WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Journey To The Sundarbans: The 'Beautiful Forest' Of Mangroves

May 17, 2016
Originally published on May 18, 2016 11:24 am

Sundarbans literally means "beautiful forest," but as the novelist Amitav Ghosh writes, "There is no prettiness here to invite the stranger in." The largest mangrove forest in the world — home to man-eating tigers and hungry tides — is already seeing the impact of climate change.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Climate change has already started to dramatically reshape some parts of the Earth. We're going to visit one of those places now. It's the world's largest mangrove forest full of trees that survive on the border of land and brackish water; a patchwork of islands, some as small as sandbars, others miles long. We'll be hearing several stories from there over the next few days. And, Ari, you're going to bring us on a journey into this landscape to start.


Yeah, that's right. If you picture a map of India as a diamond, we're going to the corner in the east. I first learned about this place in fiction. A book that I read more than a decade ago lodged in my mind.

AMITAV GHOSH: (Reading) There are no borders here to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea. The tides reach as far as 200 miles inland. And every day, thousands of acres of forest disappear under water, only to reemerge hours later.

SHAPIRO: This is the novelist Amitav Ghosh, reading from his book, "The Hungry Tide."

GHOSH: (Reading) There is no prettiness here to invite the stranger in. Yet, to the world at large, this archipelago is known as the Sundarban, which means the beautiful forest.

SHAPIRO: To get to the Sundarbans, you leave from the big city, Kolkata. It's at least four hours - two by car, two by boat. Our guide today is Ratul Saha, who runs the Sundarbans program for the World Wildlife Fund.

RATUL SAHA: We'll be cruising inside the creeks of Sundarbans. One side we can see the people traveling on small boats and on the other side we see Sundarban tiger reserve and the waterscape that we'll be cruising. If lucky, we can also see tigers.

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah, the Sundarbans are also home to a large population of Bengal tigers. Unlike most large cats, they are happy in the water and swim for miles from island to island. But they're elusive. Bittu Sahgal is the editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine.

BITTU SAHGAL: The first time I saw a Bengal tiger in the Sundarbans, it was some 45 years after I had first been there. So (laughter) you only see them when they decide that you're good enough to be given a - that vision of orange and black.

SHAPIRO: In the car, I asked our guide, Ratul, whether there any superstitions around seeing a tiger.

SAHA: People here do believe if you see a monitor lizard at the beginning of the trip, you're lucky.

SHAPIRO: Why? What about a monitor lizard makes you lucky?

SAHA: It's just a local belief here.

SHAPIRO: As we drive farther into the countryside, the houses change from brick and cement to mud and thatch. Each home has a man-made pond next door for washing, bathing and fishing. Finally, we reach the end of the mainland.

So here's the port. It's crowded with handmade wooden boats.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: There's a man selling cold drinks. Here's a man grinding sugarcane for juice.

Here we go, pulling out into the water, into the largest mangrove forest in the world. There's a little red powerboat that says Save The Tiger on the side of it, and it has a tiger paw print painted on it.

People here have been eaten by tigers. The forests hold cobras and the water crocodiles. But there are also beautiful surprises.

Oh, it's a dolphin right there. Wow, just one. There it is, oh, wow.


SHAPIRO: It's an Irrawaddy dolphin, small with a snubbed nose. And then, if you believe in omens, a bit of good luck.

A monitor lizard just ducked under the water. It's gone now. It was maybe three feet long. Oh, oh, it's back up again. There it is, swimming across the water.

The shoreline is full of mangrove trees, putting their knobby roots into the tidal mudflats. Ratul of the World Wildlife Fund explains that while we scan the shoreline for tigers, we should also listen for them.

SAHA: If you hear the sound, the sound is like (imitating tiger).

SHAPIRO: That's not what I think of as a roar, really. It doesn't sound like a roar.

SAHA: No, they don't roar. They kind of communicate, so it's like (imitating tiger).

SHAPIRO: (Imitating tiger) Did I do that right? (Imitating tiger) No. Do I sound at all like a tiger?

SAHA: Like a cub.

SHAPIRO: Like a cub. I sound like a tiger cub, OK.

More than four million people live here the Sundarbans, too. Their lives have always been difficult. Recently, climate change has made life here even harder.

At the edge of the river, there is an embankment. But over the years, the embankment has proven to be insufficient for the high tides and the rising seas. So they have built another embankment behind it, but some unfortunate people have houses that are between the two. And they get inundated every time the tide gets especially high.

The novelist Amitav Ghosh told me the landscape has changed a lot since he wrote about the Sundarbans more than a decade ago. Mangrove islands are defined by change, but this is different. It's noncyclical. Tides are taking away chunks of land that don't return.

GHOSH: Years ago, when you went to the Sundarbans, the mud banks would turn red with crabs. That never happens anymore. You never see, you know, trees lighting up at night with fireflies.

SHAPIRO: Finally, we arrive at our destination.


SHAPIRO: We've just dropped anchor in the tiger reserve. Tomorrow, we'll meet some of the people who live in this beautiful, unforgiving, watery landscape.


SHAPIRO: If you've been following our travels in India, you know that last week we were exploring New Delhi and questions surrounding air pollution, climate change and development. This week, we'll be in the Sundarbans all week, and you can follow along on our journey on social media. We're using the hashtag #ATCinIndia. You can also find the show online - @npratc. I'm @arishapiro.

CORNISH: And I'm @nprAudie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.