The Sundarbans is a mangrove forest area which covers an area of approximately 10,000 square kms in the delta formed by the confluence of Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers in the Bay of Bengal.
It spans from the Hooghly River in India’s state of West Bengal to the Baleswar River in Bangladesh. It comprises closed and open mangrove forests, agriculturally-used land, mudflats and barren land, and is intersected by multiple tidal streams and channels.
Four protected areas in the Sundarbans are enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, viz Sundarbans National Park, Sundarbans West, Sundarbans South and Sundarbans East Wildlife Sanctuaries.
The Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh’s Khulna Division extends over 6,000 square kms – of which 60 percent is located within the boundaries of Bangladesh while the remaining 40 percent is in India’s West Bengal.
The forests provide habitat to 453 faunal wildlife, including 290 bird, 120 fish, 42 mammals, 35 reptile and eight amphibian species.
The beauty of the Sundarbans is that it flanked on several sides by water ways, where cruise ships ply daily for tourists and locals to visit the UNESCO Heritage sites.
A total of 36 members of the media from Asia, Europe and Africa, as well as academics, were brought on a two-nights and three-days cruise along the Sundarbans, complete with several stops to explore the lush mangrove forests.
Through the trip, guests learned about the Sundarbans’ unique way of evolving itself after being devastated by Cyclone Sidr in 2007.
You can see once-barren sand islands have started to spout trees and new vegetation, while a trail of destruction with uprooted hundreds-year-old trees and a handful of wrecked boats and ranger’s quarters remained in the background.
We came across a crocodile sunbathing on muddy slit at the edge of the forests while a couple of others quickly dived when the cruise vessel passed.
In the protected forest itself, flocks of deers quickly gathered to feed on leaves provided by the rangers and were wondering peacefully while guests tracked for about four kilometres.
As we followed a mangrove trail located beside the Poshur river, we had the chance to observe the monkeys, listen to the sounds of chicada and birds chirping and seeing various bird species flying overhead. One of the highlights was the ever-present eagles flying overhead, occasionally diving and surveying their surroundings while waiting for the right time to catch their prey.
The trek was sparsely covered with foliage while kept well away from the dense vegetation area. This was done out of fear of the mighty Royal Bengal Tiger, whose paw prints were visible on the trek but fortunately not sighted.
In 2007, the landfall of Cyclone Sidr damaged around 40 percent of the Sundarbans. The forest is also suffering from increased salinity due to the rise of sea levels and reduced freshwater supply. Again in May 2009, Cyclone Aila devastated Sundarbans with massive casualties. At least 100,000 people were affected by this cyclone.
Despite the natural disasters, effects of climate change and salt water encroachment, Sundarbans freshwater swamp forests keep reinvigorating on their own.
Having the geographical advantage of lying inland from the mangrove forests and situated on the coastal fringe, Sundarbans has no inhabitants for most parts, except for some riverine fishing communities on the way to the majestic green forests.
The Sundarbans is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests. The interconnected network makes almost every corner of the forests accessible by boat.
Rivers in the Sundarbans are meeting places of salt water and freshwater. Thus, it is a region of transition between the freshwater of the rivers originating from the Ganges and the saline water of the Bay of Bengal.
Biotic factors here play a significant role in physical coastal evolution which created a variety of habitats for the wildlife in the forms of beaches, estuaries, permanent and semi-permanent swamps, tidal flats, tidal creeks, coastal dunes, back dunes and levees.
The most important value of the Sundarbans lies in its protective role. It helps hold coastlines, reclaim coastal lands and settle the silt carried by the rivers. The estuary is a good breeding centre for many fishes.
To get to the Sunbarbans, we had to board a domestic flight from Dhaka, a short 40 minute hop via a turboprop aircraft, and a two-hour bus journey to Kulna and from there to Mongla, the main boarding point for the eight to 10 hour cruise on fairly comfortable boats which can accommodate up to 24 cabins.
The cruise vessels anchored at Kokta in the wee hours of the morning and after a sumptuous breakfast, we boarded a trailing motorised boat to head to the shores where a trek along the mangrove forests is available.
The shores was littered with debris from the aftermath of cyclone Sidr and footprints of various animals surrounding the trail. As we started, we could see monkeys scurrying around curiously while the deers steadily feed on the leaves.
The must-see point at the Sundarbans is the estuaries of Katka, Kachikhali and Heron points which open up to the majestic Bay of Bengal.
Water transport is the only means of communication for visiting the Sundarbans from Khulna or Mongla Port. Private motor launch, speedboats, country boats as well as mechanised vessel of Mongla Port Authority might be hired for the purpose.
September to March are the best months to visit Sundarbans with the winters being the most pleasant period in the area, when temperatures can drop to 10 degrees Celsius at mid-day and even lower at night.
Meanwhile, summers at the Sundarbans could be quite hot, sending the temperature up. The heat makes it an ideal time to visit the wildlife sanctuary.
The unique experience took a lot of energy out of us but the memories of discovering Bangladesh’s special eco-tourism remained with us. Maintaining tourism activities at places such as the Sundarbands in a sustainable way is highly commendable. Due to this, it is safe to say that Bangladesh has successfully raised the bar in tourism.