For the final 3.5 days of our team’s visit to Bangladesh, we went to the Sundarbans for a boating expedition. The Sundarbans are an epic group of salty-fresh marsh-islands at the mouth of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and other rivers in India and Bangladesh. Basically you have 10,000 square kilometers of tidal mangrove forest/saline swamp that’s split piecemeal into hundreds of islands, unconnected by any roads, often flooded, and quite difficult to develop. Among other wildlife, the Sundarbans supports approximately 300 tigers, the largest tiger population left in the world, as well as a couple hundred or so saltwater crocodiles. Tigers still take 50 or so humans in the Sundarbans every year, and crocodiles may account for another 20 (the day we left, a fisherman and a fisherwoman were eaten by a tiger and a crocodile, respectively). That adds an element of excitement/danger to any trip there.
The trip down the river to enter into the main body of the Sundarbans was full of dolphin activity. Since it was monsoon season, the water was relatively fresh, and so the more salt-loving species weren’t really around. But the endangered Ganges River Dolphins (Platanista gangetica) were visible often, and we saw a couple of Irrawaddy Dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) as well. I accidentally deleted the one good photo I got, but here are some looks at the characteristic lack of dorsal fin in the Ganges River Dolphin.
Though we enjoy all wildlife, our trip members were focused on looking for reptiles and amphibians, so that’s what our guide targeted for us. When we got into the main body of the Sundarbans, we moved into the “herping boat” and set off into the forests. We were helped by the fact that our boat driver, Mojibor, was incredible at spotting snakes. Despite a boat full of 9 herpers, several times Mojibor called our attention to a snake deep in the branches that none of us had seen. The most common species we saw was Spot-tailed Pit Vipers (Trimeresurus erythrurus)
There were also a number of vine snakes. Here was an unfriendly Long-nosed Vine Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta):
A 2010 paper described Brown Vine Snakes (Ahaetulla pulverulenta) in the Sundarbans, an enormous range extension from their previously known distribution in the Western Ghats of southwest India. We were able to confirm that find:
The main mammals seen during our time were Spotted Deer (Axis axis), which were extremely common. Here they can be seen with a Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta):
Closer to dark, if the mud-flats were at low tide, you could see Dog-faced Water Snakes (Cerberus rynchops) in large numbers. We were able to spot over 30 in just an hour or so!
The water snakes were primarily feeding off of mudskippers, which were quite common on the mudflats.
Crab-eating Frogs (Fejervarya carnivora), a remarkable species that can survive in partially salty water, were also seen.
In the blur of Dog-faced Water Snakes, I yelled for the boat to turn around when I spotted a snake that looked different than the others. Sure enough, it was a Glossy Marsh Snake (Gerarda prevastiana).
On our next-to-last day we made our one foray onto real land. This area had a look-out tower with a nice view:
Besides large herds of spotted deer, there were a number of frogs, skinks, and geckos:
juvenile Indian Bullfrog (Hoptobatrachus tigerinus)
Our guide Emile, a wonderfully intelligent and friendly man with a heart for conservation, was walking back towards the boat when he spotted a cobra. This was my first wild cobra, the Monocled Cobra (Naja kaouthia), a species that is rather fond of the water:
Here it is leaving into its natural habitat as the rain began to come in:
A rainstorm ended our time on land. Rainstorms during our trip were quite spectacular, with the angry, rolling clouds looking like they were being stirred up by a god before our eyes:
During/after the rains our boat cut a narrow path through the jungle. The beauty of the waterway was spectacular. Water Monitors (and at least once a Bengal Monitor) regularly traversed across the stream in front of us.
Quite a few bird species were spotted in the trees drying off after the storm. A partial list of notable species seen here includes Buffy Fish Owl, Osprey, Brahminy Kite, Black-shouldered Kite, Shikra, Crested Serpent Eagle, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Lesser Adjutant, White-throated Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher, Brown-winged Kingfisher, Ruddy Kingfisher, Black-hooded Oriole, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, and Jungle Fowl.
On occasion we saw tiger tracks making their way up the bank, though this is as close as we got to the elusive predators (at least, as far as we know).
On the last evening, we were in the main boat in a major channel when the driver ran downstairs and yelled “crocodile!” We got to the side just in time to see the shape of a Saltwater Crocodile’s head as it swam in the opposite direction of the boat, with none of us able to get a camera on it in the dusk’s fading light. That would be our only look at this heavily endangered species.
On our way out of the Sundarbans, we checked with a couple local fishermen to see if they had come across any sea snakes in their nets recently. Here’s Caesar showing them sea snake pictures from Whittiker and Captain’s “Snakes of India”.
They told us that the sea snakes are much more common during the winter months – perhaps because they, like the ocean dolphins, prefer the water a bit more salty.
At the end of our trip, we stopped in town to wait for our train. I can’t waste time in a city without getting the urge to herp whatever I can find. So I got off the boat and engaged in a bit of city herping.
The first find was a Common Indian Toad (Duttaphynus melanostictus)
And then a number of skinks and geckos. Besides Brook’s House Geckos, Spinytail House Geckos, and Yellow-Green House Geckos were these little skinks, which I believe may be Common Indian Supple Skinks (Lygosoma punctata).
But the best was yet to come. A conversation with some local guys led me to a hospital with some extra space. In that extra space I started looking under pieces of concrete, and soon came across a blind snake. I immediately recognized that this wasn’t just any old Brahminy Blind Snake, but what appeared to be a White-headed Blind Snake (Ramphotyphlops albiceps). I thought right away that it could be a possible range extension, perhaps even a country record.
No, really, you can tell it’s different. Here’s a better picture of it in a plastic box (courtesy of Scott Trageser):
Sure enough, it appears that this species has never been recorded from Bangladesh – in fact, we are 700km or so from the closest known range. We’re still trying to confirm the find – there’s a chance that it may be a Slender Blind Snake (Typhlops porrectus), but the scales are so tiny that we need to get some better lab equipment to be able to count them accurately.
Not that it would be too difficult for a a cryptic species of blind snake would go unrecognized for so long. There are likely plenty more species waiting to be found in the country – in this trip alone we saw several snake and frog species that had only been recognized in Bangladesh in the last year, and Caesar himself has found four new Bangladesh records in Lawachara National Park in the last three years. There’s a lot of herping waiting to be done here.
I have a sad update on this story. On December 9th an oil tanker sunk and released a major oil spill into the Sundarbans. Caeser and others involved recently spent a week getting initial data on the extent of the spill and its effect on wildlife there. The Bangladesh Python Project’s 2015 trips will include three days of focus on on documenting the effects of the spill on herps of the region.
If you are interested in participating in the next expeditions with the Bangladesh Python Project, which will be held in June and July 2015, contact Scott Trageser through his Nature Stills website.