Eye of the Tiger / by David Johnstone

A boat journey into the largest mangrove forest on Earth

Stretching some 80kms to the Bay of Bengal in the south west of Bangladesh, the Sundarbans is the largest mangrove swamp on the planet. With no permanent human settlements and home to a multitude of unique wildlife including the majestic (and man-eating) Bengal Tiger, this mysterious and brooding forest landscape is the natural highlight of Bangladesh.

Arriving in Mongla at nightfall I took a small boat to the other side of the river with my guide, Arafat, to inspect our vessel. Or, rather, to inspect the amount of beers I’d ordered for the three day trip. Getting a beer in Bangladesh is as rare as rocking-horse shit but fortunately we had connections. I’d barely drunk a drop in the 2 weeks so I was salivating at the prospect.

Our tour boat, the Kingfisher, looked sweet and inviting as it sat on the quiet riverbank. It had living space for up to twenty people but our group numbered only five, excluding the captain, cook, boatman and helpers. The deck had a dining area and cabins and the upper deck a viewing platform ideal for wildlife spotting.

Next day we departed, one side of the bank giving way to untouched mangrove forest. A little while later and both sides of the river were covered by small trees and nipa palms - we’d finally arrived in the Sundarbans proper. By way of an introduction, Ganges Dolphin began swimming around the boat, a pod of around 10 mammals, common within the rivers and creeks that make up almost one-third of the Sundarbans.

The Kingfisher, our boat for the three day trip

The Kingfisher, our boat for the three day trip

The Sundarbans consists of three green ‘fingers’ that extend into the Bay of Bengal and being mangrove is tidal in nature, salty, brackish water mixing with the rivers upland. Trees are stunted and use aerial roots to extract nutrition from the water allowing them to survive in flooded conditions.

 

By way of an introduction, Ganges Dolphin began swimming around the boat

 

As we progressed deeper into the Pashur river, Spotted Deer grazed at the shoreline - prime Tiger food -  and we were lucky enough to see Estuarine Crocodile, the mammoth but rare reptile sunning itself on the riverbank. Rhesus Monkeys are more common, the only primate in the Sundarbans, and were seen throughout the trip. The bird life was spectacular, too numerous to mention though rarities like the Lesser Adjutant and the Ruddy Woodpecker were glimpsed.

65% of the Sundarbans is found in Bangladesh with the remainder in the state of West Bengal, India

65% of the Sundarbans is found in Bangladesh with the remainder in the state of West Bengal, India

Disembarking from the main boat at dusk we traversed the haunted silence of the numerous small creeks that spread out from the larger waterways trying in vain to spot the Tiger. It would be a very fortunate moment had we done so, this vast area home to only 100 or so individuals. We did, however, see pug marks and Arafat pointed out a forested area that contains a family of 4-5 animals. Of course, it’s easy to say you’d love to see Tiger but the actuality is that they are large, extremely aggressive animals (and stink apparently) and are rightly feared by the locals who still fish in the forest.

 

Thankfully, we had an armed guard with us though, frankly, he seemed terrified and would have probably ended shooting either himself or one of us

 

The honey gatherers (maualiswho collect the product from the most venomous bees on the planet, are most at risk of attack and wear face masks at the back of their heads as Tiger don’t liked to be looked at directly! Thankfully, we had an armed guard with us though, frankly, he seemed terrified and would have probably ended shooting either himself or one of us.

The three days I spent there were exquisite though far too short to really explore the area or glimpse Tiger. But what struck me most about a national park that’s 10,000 sq kms, pristine and containing an apex predator is that it actually exists at all. With a population of 165m in an area the size of England and Wales, it’s astonishing that Bangladesh can still accommodate something so natural and beautiful.

It’s Bangladesh’s gift to the world, a jewel in the crown. Let’s hope it stays that way.