Friday, September 03, 2010

SUNDARBANS TIGER CAMP


(A young Sundari tree, Sundarbans is named after this mangrove tree)
(click on pictures to enlarge)(Videos are poor quality when expanded, need to upload to youtube and embed sometime!)

This blog is a continuation of the previous one titled: "Sundarbans-World's Largest Mangroves". I was on a country boat in my last line of the previous blog, going from Pakhirala, to Sajnekhali Tiger Camp on Sajnekhali island where I was to stay. The boat went across the channel first to a mudbank on Satjelia to pick up one more person who worked at the Tiger Camp before cutting across the narrow channel to arrive at Sajnekhali. I was well and truly in the middle of the tide country, as it is called, due to the fact that low and high tides has large scale impact on people's lives in the Sundarbans low lying Islands on a daily basis.


(Tide country and its mangrove islands)

The signboard at the entrance to the jetty said "Sajnekhali Tiger Camp" an indication that one had reached tiger country, and although this part of Sajnekhali is in the buffer zone, tigers are known to wander around here. Dragging my light luggage on a fenced off brick lined path, I obtained a forest permit to stay at the Tiger Camp guest house. The permit section of the Forest Department is on the left of the entrance. Paperwork took very little time and I was keen to head on in for a shower, having spent the morning under the Sun in the open. It was time to do what tigers like to do, cool off in water, or so I thought. Continuing on the brick lane, I came upon this old building, not looking too well in appearance, with a staircase leading upstairs to an office and the guest rooms area. The friendly manager of the Tiger Camp was away getting my room cleaned it seems but was happy to see me upon his return, I was the lone occupant of the entire complex, giving him some work to do in this lean season. As I said before, not too many people head to the Sundarbans in summer but I dare say it was much cooler and definitely far more pleasant than busy, noisy, polluted Kolkata (calcutta).


(Basic room)

I was led to this room that has a basic bed, a side chair and a writing table. If one keeps the windows open during the day, some breeze will come in although the uninsulated tin roof keeps the inside warmer than the outside. Tiger camp is run on solar power that is used mainly during night times. Limited use is allowed during morning hours. There is a back up diesel generator if all else fails. The manager guided me through everything, I was to use the shower (cold water only) which was drawn from the salt water river. Only the wash basin has fresh water for brushing teeth or for lathering for a shave. Fresh water is supplied in boats that come in now and then from the mainland and hence a precious commodity on these islands. I was reminded to be judicious about fresh water usage. The manager said, making all kinds of gesticulations with his hands, that I was to shower first with the salt water and then 'rinse' myself with a few mugs of fresh water from the wash basin tap! He showed me the electrical points and the fan and a small balcony at the back end of the room that overlooks a fresh water pond. He told me that lunch would be ready by 1PM and asked if I had any preferences. I left the menu decision to him, knowing that resources and vegetables were scarce. I just told him to keep things simple and local.


(River cruise boats from Sajnekhali-I went on the white one on the left called "Madhumati")

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(Ramakrishno at the boat wheel house)

I had a restful morning, catching up on a short mid morning nap, to shed all that earlier travel tiredness. A bit dazed but otherwise awake, I wandered over to the mess hall for a quick simple lunch consisting of some local vegetable on the side and Dal (lentils) and rice. There was french fries on the side too! The Bengalis love their potatoes and this is available in plenty throughout the state. Its a sort of staple for them. So far, since my arrival, it had been deathly quiet, there wasn't any sound at all. If there was anything lurking in the forest beyond the steel fence that separated the tiger camp guest house and the mangroves forest, I wouldn't have known.


(New growth mangroves near the water's edge)

In the afternoon, I was re-introduced to this young fellow Ramakrishno, he was the same person who'd brought me from Pakhirala in that rickety country boat. He was going to be the boat captain on the river cruise of the Sundarbans. Boat permits and forest entry permits were obtained at the same place near the entrance and accompanied by a Tiger guide, we set off. We navigated the waters, Ramakrishno in the wheel house, myself and the tiger guide on the outside deck, first heading North and then North East around Sajnekhali Island, passing numerous creeks and narrow water ways that meandered in and out of the mangroves. Some of the creeks are narrow and the main channels between islands are rather wide, sometimes 3 kilometers and more in width. Tigers here are expert swimmers and have been spotted swimming across wide channels from one island to the other.

Along the way on the main river channel, we saw many types Kingfishers, Cormorants and the guide pointed out areas of old and new growth mangroves. I wasn't going to see any salt water estuarine crocodiles, I knew that they normally come out and bask in the winter sun but hide somewhere inside the cooler foliage during summer. Sometime after meandering around at slow speed, we came up to the jetty of Sudhanyakhali, Tiger Core Zone.


(Entrance gate to Sudhanyakhali Tiger Reserve)

The jetty was exposed but the pathway from the entrance gate, leading into the jungle was fenced off on both sides. Near the entrance I came upon a shrine, dedicated to Bon Bibi, a female deity and her brother Shah Jongoli. Honey collectors who foray into the jungle during collecting season just before the monsoon, never do so without first invoking the blessings of the deity as she, Bon Bibi, is the keeper of the forest. Without her protection, Dokkin Rai would make mincemeat out of you. Or so, the legend is told. Dokkin Rai/Ray apparently takes the form of the Tiger of course. The legend of Bon Bibi is interesting. I did not think that I would come across a Hindu looking deity, worshipped as the Hindus do, but by mainly Muslim honey collectors whose prayer is a strange invocation using Islamic phrases. Instead of writing the entire story of Bon Bibi again, let me make a link here to a wiki article on this here

.

(Bon Bibi shrine at entrance of Sudhanyakhali-also seen is her brother Shah Jongoli and Dokkin Rai as the tiger)

I paid my respects to Bon Bibi as she was the protector of the forest. It was my way of thanking the forest itself, just for being there, as a habitat for animals and birds, for purifying the air, for being an excellent carbon sink and so on. It was a blessing just being there. The lane led to a watch tower that overlooks a mad made water hole. The forest department has a small garden with hibiscus plants. One of them was in full bloom with lots of Hibiscus on it. Climbing the stairs to the tower, I was told that this place had reported a number of tiger sightings in the recent past. The bulk of my afternoon was going to be spent sitting here watching for anything that moved. Although there was cell phone coverage (surprisingly), I switched it off completely. No way was I going to disturb the completely silent forest or it's inhabitants. There are places on the planet where one can go to and just hear oneself breathe. This is one of those places in the non tourist season.


(Fenced off lane and the watch tower on Sudhanyakhali)


(The 2 female deer at the water hole)

Two female Chital deer appeared slowly, looking this way and that. Shortly thereafter a young Stag with magnificent horns came out of the bushes too. I watched them as they circled the water hole, graze on lush grass under a tall tree that had a rather large, quiet, dozy changeable hawk eagle on it. The Hawk Eagle didn't move for ages. A water monitor lizard appeared from the bushes as I watched the deer get closer to the watch tower. The water monitor also circled around, looking for an easy entry point and having found it, slipped into the water for a nice swim. Time went by and the monitor made an exit, waddling his frame across the semi wet mud to slink off into the undergrowth, probably for a much needed nap!

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(Video-Monitor lizard taking his walk)


(Stag arrives)

Suddenly the jungle got noisy. A large family of Rhesus monkeys showed up from behind us, jumping over the tall fence with ease. The large male looked like he was the boss as he led his group on a feedings frenzy. He installed himself on one of the branches of the Hibiscus tree, it could barely hold his weight, and began to pluck and eat them. I watched in amazement as he polished off every single flower! A young male came up the tower to take a look at me. Not impressed, he sat on a railing outside on the watch tower's open deck area and munched on something he'd stuffed in his face earlier. He didn't show even the slightest fear nor interest as I filmed a short clip of him from up close. The dominant male then came closer to the water hole and began to forage for things that had fallen from the trees.


(Monkey King in the middle of the hibiscus tree)

The Stag and his girlfriends were also nearby. I'm not sure what happened next, my reverie was broken. The male shouted out a warning and climbed the nearest tree faster than I could say tree. All the monkeys went up various trees. My tiger guide whispered that it could be a tiger lurking around. The stag got agitated and thumped his foot a few times on the ground and then took off running a short distance followed by the girls. The tiger is an intelligent creature blessed with a fabulous sense of smell. I knew he'd never come out because he had sensed us. We were downwind of him and he would have smelled us from a long time, perhaps from when we first got to the tower. This moment seemed magical, even just imagining a tiger in the neighborhood.

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(The young stag, a little disturbed)

As the afternoon wound down to a calm early evening, we set out again, back to a slow meandering cruise down to Pakhiralay. The Guest House manager had called to say that he was coming across and we could have some tea together at the tea stall near the Pakhiralay boat jetty. As we negotiated the waters at almost idle speed, we saw fighter jets swoop down into the water. I'm talking about the magnificent Crested Serpent Eagle of the Sundarbans. They were circling around over the water and would swoop down in an aerobatic display, snatch fish from near the surface and fly away. With the Sun at a oblique angle, the cool breeze off the water, the mangroves gliding by, predatory birds putting on an aerial display, this was one of those evening that I would wish to have lasted for eternity.

video

By the time we landed on the jetty at Pakhiralay, it was getting dark. The Manager and I had our cup of tea while I paid the boat owner for the trip, he also owns a shop there that had a generator in it. I watched as people gathered around to welcome a new piece of equipment. It was a soft drinks cooler for his shop on a cycle van and we watched the excitement of people unloading and installing this cooler. Another piece of modernity to these parts, perhaps to cater to the droves of tourists that would appear in the peak season. We waited for a water tanker boat to come by and pick us up, first stopping at Satjelia to drop off Mr. Tiger Guide and then turning towards Sajnekhali to drop us off.

I went in to freshen up and then came out to enjoy the complete darkness, standing at the railing of the long balcony. The low power light coming out from my open doorway couldn't cut through even to the edge of the balcony, it was that dark. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a large form run on the ground, dodging sharp mangroves roots coming out of the soil, and climb up the tree not even few feet away from me. I was standing perfectly still. It came up to my face level. It was large, furry, with a long bushy tail, a giant squirrel as the manager told me later. It paused for a second before clambering on to the tin roof, raising a racket as it ran across it. I wandered over to the dining room where I was met at the door by junior Sher Khan, the tiger of his domain, a kitten that had been left by some villager on this Island and lived in the guest house.


(Junior Sher Khan)

A gentleman who worked as a guide to the Sundarbans dropped in for a chat. He was staying over for the night, having lodged his naturalist-guest from Europe at one of those swanky "tiger Resorts" on another Island. Over a simple meal he told me that he'd been coming to the Sundarbans over many decades and this, he felt, was the most peaceful environment that he had ever seen. He had just come off a Pan India tour for his company when this foreign lady dropped in and asked for an English speaking guide to the Sundarbans. Apparently he cancelled his leave application and seized on this chance to come back again to the Sundarbans, that's how much he loved the place and it's inhabitants. Junior Sher Khan was happy to nibble on the tit bits I gave him and he got a good scratch massage from me later.

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(Sun going down in the Sundarbans)

I went to bed in peace, with the mosquito net in place, athough I did not find any flying around. Other insects invaded at night, I was told, and therefore wisely used the net. I was woken up early in the morning by a loud racket. A large family of Rhesus monkeys had come marauding. They were shrieking and running all over the roof. It was like I was in the middle of a war zone. Good wake up call, this. I wished I was staying longer but this was one of those in-between trips that I had squeezed in. I was needed in Bangalore the next day and had to scoot off the same way I had come into the Sundarbans. I'd go back there again, at every opportunity I got. I need to give back to that precious eco system, in whatever way I can. I also want to see if I'm lucky enough to spot my favorite Gangetic Dolphins and the Irrawady Dolphins.

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(Rhesus monkey who didn't care for my filming)

Sundarbans is a fragile eco system, one that is being affected by climate change. Cyclone Alia in 2008 did a lot of damage and flooded the area with salt water rendering many fields barren. Salinity has moved up from the sea in the South and into the river systems. Species with poor tolerance to salt water, such as Gangetic Dolphins, will be affected. I would suggest all my readers, most of whom are lovers of nature and wildlife, to come and visit the Sundarbans. Come here for the Mangroves, come here for the fresh air, come here for the natural wonder that this place is. Don't come here looking for tigers, chances are that you'd have better luck sighting them in the jungles of peninsular India than in the Sundarbans.

If you do see Sher Khan, pay him respects quietly, he deserves his place in the Sun. This is a peace of heaven, as Bittu Sehgal said in his comment on my last blog piece, let us keep it that way. Come here in peace, leave nothing behind except a piece of your soul that will invariably attach itself to these magical mangroves. For newbie readers who plan on visiting or telling your friends about it, please tell them to leave their plastic bags at home. Please take your garbage with you, back to your origin or to Kolkata at least, for disposal. Use resources very carefully, leave as little footprint as possible. Sundarbans doesn't need our sympathy, it needs our understanding and respect.