Sunday, 26 February 2012

On tides and toads

24th February

This morning, though beautiful, was, I believe, my first in the Indian jungle on which I didn’t see a new vertebrate for the year. Well, that’s not quite true: I did see a flash of a mangrove whistler but I decided our acquaintance was too brief for him to make it onto our list. We also saw the deep pug marks of a tiger who not long before, in the short time since the tide had turned, had swum across a channel and walked up the muddy bank. But pug marks most certainly don’t count. Nonetheless there was plenty to see. We had fine encounters with very friendly brown-winged kingfishers, strange creatures the colour of European carrots, with heaven-blue rumps and bills the exact shape and flame-pink colour of Indian carrots (quite different from their European culinary cousins). We also saw two basking crocodiles, a couple of chital, plenty of curlew, whimbrel, redshank and common sandpipers on the low-tide mud, and a rainbow of beauteous kingfishers.

We returned for lunch to Sunderbans Jungle Camp on Bali island. I stay so often in top-flight hotels with my clients that my days, my years, of back-packing and all-night-bussing in South America, and of living in remote lodges in the Amazon, seem now like someone else’s life. But here in the Sunderbans I am at home again. The lodge is simple and friendly and is a shared project between a poor community and a concerned tourism company. The food is home-grown and homemade, the water in the showers is cold, the garden is flowery and full of sunbirds, and scrawny dogs wag their tails coyly from the shadows. In many such lodges have I stayed, in many places, and in all have I been happy.

The people of the Sunderbans lead hard lives in a predictably unpredictable environment. As we have sailed around the park, I have been struck by how hostile a habitat it presents to large mammals, and yet large mammals survive here. The abundant Himalayan freshwater of Ma Ganga flows to the Bay of Bengal through two great channels: Padma in Bangladesh and Hooghly in Kolkata. Historically, minor channels, including Matla, flowed to sea through the Indian Sunderbans but my colleagues here tell me that, as a result of extraction of water for industry and irrigation, no freshwater reaches the Indian stretches of the delta now and the channels are all exclusively tidal. Consequently, salinity continues to mount, and lives grow harder as habitat becomes more hostile to many species; meanwhile anthropogenic sea level rise presents its own threats to people and wildlife.

Throughout the delta there are signs of ancient human societies which lived here in better-watered, though still dangerous, times. These have now tumbled into ruins, but in the north of the Indian Sunderbans many thousands of people are among the large mammals who still lead harsh, adventurous lives in the creeks and forests of this great bed of tidal silt. Those who harvest fish, honey and other natural resources in the forest and creeks – both Moslem and Hindu – pray to the deity Bonobibi for protection from the demon Dokhin Roy and his incarnation the tiger. This evening villagers acted the Bonobibi Dukhe Yatra in our camp, the story of a young boy called Dukhe, or Sorrow, who is delivered from the hands of the demon through his great faith in Bonobibi. To this day the villagers believe that they must enter the forest unarmed and with pure intentions for Bonobibi to protect them from the perils which dwell therein.

Decidedly unperilous were the olive-backed pipits which joined the list on a walk this afternoon around the village. Equally unperilous was the very attractive Asian common toad which hopped across the path on our way back from the Bonobibi performance. Perhaps tomorrow my clients will see the stripy orange peril they all long to see. I long to see it too, every time.

Today’s newcomers


olive-backed pipit
Anthus hodgsoni


Asian common toad
Duttaphrynus melanostictus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 32
Birds: 325
Reptiles: 5
Amphibians: 1
Fish: 0

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