“Usually, the tigers just kill one person every three days, but this past month it’s been one per day,” Kabir, our guide, tells us as we board a boat for the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. The real figure is far higher though, according to Raquibul Amin, from the IUCN conservation organisation in Dhaka. Amin explains that these are official figures from the forestry department and are based on those people that obtained forestry permits before being devoured. At least twice as many local people enter the forest illegally to gather wood, honey, fish and so on. Tiger snacks from this category of Sundarbans visitor are unknown.
Our boat is shiny, new and freshly painted. It is the only tourist boat leaving for the Sundarbans because we’re travelling off-season, and we’re sharing the vessel with six other adventurers – all of us hoping to see a tiger; all of us hoping we don’t.
The trip starts badly. Instead of heading on into the mangroves we set off at 7am northwards and dock a few kilometres out of Khulna. A cyclone is brewing and there is a category 5 warning. As the day progresses, so does the cyclone. By midday the warning is a 7 (out of 10) and it becomes clear that we won’t be moving tonight. “You want to cancel the trip?” Kabir asks us. No way. We’ve all come from our various corners of the world to see the Sundarbans and we don’t give up so easily.
Overnight, the cyclone makes landfall to the east in Chittagong and we are given the okay by the navy to voyage south. We have a lot of catching up to do and the captain has to contend with waves coming up from the Bay of Bengal. But the trip is relaxing, the food fantastic and the company great. And best of all, we are accompanied by the leaping, smiling Gangetic dolphins that pop out of the river throughout our route, their bodies curving back into the water, long nose first, as they blindly plunge for food. A couple of times we also see the rarer Irawaddy dolphin, splashing its rounded stumpy nose into the river. Birds fly above and sea snakes flip in the turbulent, sediment rich waters.
We pass fishermen out in small wooden boats illegally using gillnets to trap shrimp larvae. for each shrimp larva they net, hundreds of other fish larvae and crustaceans are caught. The practice is their only livelihood and yet it is destroying the fisheries on which they depend. And it is slashing the dolphins’ food source too. In addition, dolphins that become entangled in the nets receive injuries that are often fatal. Their numbers have declined rapidly since shrimp farming started here.
While we wait anchored for our armed soldier guards who will accompany us into the forest, the coastguard boat is spotted by the village lookout. Word is sent and the entire fleet of about 40 boats ups-nets and makes for shore. The coastguard passes through the village and rounds the bend and the fishermen return, dropping their nets back. It’s a farcical situation.
We reach the mangrove forest the next day. It is an utterly tranquil and beautiful area. Much larger than it looks on the map (of course!) with two-thirds of it within Bangladesh. We set out in a rowboat at 5am and spot otters playing on the bank, see water monitors and a snake. But no tigers.
The tigers here are the smallest in the world (although still fearsomely large, stripy cats) perhaps – Adam Barlow, Sundarbans Tiger Project expert, tells me – because their deer prey here are smaller than elsewhere – the largest available being the chital (spotted deer); plus the smaller barking deer.
We spend a glorious day walking along the beach, swimming in the Bay of Bengal and walking in the mangrove forest where the devastation wrought by cyclone Sidr in November 2007 is still very much in evidence. We pass a graveyard of felled trees and see a few struggling vertical trunks regrowing since. The mangrove trees live only for about 25 years, reaching maturity in 5-10 years, so they will regrow. But increasing salinity is a terrible problem here, caused by sea-level rise, fiercer storms and reduced freshwater inflow due to sedimentation in the rivers. Mangrove trees can tolerate salt levels of up to 10 parts per thousand – here in places the salinity is 28 ppt.
We leave beautiful Bangladesh knowing full well that the Sundarbans ecosystem is doomed and that we may never see this incredible mangrove forest again.
Tomorrow we head to the Maldives to help marine scientists to tag and monitor whale sharks.