When I discovered I was coming to Bangladesh, in terms of the environment my first mental images were ‘floods’, ‘rice’ and ‘tigers’. To turn those visions in to reality – the first two are easy, they come to you. But you’ve got to go on a quest to find a Royal Bengal Tiger.
If you want to see them in their natural habitat, then you need to go to the Sundarbans – a littoral mangrove forest that covers around 3600 sq km of Bangladesh, right along the South West coast of the country, and then another 2500 sq km of India. About a third of the Sundarbans is covered by water; it’s essentially a giant flood plain that serves as crucial protection for Bangladesh against tidal surges, typhoons and other surges of natural energy. The Himalayas finally drain off through the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers of India here in to the Bay of Bengal, and the mixture of mountain silt and tidal sea-water has created fluctuating levels of salinity which in turn has resulted in a unique ecological balance.
Therefore you can enter an environment like no other on the earth. A wildlife sanctuary since 1966, and a World Heritage site since 1997, the Sundarbans is a haven for the natural world in Bangladesh; almost the only part of this densely populated country where you can be surrounded by life and none of it human.
It’s a maze of rivers, channels and tiny tributaries though, and not the kind of place one can explore armed with a good picnic and a pedalo. Luckily for me, one of VSO’s partner NGOs operates an ‘eco-tour’ of the Sundarbans, so nine of us set off on December 29th for five days of cruising through the deltas. We boarded our little boat in the early evening at Khulna, the nearest big city to the Sundarbans. It was small but snug, and we were soon eating the first of many huge meals out on deck and chugging along the river in to the night.