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 over 200 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 neighbouring 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 maneaters. 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.
Visitors can enter the park anytime between 7:00 am to 5:00 pm.
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.