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     Volume 4 Issue 20 | November 5, 2004 |

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Sundarban Sun

Lally Snow

I hate tours. There is something so immensely artificial about a large group of people paying good money to 'experience' something and more often than not the experience is staged. But sometimes a tour is the only way and it was with feelings of profound apprehension that I awaited an overnight bus to Khulna where I was to board a boat and head for the Sundabans with Elizabeth and Rubaiyat Mansur from The Guide Tours.

The Sundabans is the largest chunk of mangrove forest in the world sprawling over 1 million hectares. In tropical parts of Latin America, Africa and other parts of Asia, mangrove forests are rife but their bounty is not considered a practical resource. In Bangladesh, however, the wood from the trees is used for timber, thatching, tool handles, fishing boats, carts, cart wheels, electricity posts and probably even the paper you are now holding in your hand.

Wood aside, the Sundabans also act as a storm barrier, shore stabilizer and water purifier. The forest sustains a varied and colourful eco-system, for here the fresh water flows down from the northern rivers to mix with the salty seawater and to date over a thousand species of plant, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals have been identified. In their own way each of these species contribute to the array of Bangladesh's possible resources, but sadly they are only missed when are no longer there, for the remote and unique environment of the Sundabans is far from safe.

Shrimps are Bangladesh's second largest export due to the quick maturation period of fry, but as fishing is officially banned, the exports supposedly come from hatcheries. Fry is caught using primitive and uncontrolled means and, more often than not, makeshift implements fashioned out of mosquito netting. In one fell swoop they can collect over 1500 larvae from different species but it is only the shrimp fry that matter and those morsels unfortunate enough to be born non-shrimp, are cast aside.

Of course there are other creatures that suffer from poaching. The green frog, the estuarine terrapin, the giant soft shell turtle, the green pit viper, the rock python, the golden flying snake and of course the crocodile and tiger to name but a few. Each valued for their differing aphrodisiacal, nutritional or economic values. Go to a market near one of the five star hotels in Dhaka and if the right questions are asked, a tiger skin will eventually be offered. Indeed some tanneries even admit knowing how to cure tiger skin for they "do it all the time".

The Bay of Bengal has become synonymous with the tiger. Indeed the first thing most people have asked me since my return last week is, "See any tigers?" I did not go to the forests to see tigers, in fact I had no expectations at all, bar those of nervousness concerning the idea of a 'tour', and Rubaiyat told me that until last month he had not seen a tiger for nearly two years. Sightings are becoming less and less frequent. However the wealth of wildlife actually visible in the Sundabans quite overshadows the elusive tiger.

Our vessel was moored in such a way that we had access to two sides of the forests, the idea being that we could explore both during our stay. One morning we walked on the very, very fringe of the forest proper. The ground was gooey with damp mud and the mangrove roots protruding and tiny crabs scuttling every which way (but mostly sideways), created a labyrinthine pathway as we picked our way this way and that, at times stumbling. There is a saying in the Sundabans that if you trip on a root once, you will trip five times. It is not true, I counted at least seven but it may well have been eight. Foot stubbing aside, as we stood there in the dappled sunlight a heard of deer lollopped across our path some 200 yards away. I say lollop, because although they exude elegance, lolloping is all you can do in the mud. Shortly after their exit into the thickets, the stage was taken by boars which could be heard grunting and although they were harder to discern, their shadows rippled against the mangrove trunks. On cue a monkey dropped from a tree nearby. I didn't actually see this, having just stubbed my foot on a root for the umpteenth time and was busy nursing it back to life, but by all accounts it was very amusing the monkey I mean.

Later that day we went to explore the various paths carved into the land by waterways in a smaller engine-less boat. The dark depths of the jungle became instantly visible through noises of frogs, birds, strange twitterings, twitches and splashes. From the riverbank there was the odd splosh as creatures leapt into the water, frightened by our presence. The light was fading and the water had become styx-like. As our Chairon pushed the boat under the arch of an overhanging branch, a large lizard peered at us speculatively and despite the eerie stillness I almost expected it to yawn and start reading. In actual fact it fell from its perch into the water, much to my childish amusement. But its beady little eyes had said one thing, "Look but don't touch."

On our way back to the larger boat we spotted the ominous shadow of a large crocodile. It wasn't at all frightening, distance being of a great advantage and its tree trunk resemblance was soon forgotten. However, as we neared our destination there was a huge splash in the water. It was unmistakably a crocodile's back and tail disappearing beneath the water just meters from us. Its girth was as thick as a mans' torso, and tail at least a meter and a half long. Now, while this may sound rather thrilling and exciting, I had been jumping off the side of the larger boat earlier that day into the water to cool off. We had been warned about crocodiles but now the reality dawned and the lizards un-spoken warning of the morning came back to me, "Look but don't touch."

On another excursion to dry land we walked through a meadow, of which there are about 3 in the Sundabans and I was surprised to find that this one had a marked resemblance to the English pastures of Constable or Gainsborough. It was a beautiful morning, the sun had been up for a few hours and the shadows were such that you might be forgiven for thinking that it was early evening. The butterflies were out in force. If cities lack one thing, it is butterflies. Like candle flames they hypnotise but, fickle in their flight path they flutter-by from one exquisite flower to another.

In short, there was more wildlife than you can shake a mangrove stick at in just a few days and this was infinitely more exciting than seeing a tiger. We also swam in the sea. I have always liked the sea. There is something rather humbling about the sheer mass of water and, in this instance, the thought that if we were do head due south from Kotka beach there would be no other land mass until the South Pole. The two could not be more different and yet here they were, connected by water. I waded as far as I dared away from the shore and even after two kilometers or so, the water remained waist high but the pull of the current was strong and I was reminded once again of the omnipotence of the world around us. Back on the sand, this world was microscoped as the receding water had left patterns of hills, valleys, dunes, deserts and mountains beneath which all manner of creatures resided.

There is something very satisfyingly rebellious about wallowing in mud, it goes against all natural instincts of cleanliness. But the next morning, six weeks of Dhaka grime and filth was washed away as we bathed on one of the shores and emerged from the ground covered in mud, statues of our former selves. It raises a smile to think that in London, at least, an extortionate amount of money would have to change hands for the privilege of a mud wrap, but from the squeaky clean way I felt afterwards I can understand why.

In the early evening I sat on the roof of the boat watching the sun dip lower and lower into the forest and waiting for the peppering of stars to develop. What made the Sundabans so special, to me at least, was the sheer absence of other people. Apart from the odd fishing boat and forest ranger, and of course my co-passengers, there was no one in sight. No rickshaw bells, no CNG horns, no merciless black taxis, no abject poverty and no material wealth. Just pure, unadulterated nature in perfection and something I certainly didn't expect from Bangladesh.

The Sundabans, of course, extend westward into India but while India has more of a tourist infrastructure than Bangladesh, the tour companies there set an example to be avoided. They operate their trips based in the stigma and neurotic fear of tigers. The district is divided into an area for the tourists and an area strictly reserved for wildlife. The former area is, therefore, about as un-wildlife-y as you can get, being inundated with tiger tourists and the like. The wildlife area is off limits to everyone bar the authorities and due to the relative absence of a controlled monitoring of these wild areas there is a danger that they have been raped and pillaged for all their worth. Indeed some say that they have been. The fear is that the Bangladeshi tourist authorities will take a leaf out of India's book and similarly divide the Sundabans.

The serenity of the Sundabans is under threat. Its very remoteness and beauty is of course attractive for tourists both national and international. But tourism in its infancy is a dangerous thing. Take the coral haven of St Martins Island as a case in point. In the last couple of years fifteen or so hotels have sprung up. But with no environmental assessment the islands' own Eco-system is beginning to suffer. With the rise in pollution and general traffic, human or vehicular, the coral is becoming irreparably damaged and the turtle population is rapidly declining. If unchecked, this could happen in the Sundabans.

Don't get me wrong, I am all in favour of tourism if it is economically beneficial, but while something today may seem lucrative, if not established properly, it will become unsustainable and the long term problems will far out weigh the short term benefits.

The Sundabans are so far removed from civilisation and there in lies their attraction. The problem is that there are far too many boats available for hire from one of the major ports. Passengers and ship crew alike, more often than not, have little or no knowledge of or respect for the area. In the run up to the new year there can be as many as ten boats moored near Kotka, all blazing lights, blaring music, and creating general unrest in the forest and water. There is no control over who can and can't moor and as Rubaiyat said, "it's a little hopeless."

The Guide Tours operate a highly conservationist business. Electricity generators are on for just 2 hours in the evening to avoid disturbing the tranquility of the forests besides which, you cant beat candle light for atmosphere. All rubbish is kept on board save organic waste, they bring all the food from Khulna or Mongla and very delicious it is too. They also have their own projects in and around the Sundabans and are currently monitoring dolphin activity. But then The Guide Tours know what they are doing and above all they really care.

During the boat's journey to the Bay I fancied that we were going further and further into Bangladesh's own Heart of Darkness. I could not have been more wrong. Conrad calls London, "a sepulchre of gloom," and, "a monstrous city". I remember thinking something similar about Dhaka when I first arrived and assumed that Dhaka would be representative of the whole country. But the Sundarbans couldn't further from a sepulchre of gloom if they tried. They positively glow with fresh light and life but if things continue they way they are, their story can only end in one way, "The horror, the horror."

Photos: The Guide Tours

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