and reliving those few seconds in our mind and a silence enveloped the boat as well as the jungle, like a lull after the storm. Our guide however seemed very confident that he could track it down again. We made our way downstream in the direction the tiger had run and entered another canal. This was bigger than the other one, about half a kilometre wide. Each and every canal in the Sunderbans looks the same to our eyes, how the locals navigate here is a topic for another day.
Nithyanand showed us a white tree and asked us to focus our cameras there. He said the tiger would appear from there, look at us and vanish into the bushes and then again come out and cross the canal. His statement seemed quite comical; how could anyone predict with certainty the movement of a wild animal along a kilometre long stretch of mud bank. 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes passed with no signs of the tiger. Tiger tracking is a game of patience and with my camera battery running low, I was worried about not getting a shot of the tiger swimming across the canal. Just as I lowered the camera, eagle eyes of Nithyanand spotted the tiger between the thickets at the exact place he had predicted it would come out. It was as if the tiger had told him beforehand; and we only had enough time for a quick photograph before it vanished into the thickets. It appeared a second time and this time sat in between the grass with just it’s ears visible. The tiger was playing a cat and mouse game with us.
The tiger seemed quite relaxed sitting in the cold water with an occasional gentle breeze blowing past us. With light fading fast, we had to get back to base before dusk. We exited the canal and made our way back to the main river leaving the canal behind us, fully content with what we had observed today.
Just as we had put some distance between us and the canal, the tiger appeared and started swimming. We could make out its head just above the water, it seemed to be almost floating. It crossed the half a kilometre wide canal in just about a minute, way faster than any Olympic swimmer. As it reached the other bank, it gave one final glance at us, to check if we had missed his performance and disappeared into the bushes.
What a day we had had. We could finally sit back and enjoy the cool breeze and a beautiful sunset. The entire sky seemed to turn golden and with it the green waters also seemed to glow a pale orange. As it got dark, the waves seemed to pick up, occasionally thudding against the hull as we made our way back to our resort. This had been just our second safari in the Sundarbans but it seemed as if we had known the forest for years.
Sundarbans – A very different world
The previous day had been our first time venturing into the unexplored wilderness of the Sundarbans. The Sundarbans is a mangrove forest in the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only mangrove forest with tigers in the world. Only about 40percent of the Sundarbans is in India whereas the rest lies in Bangladesh. It is estimated that around 100 tigers roam the Indian part of the Sundarbans.
Sundarbans has more to it than just tigers, It is an ecosystem of its own and is home to more than 80 types of mangroves and hundreds of birds and animals of which we were lucky enough to spot a few. Our first day, like this one, had started quite early. If not for our watches, we could never tell it was 5 am. The sun had just risen over the horizon as we walked across the jetty where our boat was ready to pick us up. The cold breeze and chitter chatter of birds early in the morning were all absent. There was a certain strangeness in the air.
We made our way downstream towards the five-river confluence, which signified the start of the forest. By now the heat and humidity had picked up so much it started to feel like noon already. The Sunderban forest was all I had expected it to be and more. The name seems to be derived from the Sundari tree which makes up most of the flora there. Sundarbans also means “Beautiful Forest” and it did live up to its name. This was unlike any other forest I had seen. It was water and mangroves as far as the eye could see. Here in the Sundarbans there is danger lurking everywhere, apart from the tigers on land the water is infested with crocodiles and dog sharks which would bite of fingers and toes. We had also managed to spot a cobra right in front of our room.
The initial hours were eerily quiet without even a bird in sight, not quite the start we had imagined. As the day progressed and the Sun hid behind some clouds, we were slowly able to spot quite a lot of birds. What seemed to be a barren forest seemed to have changed into a paradise of chippering and chattering. We were surprised to know that there were 6 types of kingfishers that call the mangroves their home, of which we were able to spot five – common, pied, black capped, brown winged and the white throated kingfishers.
Apart from this we were able to spot raptors, honey buzzards, white bellied fish eagles, orioles, ioras and tons of other birds. The first animal we could sight even before we had seen a spotted deer was a short-clawed otter which was quite rare in these parts. It seemed to enjoy the attention it got and gave us full view of his antiques for an hour or so. A huge salt water crocodile was basking in the sun, in a moment it slipped silently into the water reminding us of the dangers lurking beneath us. An albino crocodile too had its eye just above the waterline before disappearing underwater in a flash. Nithyanand also spotted a shanky breasted rail hiding among the bushes.
The day was filled with quite a lot birds and animals but there were no signs of the tiger, the animal I was here to spot. Little did I know, there was a surprise waiting for me the second day.
As I was sitting, watching the sun rise over the east-coast I couldn’t help but wonder how quickly 2 days had passed and we were on our final safari, the home stretch. After having sighted the tiger the previous day my mind was at peace and I could enjoy the mangrove forests to its full extent, the thought of seeing a tiger no longer in the back off my mind. The third day was quite uneventful, as usual we were greeted by a great many kingfishers. By now we were able to gauge and get a sense of direction in the canals having passed through each of them several times the last two days. The Sun seemed to be unforgiving and was hotter than usual, to Bengalureans like us, accustomed to the mild weather, the heat was too much to bear when the wind stopped blowing. There was very little chances of sighting on such a hot day and so we mentally closed our Sundarbans tiger count and just sat back and enjoyed what was left off the safari before we were back to our daily routine in Bangalore.
Just as we were checking the last of the canals for the day, we were in for a huge surprise. There was another tiger in the canal sitting quite in the same fashion as the previous one. This one was hardly bothered by us and looked at us indifferently. This was like an icing on the cake. We had come to the Sundarbans knowing full well that the chances of sighting a tiger were next to none but by the blessings of Bonbivi , an incarnation of Goddess Durga ,a local deity known to be the “Guardian of the Forest” we were lucky enough to spot not one but two tigers in the Sundarbans .I was once again reminded of a line I had seen in Nagarhole national park, ‘Wildlife appears when you least expect it’. It indeed does.
Words alone will not be able to do justice to the forests of Sundarbans or its tigers, hope you enjoyed reading and were able to experience a little bit ofthe sundarbans, an experience which I will never forget.