the dying delta

Spread over some 10,000 sq km of which 40% lies in the Indian state of West Bengal, Sundarbans is the largest river delta in the world as also the largest mangrove forest. It is one of the most fascinating and unforgiving places on earth which epitomizes the struggle for life to the core and has weaved for itself a fine balance between nature and all that man (and his activities) stands for. Of late, that thin line seems to be crumbling. It is a world where man and animals have been living since eternity. It is not the usual kind of place one travels to. For visitors Sundarbans might look like a pristine labyrinth of rivers, their branches, creeks, islands, mudflats and never-ending greenery full of some of the world’s most exotic animals but for the people living there it’s a different story. It’s a story of endurance, of life and death, of faith and expectations.

sundari tree (genus heritiera)

How Sundarbans got its name is a question that has been puzzling researchers for quite a while now. Some say it simply stands for beautiful forests (sundar in Bengali means beautiful and bon means forests) while others say it’s a corrupt form of the word samudraban (samudra in Bengali means sea and bon means forests) while yet others says it has been named after a primitive tribe, Chandrabandhe. But the most accepted logic is that the delta has been named on the dominant tree of the region, the sundari tree (trees of genus Heritiera).

map of sundarbans

The Sundarbans of West Bengal is located near the Global City of Kolkata and thus the biotic pressure on the forestland is immense. Though human habitation is almost negligible in the core area of the forests the fringes hold some 4 million people who greatly depend on the forest for their survival. Most people are indulged in agriculture, fishing, honey collection, firewood collection, tiger prawn seed collection for which regular foray into the forests becomes a necessity. It thus becomes a matter of grave concern on how the dependence of man on the forest and its mutual adverse affects are tackled in the near future.

tiger prawn collection

Much of Sundarban’s fauna has become extinct since independence but it is still home to the Royal Bengal Tigers, perhaps the most popular animal in the world, besides a host of other animals and birds. Tigers of Sundarbans are unlike anywhere else in the world. Their coats and stripes are darker, they themselves are a tad smaller but owing to the difficult terrain they are the most adaptive. While the Indian leopard, the Javan rhino and some others perished over time, the tigers devised a way to survive. Whether it flourishes here or not is relatively unknown owing to the fact that animal survey in this part of the world is immensely difficult. Tigers are extremely territorial animal (much like all other carnivores) and because their scat markings get erased with the constant ebb and tide of water (here at Sundarbans) physical dominance and aggressiveness have become the norm. While in other parts of India, tigers are either revered or feared or even looked upon in awe, the mere word is considered a taboo for the villagers who enter the forests.

a royal bengal tiger in sundarbans

With bleak employment opportunities in the hinterland and embankments for agriculture breaking down (scarcity of funds and political negligence) getting inside the forest for honey and firewood becomes indispensable for survival and tiger attacks become inevitable. The honey collectors, who are the most prone to attacks by not only tigers but also saltwater crocodiles, devised a way to fool the tigers by wearing masks on the back of their heads (since tigers mostly attack from the back) but the tigers soon discovered the ploy and attacks continued. With herbivore population on a constant decline inside the forests and villages having a healthy stock of cattle, tigers often get lured towards the villages and tiger deaths in retaliation is common to hear. But over the past half a decade with enhanced vigil by the forest guards and better packages for the villagers (in terms of employment, better insurance cover, prompt livestock kill compensation, etc), fatalities have reduced but one still gets to hear stray news of man-animal conflict. This is not good for anyone. It’s thus a battle of necessities from both the ends.

honey collectors of sundarbans and their back masks

Sundarbans is a world in itself. Its flora and fauna is enchanting and so are its stories of earthly balance. It is a protected area with the Sundarbans National Park (since 1984) forming the core area of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (since 1973). It’s a UNESCO world heritage site (since 1987) and also a biosphere reserve (since 1989). The constant rise in sea-level possesses a great threat to the delta since most of the islands would submerge if a significant rise is to happen. Sundarbans is like a shield for the hinterland against the cyclones that rise in Bay of Bengal. If it were to go it would take away with it not just the tigers and all its animals and tress but would also hamper nature’s cycle and in such a way that it would be impossible to recover. It’s not only our heritage but also acts as our lungs. The people who live on the fringes and their requirements need to be understood and it must be ensured that there is minimal or no interference between man and the wild.


Sundarbans is a world of strong faith where people, irrespective of their religion, do not go into the forests without taking the blessings of Bonbibi. They go with a clean mind and take only what is required. This was the pact that legends talk of. The forests and the tigers symbolize the tyrant Dakkhin Rai with whose mother Bonbibi had a pact that humans must be spared so far they venture into the forests with a mind sans greed. The faith is so strong that even if a man dies of tiger attack villagers think that there must have been some fault with them. Such is the world where the tiger epitomizes something so powerful and fearful and still the balance is maintained but the pact will stay intact only if humans understand that the world beyond greed is the world where the tigers live in and if the tigers were to go, there would be nothing to talk about.

bon bibi

My motive of writing this piece was to highlight the fact that the happenings of the world are so interlinked. One can’t blame the people of Sundarbans for venturing into the forests nor can one put the blame squarely on the tigers for getting into their villages or attacking them in the forests. Nature is detoriating and while we might have alternatives, the wilderness has none. It’s our prerogative to understand our heritage and save it. The onus completely lies on us, the most intelligent species on earth. The only way to save Sundarbans would be minimal interference in the ways of the wild while providing those 4 million a way out for decent life. Total rehabilitation is next to impossible but much is to be done for them. The wild has its way of regeneration but if we don’t provide for the villagers of Sundarbans then the thin line that separates them with the dangers of the forests would keep crumbling and one day it would come to a naught and that I dread of.

N.B: All the pics have been sourced from Google and in case anyone in particular owns a photograph kindly let me know. I would mention the name.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by fazil on 26/09/2014 at 2:22 pm

    save India. dont pollute.


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