Where the land meets the sea at the southern tip of West Bengal lies the Indian Sundarbans, a stretch of impenetrable mangrove forest of great size and bio-diversity. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sundarban is a vast area covering 4262 square kms in India alone, with a larger portion in Bangladesh. 2585 sq. kms of the Indian Sundarban forms the largest Tiger Reserve and National Park in India. The total area of the Indian part of the Sundarban forest, lying within the latitude between 21°13’-22°40’ North and longitude 88°05’-89°06’ East, is about 4,262 sq km, of which 2,125 sq km is occupied by mangrove forest across 56 islands and the balance is under water.
The Sundarbans are a part of the world’s largest delta formed by the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. Situated on the lower end of the Gangetic West Bengal, 21°13’-22°40’ North and longitude 88°05’-89°06’ East, it is also the world’s largest estuarine forest. The Sundarbans is inhospitable, dangerous and monotonous. Dense mangrove forests occupy 56 islands and the balance is under saline water which flows through numerous tidal channels and creeks. It is difficult to approach and even more difficult to spend time in. But for those who dare, it must be one of the most attractive and alluring places remaining on earth.
Key to birding the Sundarbans is overcoming the geographic and physical hurdles. Though only a 100 odd kms from Kolkata city, Sajnekhali, an established tourist/visitor destination takes 5 – 6 hours to reach through a combination of road and water transport. In a landscape dominated by great tidal creeks and waterways, the only way to access and enjoy the area is on motorized boats which come in various sizes and shapes. Sundarbans is the home of swimming man eating tigers, estuarine crocodiles, sharks, poisonous snakes and pirates. Man fights for survival in great numbers by living off nature’s bounty by accepting and fighting against these odds. The visitor has no choice but to stay within limits and out of trouble. This means that there is very little conventional bird-watching, more observations from water.
But the dark and foreboding attractiveness of the mangroves also hides some of the most sought after birds in the world and a chance encounter with a Brown-winged Kingfisher, a Grey Headed Lapwing, a Pallas’s Fish Eagle, a Lesser Adjutant or maybe a Mangrove Whistler is always a possibility ~ as is the unforgettable sight of the most secretive great cat in the world.
Birding is difficult not just because of the terrain but also because the density is not evident from the limited view one gets from a noisy boat. The fringes of Sundarbans play host to many local endemics and the visitor is well advised to spend time on land outside the core area before venturing into the heart of the National Park. Once inside the Park, the only access to land is at the Sajnekhali compound and the various Watchtowers you can visit. Remember that the watchtowers are inside wire cages and do not allow you to stroll in tiger-land.
How to Reach
Sundarbans is accessed from Kolkata ( Calcutta) by traveling either towards the South East or the South West. The South West route takes one through Diamond Harbour to Kakdwip and Namkhana. You can take a boat from these places or from Gangadharpur and visit Lothian Island and surrounding areas.
The South Eastern route is more popular. You drive 86 kms through wetlands and agricultural land to reach Sonakhali. You can take a 3 hour boat ride from Sonakhali jetty to Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge or cross over to Basanti. From Basanti you can take an auto-rickshaw ride to Gadkhali (11kms). At Gadkhali take the ferry to cross the Bidya river to arrive at Gosaba. A Cycle Rickshaw ride will take you to Pakhiralaya in about half hour. Sajnekhali is across the water from Pakhiralaya.