How to visit the Sunderbans tiger reserve
So much has been written in the international press about the Sunderbans and its man-eating tigers, that if you were never to visit the place, you would probably have a fairly distorted view about the park and the human/tiger conflict which exists. So, when we had the opportunity to take a boat safari inside Sunderbans tiger reserve in April 2018 and also talk to local villagers about the effect both tigers and huge estuarine crocodiles have on their family and loved ones, we hoped to find some answers to our many questions about the world’s largest delta; which is also a world heritage site. If you would like to follow in our footsteps, then check out our very special boat safari experience in the Sunderbans.
How to reach Sunderbans tiger reserve?
It’s actually a fairly straightforward 2-3 hour car journey from Kolkata (Calcutta) to the jetty point of Gothkhali; where you will board your own private double decker houseboat for the journey to the Sunderbans. The car journey is an interesting one, as you move from the densely populated suburbs of Kolkata into a much more rural scene. As well as lots of fields with crops of rice, we also noted that many village houses has their own ‘beels’; which are basically mini fish farms providing fresh water fish to Kolkata and other towns in the north east. The Bengalis absolutely love their fish and without these type of farms, there would be even more pressure on wild stocks.
Life on a houseboat in the Sunderbans tiger reserve
With the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, there is a lot to love about your boat journey from Gothkhali to the park headquarters of Sunderbans national park. As well as our specialist wildlife guide (who was a local Bengali from Kolkata), we had a crew of 3 on the boat. Our affable and keen sighted captain, our legendary cook who produced a prawn curry to remember for years and a third member who helped with the food and also took turns to steer the boat. It was a happy, wildlife focused team, who were always looking out for action on the banks of the river and went about their work with a smile and lots of energy.
The boat has sleeping facilities on the lower deck; as well as a toilet at one end and the open kitchen at the other. The cook was more than happy to let us watch him prepare our food and take any special requests. The upper deck was spacious, with chairs provided and a overhanging roof, which gave plenty of protection from the sometimes strong sunshine. Because wildlife photographers like to get nice and low for their wildlife shots, there is room on both the lower back and front decks to obtain good positions for photography.
How to enjoy the perfect tiger safari in the Sunderbans?
Firstly, you must have a guide who is familiar with the park and has an understanding of how best to maximise your experience in the Sunderbans tiger reserve. The reality is that most visitors come to the Sunderbans with little expectation of seeing tigers and therefore most local operators do not organise trips in a wildlife focused way. It is more about the experience of being in a unique habitat and most of these trips only include a half-day visit to the actual tiger reserve.
Because of our local guide we knew immediately that we needed to sort out our permits the night before, which then allowed us to access the park 1-2 hours earlier than the other boats. Given the fact that you need to be out of the park by 4:30pm; it is even more important to enter ASAP in the morning. Since our boat was equipped with a full kitchen, we knew that we could spend all day in the tiger reserve – be well fed and looked after – while we focused on wildlife photography and observation – PERFECT!
Tiger attacks in the Sunderbans – why they happen and how to prevent them
Firstly, I should point out that our personal thoughts and testimonies are only based on conversations with villagers during our visit in April 2018 and cannot in anyway be considered as exhaustive or real research. Having said that, the first important point we learned, was that it is not just the tigers who are killing villagers close to the Sunderbans tiger reserve. Local women routinely walk along the river banks (up to their necks in the water!) to make a meagre living from collecting and selling fresh water shrimps. While in the water they are at great risk to estuarine crocodiles and we heard personal accounts of deadly encounters.
We were very fortunate to witness the annual gathering of local honey collectors visiting the park headquarters to obtain permission to enter Sunderbans tiger reserve to find bee hives and collect the honey. Given that the park authorities have built a fence (more of a mental barrier to the tiger than a physical one!) to protect these riverside villages from the threat of the Sunderban tigers; it would seem to be a HUGE RISK to enter the park for several weeks (their small boats were packed with provisions) and risk a tiger attack within the forest. However, not only do the villagers fully understand the risks – many of them have lost family members to attacks and continue to enter the forest – they also do not blame the tiger for what is a natural hunting instinct.
It is important to note that the mangrove habitat in the Sunderbans is not one where prey species can occur in abundance. Which means that the tigers of the Sunderbans have to be opportunistic and ‘unfussy’ when it comes to their choice of prey.
How long to spend in the Sunderbans?
We feel that a minimum of two full days visiting Sunderbans tiger reserve is necessary to see the diversity of wildlife. You are likely to see up to 5 Kingfisher species, spotted deer, wild pigs, estuarine crocodiles, raptors like white-bellied eagle, osprey and Brahminy kites. There is a slight chance you will see snakes (we had a glimpse of King Cobra), river dolphins and tigers. As of April 2018, there was a bolder male tiger being sited 2 or 3 times a week; but of course, you will need plenty of luck. Based on our recce trip we have designed the perfect boat safari to Sunderbans tiger reserve.
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