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Catching shrimp larvae

The word “Sundarban” most probably comes from the Bangla word for “beautiful forest”. A large part of the forest is made up of Sundari trees. The Sundarban mangroves surround the Ganges delta and are the largest mangrove area in the world. One third of the area belongs to India, two thirds to Bangladesh – the mangrove trees don’t care much about borders, and neither do the animals living there. Everywhere you can see their roots coming up through the soil; as the soil is very muddy, almost no oxygen comes through and this is the way the trees can still breath. The walking does not get any easier, though.

The Sundari tree grows in saline waters and has very hard wood, two qualities that make it excellent boat material and liable to illegal cutting. The animals are also at risk because of our human interests. Poverty makes it almost impossible to implement the environmental laws. If you have nothing to eat, it is hard to lie awake over the continued existence of a mangrove forest, however beautiful it may be.

ShushukWild boarSpotted deerBrown-winged kingfisher

More than 250 bird species are present in the Sundarbans, about 40 mammal species and many reptiles. We saw many spotted and barking deer (and heard them) and different birds. Most birds are beautifully colored and sing different songs. We have seen very small birds like different kingfishers and woodpeckers, but also large ones like herons and eagles.
We also saw some wild boars digging holes in the beach. Already in the middle of Kulna in the river Rupsa, between floating rubbish and upside down empty bottles, I witnessed my first river dolphin.
In the waters of the Sundarbans, many sweet water dolphins are found. They are called "Shushuk" for the sound that they make.
The river dolphins are a little smaller than their brothers from the sea. As there are many dams built in the rivers, they get less chance to mingle with their fellow dolphins, and incest is affecting their health and strength. Another species that is threatened by extinction.

Tiger cub's footprintRoyal Bengal tiger

We did not see the Royal Bengal Tiger, no matter how big it may be. But its traces were everywhere. We say the imprints of its paws on the beach, and traces of its nails on the trees; and of course tiger faeces, a famous subject of research. From there, biologist came to know that tigers do not really like human flesh on the menu. They prefer deer and wild boar, and an occasional fish. Only when they are very old and too slow to catch real animals, they go for the humans now and then.
The Sundarban tiger is the largest tiger in the world. The 2 meter long tiger was named “Royal Bengal Tiger” by the English colonialists. Unfortunately, they also liked a “Royal Bengal Hide” on their wall, and therefore, the first steps toward extinction were set by the very name-givers themselves. There are still between 5,000 and 7,000 tigers worldwide living in the wild (and that is less than in North America in parks) and about 400 of them live in Bangladesh.

Shrimp hatching is a major activity in the Sundarbans. Where there were once rice fields near to the coast, now there are shrimp farms. Sometimes micro-credit is given to start up such farms. But often, better-off entrepreneurs buy the land from rice farmers. Sometimes they also lease it for a small amount. They put the land under a layer of saline water, thus decreasing the rice harvest for the neighboring land, which gives them the opportunity to buy this land cheaply and extend their shrimp farm. The leased lands become unusable for any kind of agriculture, and thus the lease-price remains low. The income from shrimp hatching is better than from rice-growing but it is far less work-intensive, and many people become jobless. The unemployed rice farmers turn themselves into shrimp fishers; the shrimp after all do not grow by themselves on former rice fields and have to come from somewhere. They catch the shrimp larvae, thin as a hair, with a sort of mosquito net from the waters of the Sundarbans. From all animals they catch, maximally one out of a hundred is a shrimp; all the others die and get discarded. The shrimps are transported to the farm. Unfortunately, the fishers are no shrimp expert and don’t have the proper equipment, so only one percent of the shrimps survive and reach the farm. The existence of the shrimp down here is endangered. Obviously, catching shrimp is a forbidden activity in the Sundarbans. But the wages of government officials are so low, that their opinion is easy to influence.
The “Lady of the Forest”, Bon Bibi, is still sacred in the Sundarbans and temples, dedicated to her, can be found at the entrance of the forest. The story shows an interesting mixture of religious influences. It is Hindu by nature, but always starts with the Muslim word “Bismillah”; Archangel Gabriel plays a role, when he sends Bon Bibi and her brother from Mecca to the Sundarbans, to defeat the nasty god Dokkhin Rai, who often appears as a tiger. The situation becomes balanced as Bon Bibi reigns in the inhabited part of the Sundarbans and Dokkhin Rai in the wilderness, until a greedy fleet owner enters the forest. He sells a poor, fatherless boy to Dokkhin Rai, who is fond of human flesh. Luckily, the boy
remembers his mother’s wise words and calls to Bon Bibi, who immediately comes out to rescue him. She sends him back to his mother, tied onto a crocodile, loaded with gifts.
Nowadays, still nobody enters the forest without asking Bon Bibi’s protection. To earn this protection, you have to abide by the rules, which say that no human trace should be left in the wilderness, the kingdom of Dokkhin Rai. So the honey seekers will never spit during their work, a habit that is perfectly normal in Dhaka.
As the Sundarbans are, like the rest of Bangladesh, still unspoilt by tourists, the sea and the beaches are empty, and your tour guide will even come into the sea to offer you a slice of freshly cut watermelon!