Sunderban Tiger Reserve is one amongst the initial nine Tiger Reserves constituted at the time of inception of the Project Tiger scheme in the year 1973. Apart from a small area in 24 Parganas (North) it is largely situated within 24 Parganas (South) districts of W. Bengal lying at the southern end of the State. It is a part of the famous "Sunderbans" - the largest delta in the world formed by the convergence of two mighty Himalayan rivers the Ganga and the Brahmaputra both of which flow into the Bay of Bengal. This delta consists of 10,200 sq km of mangrove forests spread over India (4,200 sq km) and Bangladesh (6,000sq km) forests areas. The Indian Sunderban region consists of 4,200 sq km of reserved forests along with 5,400 sq km of non forest area ie a total of 9600 sq. km. Of this the Sundarban Tiger Reserve is spread over 2585 sq. km. The entire area is a conglomeration of river channels, creeks and islands which total about 102 in number. Of these 54 islands are inhabited and the rest 48 islands are forested. The name Sundarbans is thought to be derived from the Sundari ( Heritiera fomes ) tree. Another view is that the name comes from the Sundar ban meaning a beautiful forest.The Sundarban Tiger Reserve has an area of 2585 sq km and is divided into the Core and the Buffer zone. The Core zone consists of the Sundarban National Park having an area of 1330.12 sq km ; considering the ecological importance of this area it has been designated by the UNESCO as a natural World Heritage Site in 1987. Area outside the core zone is designated as the buffer zone and consists of the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary with an area of 362.33 sq. km. Recently the core areas have been notified as the Critical Tiger Habitat having an inviolate area of 1699.62 sq. km. The rest area of 885.27 sq. km has been designated as the buffer zone. It is also among the three Global Biosphere Reserves in the country.
Boundaries: The area is bound by the river Matla in the west which also forms the boundary with the territorial Forest Division of 24 Parganas (South). The rivers Kalindi and Harinbhanga and Raimongal in the east form the international boundary with Bangladesh Sunderbans. On the south of the Reserve lies the Bay of Bengal. The northwest is bounded by rivers Bidya, Gomdi, and which form boundary with the revenue villages bordering the Tiger Reserve. The sources of all rivers especially on the western side are progressively getting silted up resulting in the rivers getting more brackish and shallower. All these rivers experience tides diurnally. The tidal amplitude on an average is 2.15 mts. (max -5.68 mt; min- 0.96 mt). A network of rivers, channels and creeks intersect the entire area.
Location:The area lies at the southern end of the state falling mainly within 24(P) South and partly in 24P(N) Districts between the latitudes 21 0 31' and 22 0 32' North and longitudes 88 0 10' and 89 0 51'East longitudes.
Season & Climate: The best season to visit Sunderbans is between October and February as the rivers are calm and free from turbulence. Although the tract is situated south of the Tropic of Cancer, the temperature is equable due to its proximity to the sea and a heavy rainfall and humid climate prevail.
Summer : extends from middle of March to middle June. Maximum temperature 36'C
Winter : December to February. Minimum temperature 9.2'C.
Monsoon: Usually from the middle of June and lasts upto middle of September. The autumn lasts from mid September to November. Rough weather lasts from 15 th March to 15 th September and the fair weather prevails between mid September to mid March.
Rainfall : Average annual rainfall is 1920.30 mm. Average humidity is about 82% and is more or less uniform throughout the year.
In 1658 Shah Suja for the first time treated the forests of Sundarbans as source of revenue. Later in 1737 the lands of 24 Parganas was ceded to the East India Company and became the jagir of Lord Clive. During this time there was continuous reclamation of mangroves for settlement and agriculture. For the first time in 1879 an area of 4690 sq. km was declared as Protected Forests which were subsequently declared as Reserved Forests in 1928 and 1943. Pre independence the area was part of the erstwhile Sunderbans Division with its headquarters at Khulna, Bangladesh. After independence an area of 4262 sq. km came under a new Division called as 24 Parganas Division with headquarters at Alipore, Kolkata. It was from this Division that the Sundarban Tiger Reserve was created under Project Tiger scheme on 23.12.73 by the MOeF, Govt. of India.
This unique mangrove ecosystem with its numerous ecological niches is home to over 1586 faunal sp of which 15 mammalian species, 8 sp. of birds, 17 species of reptiles, are included in Schedule I and II( rare & endangered) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act,1972. 14 sp. have been listed in Appendix I of CITES. As per earlier records animals like Javan Rhino, wild buffalo, barasingha, barking deer and leopards etc were once found in Sunderbans. However, over a period of time due to changes in habitat and human induced pressures these animals became locally extinct.
Major faunal species :
Mammals : Tiger:( Panthera tigris )
It is the topmost land based predator in the mangrove ecosystem. Tigers in Sunderbans have adapted to the saline water and like most other animals and are excellent swimmers and have a variable diet ranging from fish, crabs, smaller animals to wild boar and cheetal. Sunderbans is the only mangrove ecosystem in the entire world (apart from Bangladesh)to harbour tigers . Tigers here live in extremely stressed conditions and consider anything moving within the jungle including man as prey. Because of this habit they have been termed as man eaters.Other mammals of interest found here are dolphins - both the Gangetic ( Platanista gangetica ) and Irrawady ( Oracella brevirostris) are found in Sunderbans. Apart from these cheetal, rhesus macaque, wild boar, fishing cats, leopard cats, small Indian civet, common otter, black finless porpoise, etc are also reported from the area.
Reptiles : Estuarine crocodile( Crocodilus porosus)
This endangered species is present in good numbers in the numerous rivers and waterways. They are often seen basking on the mudflats especially during the winter season. However, to augment their numbers a crocodile project is on at Bhagwatpur.Apart from crocodiles other reptiles present in abundance are snakes. Out of the 97 spp. available in W. Bengal 53 spp. have been reported from here. Important ones are King cobra, common cobra, Russel's viper, Common Krait, Indian Python, rat snake, chequered keelback, green whip snake etc. Snake bite is a major cause of mortality in Sunderbans. Other reptiles found are fresh water turtles like Indian soft-shelled turtle, spotted pond turtle, flapshell turtle etc. The sea turtles include olive ridley, green sea and hawksbill turtle. River terrapin (Batugar baska) is another endangered spp. found in the area which is endemic to this region. Water monitor lizard is also found in good numbers here.
Avifauna: Sunderbans is extremely rich in avifauna and recent surveys have revealed the presence of over 210 sp. of birds. These include a large number of migrants from higher latitudes which visit the area especially in the winter months. A large number of waders are found in the numerous mud flats and sand banks in and around the area. Main species seen are sandpipers, spoonbills, whimberels, stilts, thick knees, curlew, green shanks, etc. The raptors include White bellied sea eagle, Osprey, Brahminy kite, Shikra, Crested serpent eagle, and occasionally oriental honey buzzard, short toed eagle etc. The Goliath heron is extremely rare and is seen occasionally. Other herons found here are the pond herons, grey heron, purple heron and night heron. Other species of birds found here are cormorants, green pigeon, seagulls, egrets, sunbirds, cuckoos, and a variety of ducks, geese and storks especially the Lesser Adjutant stork. The area is also called as a "Kingfishers' Paradise "due to presence of 10 sp out of the total 12 sp. of kingfishers found in the country. During monsoons a number of heronries are formed where species like egrets, herons and openbills have been found to nest.
Fishes and crustaceans: The creeks and rivers of Sunderbans are extremely rich in fish, crabs and molluscs. The amphibious mud skipper fish such as Peripthalmus, and Boleopthalmus are frequently seen moving around near jetties and mud banks. Endangered species of Shark and Rays like Ganges shark ( Glyphis gangeticus ) , white spotted shovel nosed guitar fish ( Rhynchobatus djiddensis ), Pondicherry shark etc are found here. Apart from these other species found are Indian dog shark, Bull shark, hammer headed shark , black tip shark , pale edged sting ray, black edged sting ray etc. Other fishes include hilsa, bhetki, pomphret, parshey, gurjali, topshey. Among the crustaceans seen are many species of prawns including the tiger prawns which are an important source of revenue as they have a good export market .Fiddler crabs ( Uca sp.), ghost crabs and two extremely primitive species of trilobites commonly known as Horse shoe crabs ie ( Tachepleursgygus and Carcinoscropius rotundicauda ) which are highly endangered species and regarded as living fossils are also found here.
The estuarine ecosystem of Sunderbans is dominated by the mangrove vegetation. These plants growing in loose muddy alluvial soils which are inundated twice daily have developed specialized adaptations to cope with such conditions. They have developed specialized roots like stilt roots for support, breathing roots called as pneumatophores bearing lenticels for gaseous exchange, and also exhibit phenomenon of in situ germination within the fruits known as vivipary. Succulent leaves are seen due to high salt content in the soil. These highly productive mangrove ecosystems act as breeding grounds and nursery for a large number of fin and shell fishes.The vegetation can be classified as per the Champion and Seth classification under the following categories namely sub group 4B tidal swamp forests , with sub divisions namely, Mangrove type 4B/TS1, 4B/TS2 , Salt water type mixed forests 4B/ TS3, Brackish type 4B/TS4, and Palm type 4B/E1 . 84 species of mangroves and their associates have been recorded. Among the major species found here are Rhizophora sp, Bruguiera sp, Ceriops sp, Avicennia sp., Xylocarpus sp, Nypa sp, Phoenix sp, Excoecaria sp, Aegiceras sp, Acanthus sp, Porterasia sp. Sundari (Heritiera fomes) has over a period of time declined in the Indian Sunderbans probably due to the reduced supply of sweet water. It has now become restricted to the eastern part of Indian Sunderbans. Another endangered species is Golpata or Nypa fruticans which now has very limited distribution.These forests apart from providing key ecological services support the local economy in a number of ways. Every year over 200 mt tones of honey is collected by both honey collectors from the forest and also by way of apiary boxes placed in the fringe villages. Besides this mangrove forests act as fish nurseries and also act as a natural barrier against tidal surges, gales and cyclones originating in the Bay of Bengal.
As per 2001 census there are 3.9 million living in the fringe area. The population is economically backward and the area has very poor infrastructure like roads, jetties and electricity which render most of the places remote and inaccessible. Majority of the population is dependent on agriculture in the absence of any major industry. However, as the agriculture is mainly rain fed, the yield is poor. There is an acute shortage of drinking water in the villages. People without any land are dependent on professions like fishing and tiger prawn seed collection. The latter particularly is causing large scale damage to marine biodiversity. During the honey season from April to May local honey collectors called as 'Maulies' are engaged in honey collection.
The people living on the fringes of the forest face the fury of nature on a regular basis. Their daily existence being fraught with immense hardship has resulted in religion playing an important part in their lives and they have become dependent on the same Gods, goddesses and supernatural powers whom they invoke before venturing into the forest. Both the Hindus and the Muslims worship Banbibi , DakshinRay, Gazi Pir, Maa Manosa irrespective of caste and creed. Banabibi is very popular and is considered protector of inhabitants of the forest. All people pay their obeisance and seek her blessings before venturing into the forests.
Tourism in Sundarban Tiger Reserve has increased exponentially over the last couple of years. Currently close to one lakh tourists, including foreign tourists, visit the area annually. The tourism is confined to a well defined Eco-tourism zone. The entry permits are available from Forest offices at Canning, Sonakhali, Bagna and Sajnekhali.
Sajnekhali: Mangrove Interpretation Centre, turtle and crocodile pond, watch tower and sweet water pond are the main attractions here.
Sudhanyakhali: A Mangrove Park along with a sweet water pond and watch tower with observation lines provides a vantage point for tourists to see wildlife.Dobanki Canopy Walk: This aerial pathway allows the tourists to have an aerial view of the forest. It culminates into a watch tower from where a vast expanse of mangrove forest can be seen.
Netidhopani: Here the tourists get to see the ruins of a 400 year old temple along with watch tower.
Burirdabri cage trail and mud walk: This is a favourite with the tourists as it allows the tourists of a feel of the muddy forest floor. The ground fauna can be observed closely during the mud walk. It culminates into a watch tower over looking Bangladesh with river Raimongal forming the boundary.
Jhingekhali : A watch tower with observation lines and sweet water pond for observing the wildlife.
Permits : For entry into Sundarban Tiger Reserve permission can be obtained from the Office of the Field Director, Sundarban Tiger Reserve, Canning apart from Sonakhali, Bagna, Sajnekhali on payment of entry fees, boat fees camera fees and other miscellaneous charges. A special Permit is required for foreigners which can be obtained from the Joint Secretary, Forest Department, Writers building, Kolkata.