The following morning (18th March) our guide team took us ashore to explore the area around Katka beach, the site where we had seen so many deer the previous morning. In this part of the forest we were able to discover animal habitats and footprints deeper inland. Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur (one of our guides) was able to educate us about the movements of many species of wildlife – scattered white hairs indicating where a deer had slept and a very fine, intricately patterned print where a lizard had waded through a dry creek. We came to know the droppings of various animals and how they revealed their plant or meat based diets; their footprints were also clear to see once our eyes had been guided to the relevant markings. This is where the experience of our chaperons made the trip more memorable – they helped us to appreciate the life that is abundant in the jungle through the small details that we would have otherwise most definitely have missed.
Further inland we saw the area where, in the 19th century, the British, under the East India Company, managed the local filtration and extraction of salt from the surrounding seawater. We learned how this was in fact carried out by locals as the British had no expertise or adaptation experience in the mangrove region. Once extracted salt was stored in terracotta pots the remains of which were still visible dotted along the coastline. As we walked to the beach embankment we were able to learn more about the impact of various cyclones in this area which obliterated coastal woodland. We learned that the Forestry Department’s decision not to let individuals/poachers extract fallen wood led to a recharging of the ecosystem. A rise in available woodland for food and shelter led to the rise in rodents, birds and other creatures. This later increased the numbers of those further up the food chain such as small cats. The waterfront itself revealed beautiful tree roots intertwined and overlapping that looked like fingers creeping in circles around the base of each tree.
The boats of several other tour operators had now reached Katka due to the extended holiday weekend so a decision was taken by the crew to travel up steam. We enjoyed time relaxing whilst cruising and by sunset we were treated to the most memorable views – every glance a perfect picture. The Captain confidently navigated his way through a maze of canals and tributaries having worked in the Sundarbans for many years. He explained that despite its remoteness and the indistinguishable terrain he had formed a full map of the area in his head; wow! At one point the launch sailed from one narrow creek to a large expanse of water which was just breathtaking. The only indication that we were not entering virgin territory was the occasional wooden fishing boat that set about its work. As the sun set the fires lit for simple cooking aboard these small fishing boats were the only distraction from a clear sky that gave a perfect backdrop to many, many stars. Amazing, amazing, amazing….
The following morning several members of the group, still enchanted, took the smaller boat for our last chance to explore the narrower waterways. During this excursion and throughout our tour we saw a wide range of birds – including the Brown-winged Kingfisher, the Black Capped-Kingfisher, Brahminy Kites, Egrets, Doves, Pigeons, Woodpeckers and Tits.
Our last day was spent travelling towards Mongla passing first through the conservation area of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cetacean Diversity Project, a project whose Education Department was headed by our guide and friend Elisabeth. We also saw a local tourist hotspot for visitors on day trips who can see local wildlife in restricted areas. Whilst it was enjoyable to see the animals up close it could not compare to the beauty of everything we had seen in the past few days. I guess the provision of tourist resorts such as these minimizes the impact of high tourism levels deep into the Sundarbans and the threat that this could have to the ecosystem.
As the tour drew to a close and we approached our disembarkation point at Mongla we were able to see many shrimp farmers at work- blue nets caste out into the water. As one of the leading exportable products in Bangladesh the continuous cultivation is having a threat on the biodiversity of the region. As the area gradually became more populated near village locations it was more obvious to see how the local people relied heavily on the resources at the edge of the forest some six hours or so by boat from the Bay of Bengal.
After a sad farewell in which we could not thank our hosts enough we drove by car from Mongla to Jessore for the return flight home. I have no doubt that we will be visiting again.
A special thank you goes out to Guide Tours Ltd. and the crew of the M.V.Chhuti whose skill, knowledge and attention to detail was second to none. The food served was of international standard (better than most food we have consumed in Dhaka!) and the service and hospitality was superb despite being three crew members short. Guide Tours Ltd. provides vessels and services for tourists as well as research teams, journalists and photographers who often travel for extended periods. For further information about trips to the Sundarbans as well as other tours across Bangladesh you can visit – http://www.guidetoursbd.com/#
Finally, an additional thank you goes to our friends Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur and Rubaiyat Mansur Mowgli whose expertise and experience of this unique mangrove forest made this trip thoroughly unforgettable.