In the dense, knotted swamps of the Sundarbans mangrove forest in West Bengal and Bangladesh, nature’s rules are topsy-turvy. This is a land where fish climb trees and animals drink salt water. This is a land where tigers attack humans by day and trees reach their roots up to the star-speckled night skies. This mangrove forest is alive, palpably so. It breathes. It waits. It watches.

The Sundarbans was named for the Sundari tree, a silvery mangrove tree that was once the main species of the tree found here, taken from the Hindi word ‘sundar,’ meaning beautiful. ‘Ban’, or ‘van’, means forest. The tangled mangrove trees that dominate the vegetation of the Sundarbans are only a small fraction of the life that this ecosystem sustains. Below is a brief introduction to five of the fascinating and endangered wildlife species found in the mangrove swamps of western India:


The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is the undisputed king of the Sundarbans. Equal-parts revered and feared, the tiger of the mangrove swamps hunts humans and spotted deer with no apparent distinction. Here, tigers are equally at-home in the water as on land, and are known to make their kills from the water. The tiger god, Dakshin Ray, is invoked by the locals before venturing into the dense mangrove forests for daily work; tigers, it is said, respect those who respect them. Tigers are hunted for their pelts in the illegal skin and bone trade, as well as killed in retaliation for causing human and livestock deaths.

fishingcatThe fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrina) is found in wetland ecosystems, and is the state animal of West Bengal. They commonly hunt fish by diving into the water after their prey. Overexploitation of fish stocks and aquaculture farms threaten the habitat and resources available to this lesser-known but important wildcat.

smooth_otterThe smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) is primarily found in the wetlands of South Asia, with an extant population in the marshes of Iraq. The destruction of wetlands is a primary threat to this species. In the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, the smooth-coated otter is used for commercial fishing, with nearly 2,000 people directly and indirectly dependent upon them for their livelihoods. These otters are bred, trained, and kept in captivity in fishing communities, adding to their conservation value.

saltwatercrocThe estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is the world’s largest living reptile. A hypercarnivorore (its diet entirely consists of meat), this croc lies in wait in the water to ambush its prey before swallowing it whole. They have been known to attack humans, being by far the most aggressive of India’s crocodiles (the other two being the mugger crocodile and the gharial). Fun fact: it holds the record for the highest bite force of any species, surpassing that of the spotted hyena! Best not to get too close!

riverdolphinFinally, we come to the Gangetic river dolphin (Platanista gangetica), one of two species of river dolphin found in India. This dolphin plays in the waters of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. It has a long narrow snout, as do all river dolphins, and is a primarily-solitary species. The draining of rivers and decreasing river depths due to damming is the biggest threat to the river dolphin in the Sundarbans. Dams narrow the habitat available to this species and reduce the gene pool, making this dolphin one of India’s most endangered wildlife.

The Sundarbans hosts a wide variety of unique species found only in this unique ecosystem. Preservation of the mangrove forest that supports these species is key to their continued survival. Efforts are being taken by government as well as by prominent wildlife NGOs in India and Bangladesh to keep India’s mystical wetlands alive for future generations of humans and wildlife alike to enjoy. For the Sundarbans, with its fearsome man-eating tigers, its upside-down trees, its arboreal fish, and its locals who brave a world of mud and darkness, is a rare jewel indeed.





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