Sundarbans National Park and Tiger Reserve is not only the world’s biggest river delta but also the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world. It was declared a National Park in 1984 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The Sundarbans expands over a total approximate area of 10,000 square kilometers of which only 40% lies within India, remaining 60% belongs to Bangladesh. It is the dwelling of the largest number (approx. 300) of Indian tigers known as the Royal Bengal Tigers. It was declared the core area of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve in 1973 and in 1977 it was established as a wildlife sanctuary.
The Sundarbans lies in the Bay of Bengal formed by the confluence of River Ganga, River Brahmaputra, River Meghna, and River Padma. It was one amongst the finalists on New7Wonders of Nature (2007-2011), an initiative led by Canadian-Swiss Bernard Weber which was organized by the New7Wonders Foundation, a Swiss-based foundation, which aimed at creating a list of seven wonders of nature decided through global polls.
There is no definite story behind the name of the national park, however, there are two stories which are most prevalent and easy to believe – first, Sundarbans literally means “Beautiful Forest” (shundor in Bengali means beautiful, ban in Bengali means Forest), and second that the forest is named after the Sundari (Heritieri Fomes) trees which are scattered around the region in considerable numbers.
Tigers are mainly visible during the months of November to February. Though spotting a tiger isn’t so easy, cruising through the many tributaries and waterways, witnessing other inhabitants such as deer, boars, and at times gigantic crocodiles, and seeing various varieties of flora and fauna can be equally fascinating and like something you may have never seen before.
Apart from the Bengal tiger, crocodiles and deer, other animals that can be seen in the sanctuary are leopard cats, fishing cats, Indian grey mongoose, flying fox, pangolin, and macaques.
Sundarbans is also home to thousands resident and migratory birds such as whistling teals, northern pintails, coots, green pigeons, red jungle fowl, spotted doves, cotton teals, grey-headed fish eagles, seagulls, peregrine falcons, black-capped kingfishers, golden plovers, pariah kites, ferruginous duck and black-tailed godwits.
The Sundarbans National Park also houses many reptiles such as monitor lizards, Russell’s viper, green turtles, olive ridley, and checkered keelback. Some of the species living in the area such as olive ridley turtle, river terrapin, mangrove horseshoe crab, and the mesmerizing Royal Bengal Tigers themselves fall under the category of endangered species.
Organized tours can be booked through tour operators, West Bengal Tourism Department, and the official website of Sundarbans. It is suggested to explore Sundarbans via any of these tours as they are not only safe but the hassle of obtaining permits, navigating through almost identical water routes, arranging guides, and logistical issues are all taken care by the agency. As it is, travelling into the forest on your own is not at all recommended.
Irrespective of where you arrive, you would necessarily have to visit Sajnekhali Forest Lodge premises as it is the gateway to the Sundarbans. It is also here that you obtain your permits and arrange for government-certified guides. There is also a small crocodile and turtle hatchery, an empty tiger cage and the remains of what once used to be a clinic for tigers, and a blackboard with the latest tiger spotting dates as recorded by guides and tourists. In fact, this type of board is on display in all the camps such as Dobanki Camp and others.
Dobanki Camp, one of the camps near Sajnekhali Forest Lodge and essentially a stop-over in most tours, is most famous for the grand canopy walk which is almost a kilometer into the forest and approx. 20 km above the ground and is highly secured with its iron grills and nets all around. If you are lucky, you may spot a wild animal or two roaming on the land surrounding the canopy. There is also a watch tower in the camp and a small temple in honor of goddess Bonbibi (the goddess of Sundarbans). In fact, Dobanki camp is one of the must-visit attractions in Sundarbans and your tour is only half done until you have walked through the fascinating canopy.
Sundarbans is only accessible by waterways Canning is the last railhead before Sundarbans. There are daily multiple trains that go to Canning from Kolkata. Prior reservation is not necessary. You can go an hour before your scheduled journey and buy a ticket at the "current reservation" counter. From canning, you can take an auto-rickshaw or bus to Gosaba, the last major town before Sundarbans. From Gosaba, you can take a motor launch to Sundarbans if your hotel/lodge has not arranged for a pick-up from Gosaba. Other entry points include Namkhana, Sonakhali, Sajnekhali, Najat, and Raidighi.