Huge estuary with dangerous tigers

The Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world. It's an area that includes the delta of the Ganges river, and is home to man eating tigers.

The Sundarbans may not seem like a Bucket-List item to start with: the area (which is an enormous 10.360 km2) looks monotonous, hostile, and downright anti-human. There’s water everywhere, there’s mud, there are impenetrable forests and pesky insects.

But in these tropical tidal forests nature’s versatility is really on display, and so is its incredible diversity. Humans simply have to adapt here. There are very few inhabitants, for obvious reasons, and tourists are even fewer and far between.

A fisherman in the Sundarbans.

The area’s source of life are three powerful rivers that end in the Bay of Bengal. But because they are tidal rivers, the water gets pushed back upstream at high tide, causing the mudflats and a total of 56 islands to be flooded on a daily basis. A large part of the area gets entirely flooded in the wet season. The only trees that can live under these circumstances are mangroves.

Animals of the Sundarbans

Tigers in the Sundarbans.

Thankfully, its natural wealth is still impressive. Scientists have counted 55 kinds of mammals, 55 kinds of reptiles and 248 kinds of birds. In the water, there are around 210 kinds of marine creatures, of which 32 kinds are crustaceans.

A crocodile in the Sundarbans.

Thanks to the huge number of animals, you’re likely to see wildlife here, yet the Sundarbans is not a safari destination. Because most of the animals are very shy, tourists have to make do with mostly seeing birds. Others animals are outright dangerous, such as the tiger. An interesting fact is that locals often wear grotesque masks here to ward off tigers, which are known to attack humans.

The diverse plant life

They counted 334 kinds of plants in this area, too. All of this life can survive in the salty conditions here. The Sundarbans is home to 14 different mangroves. Most famous among the locals is the Sundari tree due to its length, most of these trees grow on the drier parts. Research into the flora and fauna here is ongoing, because there are still parts that have barely been studied, or not at all.

Best tours in the Sundarbans

But tourists don’t come here specifically to see animals: they come to see one of the few unspoilt natural areas in the world, and to learn how one of the most important ecosystems in the world works.

Head out on the water with a guide

A boat tour in the Sundarbans.

The Sundarbans is not an easy area to visit. The most popular way is by boat tour, which can accommodate ten or more tourists and a guide. In the Bangladeshi part you’ll visit Hiron Point (Nilkamal), Katka and Tin Kona Island, where there are lots of animals. The main goal on these tours is to experience nature. The guide can help you spot animals that might be tricky to see with an untrained eye.

Hire your own boat

In Khulna and Mongla in Bangladesh you can hire a boat with a captain/guide. Here, you can see how the locals live off fishing. Make sure your captain is knowledgeable, so you can get the most out of your experience. Please note: you need a permit to enter the park, which you can obtain in Khulna.

In the Indian part of the Sundarbans, you can take a boat tour from the villages Sonakhali, Raidighi, Najat and Namkhana. You can also hire a boat with a guide in these places, and here too it’s a good idea to ensure you have a knowledgeable guide.

See fishermen use otters to fish

On the island of Dublar Char in Bangladesh there are fishing communities, where you can see how the locals live off the seafood industry. If you’re lucky, you can see how they use otters to chase the fish into their nets. You might also spot axis deer, also known as chitals, on this island, which like to come out to graze.

Viewing tower in the canopy of the forest

In Harbaria, in the Bangladeshi part, there is an access point into the park. Recently, a viewing tower anda walking track have been opened here, one of the very few walking tracks in this very wet park. It’s a great place to familiarise yourself with the area. Seeing the guards with their guns there might make you feel a little uneasy, but they’re there for a good reason.

Do a multiple-day boat tour

In both the Indian and Bangladeshi parts you can take multiple-day boat tours. During the day you’re out on the water, then when night falls you might climb up a viewing tower to enjoy the sunset. You spend the nights on the boat, safe and sound.

Sajnakhali Wildlife Sanctuary

This animal sanctuary is located in the Indian part of the Sundarbans, and is known for its many birds. Some come here to find food, others stay the night. There are several viewing towers here (which are protected by steel-wire fences against tigers), but it’s not that easy to spot any life between all the greenery and roots. The best time to visit is in the early morning or late afternoon, when temperatures are mild.

History of the Sundarbans

The beauty of the Sundarbans.

Scientists believe that this area has slowly risen above sea level over the centuries. A new landmass was created when the Indian continental plate collided with the Eurasian continental plate. This process ended around the 5th century AC.

The rivers carry sediment that settles between the roots of the mangroves. Most of the Sundarbans is located in Bangladesh, around 62 per cent. Its current fauna is only a fraction of what it used to be. After the land rose out of the water, the drier areas developed into grasslands with here and there a clump of rainforest, bringing its own wealth of life. Humans have laid other areas dry for agriculture.

Protection of this nature reserve

At the start of the last century the demand for protection of this area increased. A law was passed in 1911 to ensure that people couldn’t just claim a piece of land. This was a turning point for the region, though for many animals it was already too late. The remaining area was too saline for many animals to survive. Currently, the tidal waters and its inaccessibility ensure that no more land is lost.

Best time to visit

The Sundarbans park is open all year, both the Indian and the Bangladeshi parts. The best time to go is from November to March for several reasons: there are fewer insects, the temperature is pleasant and humidity is not very high. There are also more migrating birds in the area in winter.

Visiting the Sunderbans

You will need a permit to enter the park, in both countries. The best thing to do is book an organised trip with an itinerary, because it can be very tricky to organise things locally.

Be aware

The park is in a cyclone area, so there are times when it’s very dangerous to be here. These cyclones are nature’s natural cleaners: they cleanse the entire area of lots of refuge.