The Sundarbans covers an area of 9,556 sq kms, 40 percent is in India, the remaining 60 percent is in Bangladesh..The Tiger Reserve covers 2585 sq kms of which 1285 kms buffer area,1300 kms core area..
I departed for the Sundarbans, India on October 18th, to visit the handicraft project we have helped fund, we are also currently building a nature / art education school.
I took an early flight in the morning, arriving in Mumbai, then taking a 2 and three quarter hour flight to Kolkata, arriving early morning at the domestic airport on October 19th. I met up with Indrajit Sengupta of Saving Tiger, the organisation, we support and work forward with at ground level. We then took a car to Norforgunj, Jhorkhali area, this is the area, that the handicraft project, was built last year and there are 50 plus ladies involved in the project, also we are building a nature /art education school in the same area. There are 90 plus children involved with the teachers. The school building is 40 percent completed and will be completed in the next couple of weeks, weather permitting, as the rains across the country have continued later into the season, than normal. In Kolkata, boats have been used to paddle down some of the flooded roads in this year, I was informed.
On arriving in Norforgunj, I was made welcome by some of the villagers, staff and students. After some food and chai ( tea ), we then went to see the school building, the locals are very supportive of the project and it will be a good addition to the area. The teachers and students are very enthusiastic and in the long term, it will be benefit for forests, wildlife and students in so many ways. We would also like to add a couple of computers in the near future also. We then took a walk to the nearest river, it had been seven long years, since I had visited Sundarbans. A short time after, we had a game of cricket with some of the local people, until the rain halted play. We also entered a meeting that another local ngo was having with some villagers on disaster awareness.
Then shortly after, Indrajit got a phone call from a local contact, that a male Tiger had crossed the Tiger reserve river into an area close to us, hence the reason, we were hearing fire crackers close and in the distance from us, these are used to warn off Tiger. Later in the evening, we visited Matla range area, talking with local people and was told, that the male Tiger, was around 30 minutes from here by our motorised rickshaw. As it was late in the evening, it was decided to return back to camp.
Next morning, after some breakfast, we had a programme with the villagers and students. I gave a short speech, which Indrajit, translated to the villagers. The students had been doing some drawings, I took some photos and had to judge the best 4 small and large drawings, the standard, was very good. The ones chosen by myself, were added to a WELCOME CARD, that was presented to me, with a drawing of a Tiger coming out of Sundarbans forest, into the water, on the front, this part was done by the art teacher.
We then, went to the school building, which is 40 percent built, it would have been completed, except for the late rains and Durga Pooja celebrations, the remainder of the building should be completed by mid November, weather permitting, I had also brought with me, the final funds to complete the building. The land had been donated by a local person ( Ranjit Jana ) something I have never had experience of, over the years, though all parties were very grateful and we conveyed this to the landowner. There was a prayer and song blessing, by one of the locals for the school, we then cut the ribbon and gave out some sweets to the students and villagers at this time.
We then shortly after, went back to the Handicraft building, which had been used at present for the nature and art lessons. The 40 children present, had a nature class, I gave a small talk, which Indrajit translated. The teacher then carried on with the lesson.
After the nature education lesson finished, we then went around the local area, with students and collected rubbish, we did this for about an hour.. We then had some lunch and then packed our bags, as we were to meet up with the boat , which was a 15 minute journey by motorised rickshaw, as it is not possible to use cars in this areas, as the tracks are narrow and made of bricks in most parts.
After getting on our boat, which berthed 6 people, some of Saving Tiger team came along also three crew members. We then made our way to Bali Island, which is where Wildlife Protection Society of India ( WPSI ) have a school also. The journey took us two hours to get there. The school is used for 40 children, they have lessons six days a week and also have their lunch here. There are also some buildings for the staff and a conference room out door. We spent about twenty minutes at the school area, then making our way to Satjelia Island, this was the place I first visited in Sundarbans in 2002 and had a house built in 2006,at the time, we were working with another organisation, called ICNL. We arrived after a further one and half hours boat journey, mooring against another boat at the jetty, by this time it was dark.. On arriving, we were met by the manager, as the old manager, had been replaced, also meeting the organisations brother, as Mrinal Chatterjee, the lead person whom I had contact with, was not present at this time, we did try to talk by phone, though the signal was not good. We entered the camp area, in previous times, it was used as a hospital and also children, who had lost parents through conflict with Tiger / crocodile had been looked after here, believe it was 12 last time I was here..They said that they struggled to get doctors, so now they were using the building for tourism, including my house. The children also were no longer living here. After a couple of requests, I managed to get to see inside the house we had built seven years ago. It had not changed much, also the Tiger needlework done by wife at the time, Angie was still on the wall, it was of a Tiger swimming in the water, this I decided to bring back with me, later in the visit, giving to Indrajit, to put it up on the completed school wall, as a reminder of our objective, to conserve Tiger in wild, working with local communities. The last time we had sent any support to ICNL, was after Cyclone Aila, which was in 2009. We had spent about twenty minutes at the camp area, then made our way back to the boat, which we then moored up in the middle of the river at Sajnekhali, which was about thirty minutes boat journey away. I had noticed already in my short time on the boat, how so many more hotels had been built on the riverside and more traffic on the rivers. We had some food and a shower, then tried to get some rest, though this was made difficult due to the music blaring out from one of the hotels on the shore side. This went on until about one thirty in the morning, though once the music did stop, I did hear jackals calling each other from the forest area.
Early next morning, there was a heavy thunder storm, after some breakfast this stopped and we were to spend the day, visiting some villages. The first village we visited, was Pakhiralay, they wanted to meet up with us, as they would like to protect an area of the forest close to them about 5kms in size, at present there are some illegal activities happening there, they would like us to support in the way of two forest watchers, they could then, report back to Saving Tiger, who in turn could report the information to the forest department. We had some discussions on both side for about forty minutes, we offered to pay each forest watcher 2k Rupees per month, about £ 25 per month. The villagers, where after a little more, so we asked them to go away and discuss further and they could, let us know before I departed back to the UK. I did also stipulate that we would look to start this programme in January 2014, as our current funds are committed to our present work. This would be monitored by Saving Tiger periodically on the ground, if we go forward, to ensure, that people are working.
We then went onto meet some villages in Jamespur about 30 minutes away by boat, we had helped here a couple of month earlier, we gave some bleaching agents, buckets, etc to help with cleanliness at the time of the monsoon and reduce chances of malaria. We met some ladies that had lost their husbands in conflict with Tiger / crocodile in forest area, mostly in core area, for which they would get no compensation in these cases from authorities. We then, went onto Laripur 10 about an hour further by boat, we again met the villagers in this sensitive area, not many NGOs, visit these areas, though WWF have helped with some lighting in the area. We met nine people, who lost family member in conflict with Tiger, some in core zone, some in buffer zone, though in these cases, bodies were taken into core zone, nothing could be proven, so again, no compensation for the families, which can be little consolation for the families. Their livelihood is from fishing in these villages, permit costs 30 k Rupees and over the eight months season, they earn approx 20k Rupees, also 25 k people apply for the permits, with only 700 available. They get no visits from the forest department, unless there is a conflict incident happen. We then went onto visit Pathura Pra, we met some more villagers, one of the men was known to me, as I had met him on an earlier visit, when he was a pilot of one of the boats for ICNL, he was now doing the same work for another organisation. He introduced us, to his family and some other villagers, we spent about 30 minutes here. In the near future, we would like to be able to help in some way, these villages in sensitive areas, to reduce tension and work forward, as working with local communities, is critical in forest areas.
We then dropped off our guide on his island, he also made us aware of information, that came to him, that close to Sadhanyakhali, Tigress and male Tiger had been heard mating and also seen, crossing the river to another island together. We were hoping, we could be fortunate enough to see them early next morning, so we moored up here in the river overnight.
Overnight it had been raining steady, the music from the hotels on the shore line, was a little less than the previous night. In the morning, whilst waiting to collect our guide, I observed some ladies trawling in the river for shrimp and prawn seeds. We then went to Sajnekhali tourism office to get our permit and license to go into the forest area, buffer only, core zone is off limits to people, except forest department. They also had a Tiger here under treatment for lack of weight and a hip issue, it was in an enclosure cordoned off, at the back, away from public and noise, and it had been here since July. I was informed it was recovering ok and later had this confirmed by WWF, who said that had done x rays of its body, to check it out, await more information, of when it will be released, hopefully not to long into the future. Information also came to me, that it had been beaten by villagers before its capture.
We then made our way around the mangrove river area, on the Tiger reserve side, opposite villagers on the other side of the river, fencing, eight feet high, has been put up, to try and reduce conflict and chance of Tiger crossing at these points, it is not fool proof, though helps, they have put up fifty four kilometres of fencing for this purpose.
We observed many times, people fishing illegally on the Tiger reserve side of many of the islands, over the two days. We then went to a watch tower at Burirdari, on the way also noting, that there are many more large ships, tankers on the rivers, informed, they are going to Bangladesh, with their load, since my last time here. At the watch tower, which I had visited before, it was low tide, as there are two tides a day in Sundarbans, we did not see any wildlife, other than some birds. We then visited Sudhanyakhali watch tower, also getting an update on the movement of the Tigress and male, the Tigress had been seen crossing the river today alone, maybe their mating time, was over and nature would hopefully bring some new cubs in 90 to 105 days, gestation period for Tiger, we hoping to see her in the morning.
We started early next morning again collecting our guide first and then going round the mangrove forest area, to Dobanki watch tower, also passing Jhorkhali watch tower. We sadly did not see the Tigress or any other Tiger, over the four days on the boat. Though previous visits, had also, only produced pugmarks, this is not a bad thing, though I am sure one day, will see Tiger in reality in Sundarbans, on other visits. The main thing, is that they are here and keeping low profile, which is best for their long term future. We covered approx 370 kms, visiting villages, and going around the mangrove forest area. After leaving the boat, we made our way back to Norforgunj, spending the night at the project area.
Next morning, we left the project area about 10 am, after saying bye for now, we made our way back to Kolkata, we had a meeting with WWF. It took us a little longer than expected, as we had a puncture and also had to get it repaired, as the spare tyre, was not in good state. We arrived at the offices of WWF, Indrajit, has had meeting with them previously, as they are both looking to take forward a honey project, in two trial areas, this will happen shortly..Tiger Awareness, is looking to support Saving Tiger in some funds, as they will help with some small staff levels also. The trial is a good idea, they will select two areas, cordon them off, forest dept, will monitor, with the Apiary boxes, being here in this way, it will mean villagers, do not have to go into illegal areas of the forest, it will help reduce conflict with Tiger dramatically and then hopefully be rolled out into other areas. Honey collectors earn approx 3000 Rupees per month ( £ 35 per month), over a 3 month period and in the trial period, nobody will lose out. They showed us some of the video footage and pictures from 2012 census, in the areas, they worked. In these areas, via camera traps, they confirmed 103 different Tigers. WII also took part in other area, for census, though do not have any figures from their work. They also showed us some footage, taken by a forest staff officer, family of Tigers playing at dusk , never seen before in Sundarbans..It was very good footage and appreciate them showing it to us, this was also taken in an area, where these are extra Tiger, to the number mentioned previously.
Sadly our meeting was not as long as would have liked, though have said, would look forward to meeting with again on next visit. We then made our way to Indrajits mums flat, had a clean up and some small food, I also gave Indrajit, the final funds, to pay for materials and labour on the school building, then had to get to the airport, to take a flight back to Mumbai, then onto UK..
Overall view of trip
The trip was 6 days in Sundarbans area, it allowed me to bring the final funding for school building, see the handicraft project built last year, meet the Saving Tiger team, teachers and villagers in the area. It also allowed me to learn more about some of the challenges and difficult situations, in some of the sensitive areas, close to Tiger mangrove area.
It also allowed me to meet up with WWF and learn about some of their ground level work in Sundarbans. Tiger Awareness will look to raise funds, to help in some of these sensitive areas in 2014 and continue forward with handicraft and school project.
Long Live TIGER IN WILD….