Sunderbans Tiger Reserve

Sunderbans, the world’s largest delta and mangrove swamp, is formed by the merging of three rivers- the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna- and has a 2,585 sq km wildlife sanctuary that extends into Bangladesh. The Wildlife Sanctuary, which is the world’s largest estuarine sanctuary, has some of India’s most interesting wildlife, and is worth a visit.

Spreading over a series of densely forested islands and saline water channels, Sunderbans is home to spotted deer, wild pigs, monkeys, herons, kingfishers, white bellied eagles and almost 270 Royal Bengal tigers.

The tigers of Sunderbans are known to be mostly man eaters- mainly because of the lack of other suitable prey in the area- and the entire estuary has become, over the past decades, a place where you have to be on the alert all the time. Hunters, honey-collectors and fishermen from the neighboring areas wander through the sanctuary throughout the year, and there are an average of 40 maulings a year. This is an improvement on past figures, however, as the forest department has introduced a number of measures- including masks and electric dummies to scare off man-eaters. According to local folk culture, it is still believed that Bonbibi, the goddess of the forest, protects the villagers on their hazardous missions. A possé of armed policemen accompanies all visitors who venture into these 'beautiful forests’.

Sunderbans’ other creatures include estuarine terrapins, Olive Ridley turtles, estuarine crocodiles, Ganges dolphins, water monitors and a wide variety of birds, fish and crustaceans. Also part of Sunderbans is the Sajnekhali Bird Sanctuary. Besides a heronry, the Sajnekhali Visitors’ Centre has a crocodile enclosure, a shark pond, a turtle hatchery and a Mangrove Interpretation Centre.

Entry Requirements

A boat trip through Sunderbans outside the sanctuary requires no prior permission. Permits are however necessary to visit the estuarine delta area, and can be obtained from the office of the Field Director, Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, Port Canning, 24 Parganas. These permits allow you to visit the Sajnekhali Bird Sanctuary and the Project Tiger reserve areas within Sunderbans. Permits to visit other parts of Sunderbans can be obtained from the Divisional Forest Officer, 24 Parganas, 35 Gopalnagar Road, Kolkata.

For foreigners, permits are available at the Forest Department in the Writer’s Building, Kolkata. Note that the core area- the National Park- is off-limits for tourists; you’ll only be able to visit the wildlife sanctuary.

Access

The capital of West Bengal, Kolkata, is just 131 km from Sunderbans, and is well connected to the rest of India (and to a number of destinations abroad, too), so you shouldn’t have much trouble getting to the estuary.

The rail head and road head closest to Sunderbans Tiger Reserve is Port Canning, which is connected to Kolkata by train. From Port Canning, regular buses go to Sonakhali, Raidighi, Najat and Namkhana, from all of which launches can be hired to tour the waterways of the reserve.

The WBTDC organizes guided tours- mostly of a duration of two or three days, starting and ending at Kolkata. They’re a good way of visiting Sunderbans without some of the adventure which accompanies making your own arrangements, and cost between Rs 1,000 and 3,000.

Within Sunderbans, the only way to get around is by boat; you can take a boat ride, along with an official from the Project Tiger office. There are, in addition, watchtowers at a few places- such as Netidhopan, Sajnekhali, Sudhanyakhali and Haldi- from where you can keep a look out for passing wildlife.

Best time to visit

Sunderbans is open to visitors from October to March. Winter is anyway the time when the area isn’t as hot and humid as the rest of the year, so it’s best to time your visit for between December and February.

Accommodation

Within the Sunderbans reserve, the only accommodation available is at Sajnekhali, where there’s a tourist lodge. The lodge stands atop pillars- to keep away hungry tigers- and has rooms as well as dormitories. Meals are available at the dining hall, but don’t expect anything fancy- in the way of either boarding or lodging. A double room at the Sajnekhali Lodge costs about Rs 525 per night; dorm beds come for Rs 180 per night.

Outside the park, especially at Piyali and Bakkhali, are tourist lodges and hotels which can be an alternative for anyone looking for a place to stay. Rates vary considerably, depending upon what level of comfort you’re looking for.

Further information on Sunderbans can be obtained from the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation’s office at 3/2 BBD Bagh (East), Kolkata (Tel: 248 5917 / 210 3199), or the WBTDC’s offices elsewhere in India.