A trip to the Sundarbans was on my ‘to visit’ list for a long time. Its snaky appearance on map and presence of king cobras and tigers had always evoked a mysterious fervor.
A wedding invite from my friend Nandita Mondal at Calcutta pressed that trigger and ceased the inertia. I was already booking tickets along with my childhood friend Jagadeesh who usually accompanies me on such wild explorations. Another friend Bikramaditya Guha Roy, an avid wild-lifer from ‘Nature Mates’, (http://www.naturemates.org/home.html) an NGO doing impressive work in Calcutta immediately stepped in to help out and set the ball rolling for an adventure that got me counting days. Sharmila, my wife having just entered her ninth month of pregnancy I wanted to be back much ahead of her due date.
On the 16th of November bags packed, last minute shopping done, we were excited to board our train at 8pm. The last task for the day was a visit to the gynecologist (Dr.Swetha, also Sharmila’s cousin) for a routine checkup. With just an hour left to board the train, the routine checkup turned into a little tsunami of events, where Sharmila started showing signs of going into labor; totally unprepared we were left in a whirl of emotions and confusions. The trip was canceled…….and excitement turned its course!
On the 17th at 11:57 am our baby boy kicked his way into our world. As I held his fragile body and stared into his beady eyes, I realized that there could be nothing in this world that could surpass the joy of holding one’s new born. I was now a father and was on top of the world!
Tattwavit, our baby boy
The next day as our excitement started to mellow down with practicalities of caring for a new born, I was in for another surprise—-again from Sharmila. Knowing well about my excitement for the Sundarbans trip and efforts taken by our friend Guha in organizing my visit she made an unexpected un-lady like suggestion. She asked me to go ahead with the trip and said she could manage things; my love and respect grew bounds and I realized there was indeed a woman behind every man’s success!
With the mystery land beckoning and luring us all over again our trip was back on. We received a warm ‘Calcutta Welcome’ and as it is said that people make its country, the hospitality extended was truly appreciable. The city had an old world charm, reminded especially by trams that ran crisscross on main roads amidst chaotic traffic and we almost got killed twice. It was interesting to find ponds in the backyard of almost every home and I was told this was to rear fish which was part of their staple diet. That evening I addressed a group of enthusiastic students and amateur wild lifers about king cobras.
All ears and eyes during the talk
The potpourri of questions that followed gave a glimpse into the potential that remains untapped in these youngsters.
Having lived in the seclusion of jungles for years, cities are always a put off and I instinctively strive to either avoid or getaway soon. The next morning we were finally off to the Sundarbans. This world’s largest delta earns its name from the Sundari trees that are found in abundance here. Formed by the confluence of the Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghana rivers, these mangrove forests are listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO.
A boat stranded, awaiting high tides to resume sailing
Life here is governed by the rise and fall in tides and it is host to maximum number of tigers (as per an unofficial record, 270 were counted in 2004; however scientists working here claim only 100-120 tigers. Serious efforts are needed to get exact numbers.)
These forests are home to a variety of wildlife including king cobras and salt water crocodiles. My main interest was however in king cobras and having heard that estuarine king cobras found here were smaller in size, agile and more aggressive compared to their likes in the Western Ghats, my quest was to learn about their habitat, prey base, and adaptations for survival in these mangrove forests.
Fifty two islands form the archipelago in the delta. Our plan was to cover Kalash Island and the Lothian Island, both considered reptile havens. Twelve of us boarded the Lakshmikanthapur local from Sealdah station to reach Joynagar. We sat atop a jeep with groceries and chicken needed for the next three days and finally reached Kaikhali where our boat and our guide Mr.Mrinal were waiting.
On our way to Kaikhali
The boat reminded me of the good old Ambassador car. There were two levels; the lower level with cots and a kitchen and the upper level had a roofed sitting area. It was admirable to see a western and an Indian toilet in the boat, but to know that it opens out into the water below us was a little discomforting. Solar lights were used for lighting.
Our Abode...our boat!
The boat men were to prepare our lunches and dinners and though my Hindi could make any Hindi speaking person laugh these guys did not care a smile!
The weather was pleasant, air crisp and our hopes high! The next ten hours went in discussions with students, interacting with fishermen, buying fish off passing boats and preparing delicious fish fry (which was the only snack), and of course enjoying the view.
Enjoying the view and hashing out at the sitting area.
Several birds like Common sand piper(Actitis hypoleucos), Lesser adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus), Greater thick knee(Esacus recurvirostris), Brown-winged kingfisher (Pelargopsis amauroptera), Black-capped kingfisher (Halcyon pileata), Collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris), Whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybridus), Brown-headed gull(Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) dotted the shores, wild boars (Sus scrofa) rummaged under cover, and though a good place for sighting salt water crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus: known to grow up to 23 ft and weigh close to a ton, it is the largest reptile alive on earth) we did not spot any.
Fishermen often spot tigers swimming across these waters but we were not lucky enough that day. Twenty-five species of snakes including, Common cobra (Naja naja), Monocled cobra (Naja kaouthia), Banded krait (Bungarus fasciatus), Common krait (Bungarus caeruleus), Wall’s Sind krait (Bungarus sindanus walli) Hook nosed sea snake (Enhydrina schistosa), Annulated sea snake (Hydrophis cyanocinctus) and four more species of sea snakes are found in these waters. En route we visited a crocodile breeding center on Bhagbhatpur Islands. Every year the forest department here breeds hundreds of salt water crocodiles and releases them in wild. Crocodiles varying in size from yearlings/hatchlings to 13 ft adults were present at the center.
We finally reached Kalash Island at 6pm in the evening. A nine feet gate stood tall and as soon as the boat was anchored we were asked to move fast into the gated forest guest house. Tigers here have a reputation of being very aggressive. Just days ago a tiger attempted to attack a boat man at this very gate; luckily for the boat man the tiger unmindful of the fence in between smashed into it and moved away to the forest. With us caged in, while beasts roamed free, roles here seemed to be reversed.
Decent accommodation with three tents, two cottages, and clean toilets amidst a man made park is open to visitors. I wondered how challenging it would have been to carry materials on small boats to build these structures at such a place. After a sumptuous dinner of rice, fish curry and fish fry few of us went for a night walk. We spotted few skitter frogs and a dog faced water snake foraging in burrows looking for crabs.
That night all hit the bed in the lap of tiger country.
We set sail very early the next morning and after nine hours reached Lothian Islands. The boat was anchored, we stepped on an embankment and walked past the slushy bank with mud-skippers skirting around. Out of the ‘Big Four’ venomous snakes of India, the Common Cobra(Naja naja), Russell’s viper(Daboia russelii) and Common krait(Bungarus caeruleus) are known to occur here and on our arrival a freshly shed skin of a Common cobra(Naja naja) was found in the toilet at the guest house.
Since walking in these forests was allowed, the group spread out with their heads peering into crevices and holes looking for snakes. Though several shed skins of snakes were retrieved, we were not lucky enough to spot any live animal. Time running against us we started back to Kalash Island in the afternoon and on the way back visited Bali.
A typical house in Bali
Houses here had a pond in front of their homes and it was really interesting to see adult goats just two feet tall.
Believe it or not...thats an adult goat in Bali
Stunningly beautiful snake with clear checkered marks
At the same place we visited a resort, where we spotted a Checkered Keelback snake. We also visited the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) field station and learned about their commendable work with people and tigers. People here had spotted a tiger swimming in the morning and we missed it by a good 3 hrs.
During our journey back there were more than two instances where we had to stall due to low tides and wait for high tides to get us moving. With no GPS and no land marks I wondered how these boat men were able to navigate around. We were brought back to the safety of the forest department tents at Kalash Islands even on the darkest of nights.
The gung ho gang!
On this quest to learn about king cobras I never missed any opportunity to find signs, interact with forest guards and people to gather more information. King cobras found here were supposedly very aggressive and not easy to spot. People fear these snakes and recently a king was killed by forest officials at the forest guest house. Insights into this unique habitat and their sundry prey base were fascinating. In line with my study on breeding biology of king cobras in the Western Ghats I am now very curious to know about their nesting behavior in these mangrove forests. With practically no studies on these reptiles here, it will be a while before we start getting answers.
My trip to the Sundarbans though shortened by time, was I would say a good one. Though we did not get to spot many animals, a peek into other aspects of life in this part of the country was a revelation. Being a unique habitat for king cobras I am sure I will be back soon to unravel their secretive lives here. All set to go back to my family, it is a promise to come back with them on my next trip.
Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar
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