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Sunderbans surprises in delta Bangladesh

Sitting in a chinese restaurant in the city of Khulna, 15km, South West of Dhaka, I ordered chicken for my evening meal. The waiter took my order and then, from the depths of the kitchen, I could hear frantic squawking. Oh my goodness, surely not?? The squawking stopped abruptly and, 20 minutes later, I was presented with fried chicken and mixed rice. Well, I guess you can’t get much fresher than that.

Bangladesh is a land of contrasts. Slaughtering a chicken for a “ready meal” is commonplace. But it is keen to encourage ecotourism, attracting western tourist dollars that can far outweigh agricultural revenues. Sustainable, regulated development they argue,  will only benefit the ecosystem, and encourage conservation of natural resources.

If ecotourism is succesful in Bangladesh then further forests can be declared sanctuaries. This, in turn would encourage crocodiles, deer, monkeys and tiger. Subsequently more ecotourists would visit and so the circle would be complete.

I’m setting off from the port of Mongla in the morning for my three day expedition into the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger. The Sundarbans are the largest littoral Mangrove belt in the world, covering an area of 38,500 square kilometres. They stretch 80 kilometres into the Bangladeshi hinterland from the coast and are a part of the world’s largest delta (80, They are formed by sediments brought down by the three great rivers of the subcontinent, the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. They are home to a vast array of wildlife including spotted deer, crocodiles, jungle fowl, wild boar, lizards, theses monkey and, more reclusively, the Royal Bengal Tiger. The area also provides a livelihood to approximately 300,000 people who work as fishermen, wood-cutters, and gather honey.

In November 2007, disaster struck as the Sundarbans took the brunt of Cyclone Sidr. It’s now late December and I’m visiting the area as part of a long standing tour itinerary, booked many months before Sidr wreaked her vengeance. There are reports of wildlife rotting in the water and channels that comprise the Sundarbans. I was given the opportunity to cancel this part of my journey but being the adventurous type (some would say stupid), I’ve elected to continue. I reckon Bangladesh and people could do with my tourist dollars at the moment.

After a hearty breakfast my guide negotiates a price for a couple of rickshaws to take us to the port. Fully laden with our entire luggage, we then trundle down every backstreet the driver can find, to save a couple of taka. Aboard M.V. Aboshar, I’m quickly shown to my cabin which is basic but comfortable enough. We have a brief meeting with the captain and his crew who explain that we, as tourists, have a responsibility to keep the Sundarbans as unspoilt as possible. To that end, all our rubbish will be brought back out of the jungle onboard the boat. The captain also explains that after cyclone Sidr, many people had cancelled their proposed trips into the Sundarbans. That being the case, instead of there being 50 people onboard the boat, there are only 20 of us.

It’s a full days sail to the ranger protected entrance to the Sundarbans, stopping once en route for a spot of crocodile watching. Once there, the boat weighs anchor and we welcome aboard two gun-toting rangers. Permission for anyone to enter the Sundarbans has to be obtained before travel. This permission is organised by your tour guide. I’m travelling into the Sundarbans with “The Guide Tours” of Bangladesh and they take care of all necessary permissions. The rangers’ brief is actually to protect us from the man eating Royal Bengal tigers that roam the Sundarbans. In actuality, I don’t think the guns have been fired since Bangladesh’s Liberation War with Pakistan in 1971. No matter, there are still reports of the tigers attacking and killing villagers, so the rangers and their weapons are welcomed onboard.

With the blistering sun sinking into the horizon, I’m spotted by the kids onboard. They are the children of a gentleman who works at the British Embassy in Dhaka. Consequently, their spoken English is of a very high standard. They’re actually a delight to speak to and they burst into paroxysms of laughter at my useless attempts to speak Bengali.

The captain of the boat tries to conserve as much power as possible at night. Therefore, once the ships engines are powered down, the generators come into action. Unfortunately, he only runs them for a couple of hours a night, so this is the ideal time to get all your electrical devices charged up. Leaving my Mp3 player and camera on charge, I venture back on deck. It must be about 14 ° C but the Bangladeshi folk are complaining of the cold, well it is late December!

The next morning, it’s an early start and I’m washed, dressed and up on deck with a hot cup of coffee for 6.15am. I might have been warm last night but this morning, as the early morning mist blankets the surrounding inlets and channels, it’s decidedly chilly. The crew ready a small rowing boat to take us silently down one of the channels for a spot of nature trekking. It’s an eerie feeling as we glide silently down the channels, spotting various fauna along the way.

As I look at the water level, I can see exactly where it got to during the cyclone. There is a tidemark about 2 metres above the current water line. The tide must have thundered up these small inlets and channels at a heck of a velocity. All around me, trees are flattened from the force of the cyclone. Luckily, contrary to earlier reports, there are no dead animals floating in the water. Perhaps the crocodiles have eaten their fill?

In the afternoon we sail to Egg Island, a small char 1km into the sea, off the southern tip of Bangladesh. Whilst the young people from the boat prefer to play football on the beach. I take off with my guide and an armed ranger in tow. We spot a hollowed out canoe in the distance approaching the island. The occupants are all that remain of a family of fishermen that perished in the cyclone. Their house was destroyed and they are collecting firewood. Plenty of that hereabouts but the ranger advises them not to take too much as this is still a protected area. With a heavy heart we watch as they collect a few twigs and branches and then quietly take off again in their canoe.

It’s difficult to comprehend the power of a cyclone until you see it. We had been taken to Katka, the point where cyclone Sidr had first hit mainland Bangladesh. The few ranger buildings that were here have been flattened. We’re taken into what was once dense jungle but now is only devastation. It reminded me of the pictures we used to see in the 1970’s of the scorched earth policy in Vietnam. The Bangladeshi government have decided not to clear the area of fallen trees. Instead, they want to rely on nature to create a new landscape from the devastation of the cyclone. They reckon it will only take a couple of good monsoons and the area will once more be covered in lush vegetation. The deer are scratching at the ground searching for fallen Keora leaves. There are monkeys at the top of the few trees where leaves still remain. In a show of mutual support, the monkeys throw down leaves for the deer to eat, perhaps realising that their survival relies on co-operation.

After walking around the devastated area for quite some time, I was quite relieved to get back to the landing jetty. That was until I saw the TV cameras. Bengali TV had arrived en masse to do a report on the aftermath of Sidr. Can you guess who they decided to pick on to interview? The TV crews made a beeline for yours truly. We talked about the devastation, Bangladesh’s role in helping the victims and my perceived lack of response from western governments.

Next day, it’s further into the jungle to go tiger hunting. I request a blunderbuss and pith helmet but nothing is forthcoming. Off we sail by “silent boat”. I have to say, it’s absolutely stunning scenery (certainly no tigers spoiling the view) however, we do manage to spot fresh tiger pug marks! I’m delighted. In the afternoon, we venture onto dry land to continue our tiger spotting expedition, with a side excursion onto another beach. Not a tiger in sight all afternoon so, a little leg weary, we trek to the beach. And what a beach it is, a piece of paradise on earth!

My time in the Sundarbans is over all too quickly. Soon enough we are sailing northwards, bound for Dhaka. Nothing to do all day but sit on the top deck and marvel at the beautiful landscape that is Bangladesh. The people are so genuinely happy to see tourists. The fishermen all wave and smile. The children on the shore giggle at the sight of this white man taking pictures of all around him. It’s a magical experience. We sail onwards to Naryanganj, passing several boats that have run aground. The captain turns our engines off and the crew physically push the boat onwards, obviously not wanting to become stuck ourselves. At one point the depth of the water is no more than 1.9metres. If ever you get a chance to visit the Sundarbans, go. It’s a place that is etched deep into my memory and I hope the place is never ruined by developers or non eco tourists. I sincerely hope that the affluent Western governments come good on their aid pledges to help the devastated people of the area but, if I’m honest, I hold out little hope of them doing that.

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