Bangladesh Sundarbans – At the Tiger’s Dining Table

Despite the many natural treasures they harbour, the Sundarbans are most famous — and notorious — for the creature that dominates the food chain. In the fourth episode of her Sundarbans travelogue in Bangladesh, Jennifer Nandi has a brush with the Royal Bengal Tiger.
Fishermen lay lines to collect crab

Another dawn breaks. Our guide hands us ‘jungle shoes’ and asks that we wear them to protect our own footwear from being clogged with miry mud. As we struggle for a comfortable fit, he shows us a tiger swimming across the water recently caught on film. Our thoughts are with that majestic animal as we board our speedboat. There is a slight wind whipping the waves and we draw our windcheaters tighter.

Kotka Beach looms as a grey-brown patch on the horizon. Moving coloured dots appear. They materialise into a loud, long line of early local holiday-makers in footwear most unsuited to walking on a mangrove beach. The women hitch their sarees up in vain to aid their struggle for a firmer footing. At the end of this unlikely line is a single armed guard. One has to wonder what earthly use he would be should a tricky situation present itself! All halt at the sight of us. Some, with more daring, approach us for a photograph. We pose and smile and then make our way towards muddier parts in search for waders. We pick out Whimbrels along the shore; and further out Lesser Adjutant Storks are feeding. Further still are groups of Brown-headed Gulls readying themselves for the day’s feeding. In the spotting scope the birds show their fabulous detail.

One of the broader channels

The beach itself has very large Mangrove Apple trees. I’m careful not to trip over the air-breathing roots, but it is difficult to watch birds and to watch where you’re going! Here the silt has accumulated from river-borne sediments enabling the land to advance seawards. Pioneer species of mangroves with slender aerial roots which protrude from the mud have colonised this beach. Tiny pores on the surface of these roots absorb atmospheric oxygen to supply the subterranean roots with crucial life-giving air. Underground roots would otherwise suffocate in the closely packed sediments. These air-breathing roots serve a dual purpose – they trap more silt brought in with each successive tide.

Large mangrove apple trees show their air-breathing roots

So here I am, critically contemplating the muck! This exploration is really introspection. In order to be one with reality, in order to penetrate it as it were, I need to explore myself. It is an exercise I find myself frequently engaging in to find the answers to questions such as ‘How am I connected to this….?’ But the silence is being violated by the cacophonous crowd returning. So we make ready to walk toward denser forest.

In a short distance we are plunged into a tangled gallimaufry of roots and shoots. It is suddenly dark; the daylight fades to black. Large Sundari trees push their stout prop roots at us. Artists must have come here to a mangrove swamp when they were looking for the archetypical tree to place in a witch’s garden. The Sundari tree is large with footholds of gnarled bark and tough vines to grip. Walls of roots, several feet broad and thick, steady the tree and provide it with extra space for breathing. But it looks like any moment it’ll start walking and it’s while I’m negotiating the roots of this witch’s tree that I hear a deep growl.

Penetratingly powerful with strength to bolster it, the sound permeates my very being. I turn around to see if the others had heard it as well. Everyone’s face is as wide-eyed as mine. An armed guard motions us to keep together. He then loads his shotgun with ammunition. I am disturbed, wishing almost that the tiger would escape detection. I know the armed escorts’ intentions are good – that the shots they would fire, would be in the air, should the tiger make a charge. Yet the very idea of having to traumatise such a dignified presence is disturbing. The guard moves ahead and out of sight. We wait in the loud silence. When he returns it is with news that it is indeed the tiger and that we should follow him.

At the tiger’s dining table in Kotka

Fresh tracks lead to a large mound – one of three – where over a hundred years ago men had descended from the hills to make their living selling the salt they’d collect in mud pots. Now only shards of pottery remain. We are now in the vicinity of what they call the Tiger’s Dining Table – we climb these mounds, several feet high, built of the remains of prey that had served as food for the powerful predator. The air is still. Armies of ants march in thick columns to demolish long-dead debris. There are tiger tracks and chewed antlers of a once-sprightly spotted deer. The air hums with sound and smell. Our unease is acute; we leave quickly and head for the speedboat.

Fresh tiger pugmarks in the mud

We pass by the remnants of Forest Houses. This is the part of the Sundarbans that had been devastated by Cyclone Aila two years ago. The severity of the storm is evidenced by the ruins of human habitation, large uprooted trees and general devastation. Our guide tells us stories of how they had clung to the roof of their homes for days in order to survive.

Forest houses damaged in 2007’s Cyclone Aila

Back on board the Bonbibi, we eat heartily at breakfast and are again ready for a boat ride. The speedboat takes us far out into the Bay of Bengal to another large island. The jetty is on the steep side of the island where the mangroves are. To get to the beach we must walk some three kilometres. Parties of locals play volleyball on this very wide and white beach. But there are no birds in sight. We follow evidence of tiger tracks advancing on spotted deer’s spoor. The deer’s footprints appear to be hurried and rushed as the herd must have had to bunch for safety. The trail ends abruptly. We turn back for a long walk in the sun to the boat.

Our guide with armed guards

We pass through open country with grassland and scattered trees. Shrikes show themselves prominently. The black hood identifies one as the sub-species tricolour of the Long-tailed Shrike; close by is another, reminiscent of the Long-tailed but much greyer with speculums on its wings. It is the Grey-backed Shrike. But there is one that at first sight we dismiss as a rather common bird. It looks like an ordinary Indian Roller but only darker. It’s perched on a dead tree scanning for prey. We plough through short grass and scrub to see whether it’s the glare or the mid-morning light that interferes with our mind’s eye. But no, it is indeed, the ubiquitous Indian Roller but with a difference – it’s a Bangladeshi version of the same bird. .

Its throat is a beautiful mauve lacking the white streaking of the race that we are familiar with. Its under parts have a strong purplish-blue flush; its mantle almost a brownish-green. Its crown and wings gleam a bright turquoise blue. It could very well be another species, so different in aspect it seems. Undoubtedly it is the affinis subspecies of the nominate Coracias bengalensis. We are delighted with our find. And as it flies off to another perch, we are now prepared for the all-turquoise tail.

Sundari trees, after which the Sundarbans take their name

The volleyball-playing groups have now gathered to picnic in the shade. Some wave and call out to us. Our team of ship’s crew and guide pick up the trail of garbage the picnickers leave behind. This is standard practice we’ve noticed on all our outings. Taking the cue, the holiday-makers too are motivated to help and dutifully pick up pieces of garbage. Once the collection is done, they are pleased to hand it over to us, the garbage-pickers! And we dutifully accept and carry it back with us. I did, however, on one occasion tell them what a beautiful place the Sundarbans were and how lovely it would be to keep it clean. Yes, they all cried in unison while handing over their garbage!

Sea Holly (Acanthus ebracteatus)

After lunch we take another one of those lazy boat rides into a channel further upstream. From the Bonbibi we see the splendid White-bellied Sea eagle. Thirty years ago when we lived in Goa I had grown accustomed to seeing it circling at great heights or stooping from a prominent rock to seize a fish close to the water surface. Being able to watch birds while we cruise is truly an experience to treasure. We are very pleased with the operations run by Guide Tours in Bangladesh. The itinerary is so planned that when we are on board, we are always cruising. We have been supported with a lovely boat, an excellent crew and the table always groans with delicious Bangladeshi fare.

No birds at the beach, but plenty of tiger pugmarks chasing spotted deer

Leaving the Bay of Bengal behind, the MV Bonbibi anchors at one of the smaller channels. Our country boat paddles us into the smaller creeks and we drift down looking for birds. Ashy Woodswallows perch at the treetops. A Crested Serpent Eagle settles itself on a nearby branch looking down at us. We get a glimpse of Bangladesh’s biggest bird – the Lesser Adjutant stork. We had seen fine examples of this bird earlier in the day along the shore. On occasion we’d pass an opening of the thick mangrove forest that leads down a steep bank of very grey mud to the water’s edge. All of these exits have tiger pugmarks. The elusive animal‘s presence is evident everywhere and we feel privileged to pass through its terrain.

On trees that stretch their branches out over the water perch those lovely kingfishers, noisy at this time of the day. We see the uncommon Brown-winged, the more common Collared, the Black-capped and the Ruddy. A bird of spectacular beauty, the Ruddy has a very large coral-red bill. Its orange upper parts have an almost iridescent violet sheen. However when it flies, its brown mantle, wings and tail contrast sharply with its turquoise rump. And when it perches high in the mangroves watching for prey, the rich brown-orange of its underparts are beautiful.

Towards sundown the tide begins to ebb. Soon the water level will be inadequate to support the boat. In fading light the boatman slowly completes the turn. A large bird flaps into view. The owl perches nearby looking directly at us, its facial disc very prominent, its white collar almost gleaming in the falling dusk. The Brown Wood Owl is large and not very common. We are extremely lucky. It perches within easy viewing before flapping away into the now dark forest.

On our last evening in the Bangladesh Sundarbans

Before we settle down to dinner, our guide beckons us to the bridge. He throws a mug of water overboard and we gasp. It’s unbelievable. The patch of disturbed water is lit by the phosphorescence of diatoms and other plankton. It’s beautiful. We make him throw some more only to gasp again. We can’t seem to get enough of this. I point out to other lights in the water. They are stable and don’t seem to be going anywhere. He laughs and says that those are the reflections of the stars. The stars, I cry out disbelievingly and gasp again. I can’t get over the beauty that surrounds. I look up at the night sky and it’s difficult to see the constellations; they hide among so many stars. I want to remember this moment for the rest of the year so that the stars will glow in recollection. We are acutely aware that this is our last evening in the Bangladesh Sundarbans. Over a good dinner we savour the delights of the day and know that this has been very special. 

Missed the previous episodes of Jennifer Nandi’s Bangladesh travelogue? Read them here:

Episode 3: Beautiful Forest – Adrift in the Sundarbans
Episode 2: Heading for Bangladesh’s Sundarbans
Episode 1: Slowly down Bangladesh’s Shitalakhya River

Text and photographs by Jennifer Nandi. All rights reserved.

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