Last week we went to the Sundarbans to develop a new project. The Sundarbans stretch away to the south of Kolkata. If you drive, you shoot through the wetlands that are the kidneys of the city, through sulphurous tanneries and unlikely, bustling, noisy, truck-stuffed towns strung out along a newly smooth road. After entering the Sundarbans proper, the road splits and you could go to Canning where Lord Canning set-up shop in 1864 to populate a pristine, tiger rich wilderness and take as much as he could carry. If the thought of this is too depressing you could always do as we did and head to Godkhali, where you can hire a boat and go and bother the wildlife. We slid up a braid of the delta in a pretty white boat with an airy hold and a beautiful shady deck with cushions and chairs. Once again I went prepared to do battle with nature but found myself being served fantastic flavoursome Bengali food in stunning surroundings. Sundarban means beautiful forest in Bangla, it collapses Shundor: beautiful and ban: forest. It’s not the kind of beauty that punches you in the face, it’s the kind that creeps up on you and ties itself to your ankles, anchoring you unexpectedly.
As we motored gently along, the mangroves slid past with their 64 species, many with adventitious roots which form arches, or are sentinels or form mats in the thick sticky black mud which is studded with crimson fiddler crabs. We were, of course, hoping for tigers (like everyone) but instead we saw crocodile, spotted deer, wild boar, little spotted owls, brown-winged kingfishers, pied kingfishers, smooth coated otters and a blood-orange sunset framing fishing boats.
We were there to formulate a project to look at the impact of introducing non-native honey bees into forest areas. A key challenge in the area is that the tigers, who to be fair did have first dibs, tend to attack people who wander in front of them. Yet people, who are largely subsisting, need to go to the Forest to forage and often stray into the path of a tiger. It’s a recipe for disaster. WWF are working on various interventions to reduce the conflict and the CPS will be looking at the ecological consequences of these … we have come a long way in two years!