Sept 23: In a first, the women tourist guides in Sunderbans are making a debut at the UNESCO World Heritage Site in West Bengal. A historic decision at a community call made it possible for women to now show the tourists the bounty of Sunderbans on a boat. Four women, residents of different villages in Gosaba, were inducted as tourist guides in the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve by the forest department, breaking the glass ceiling.
Women tourist guides in Sunderbans for first time
The women were part of a two-day training session, on Tuesday and Wednesday, organised by the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve and a wildlife organisation. The guides accredited by the forest department are much sought after by tourists on boats and launches treading rivers along the mangrove islands. But so far, it was a man’s territory.
“We have 62 male guides. Like them, the female guides will also be our eyes and hands in the interiors of the delta,” said Tapas Das, the field director of the STR. The inclusion of women should have happened much earlier, he said.
This is the first time that women guides can be positioned on the boats that enter the tiger reserve with tourist guides. The Sunderbans, situated at the southern tip of West Bengal is house to around 100 tigers. Around a million vacationers go to the delta, which might be accessed solely on boats, to see the tigers and crocodiles amongst different animals.
Women tourist guides in Sunderbans start from October
The Sunderbans, shut for tourists since April, will be opened from October 1, a state government notification on Thursday said. The women were trained alongside their male counterparts. There will be more training in the coming days. They are being trained to sensitise tourists on the importance, and fragility, of the mangrove ecosystem. They are being trained to dissuade tourists from littering the water bodies with plastic.
They are being trained to tackle ‘tourists’ obsession with tigers’. The Sunderbans is not only about tigers. It has much more to offer. A sighting of the Irrawaddy Dolphin is said to be worth a trip. There are over 100 species of birds. There is the saltwater crocodile, the largest reptile in the world.
They will make good guides: Officials
“We have around 60 – 64 male guides. There were some vacancies. So, we thought why not give an opportunity to women of the villages and see if they want to join. A two-day guide orientation training was organised to see whether the women would be comfortable. The four women who had come forward said they can do it and so we decided to go ahead. If everything goes well we can rope in more women guides for our team in future,” mentioned S Jones Justin, deputy subject director of the STR.
“The self-help groups in the Sunderbans are run by women. Women do the household chores and are also instrumental in income generation through small projects. Their contribution is more pronounced during the pandemic when many male members are out of work. There is no reason why they should not be good guides,” said Anil Mistry of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, the NGO that has collaborated with the forest department in the training.
It’s all about livelihood
“I did not know so many things myself. But now, I am confident that I will be able to make the Sunderbans trip memorable for tourists, irrespective of a tiger sighting,” said Sumana Mondal, 22, one of the four women who attended the training. “For tourists, it is just about one sighting of a tiger from a distance. For our people, it is a tussle for livelihood. I will tell the tourists as much,” said Mondal.
“If a woman can become a pilot, drive a train why can’t I be a tourist guide in the Sunderbans? Tourists often visit my village and I get to interact with them. So when I heard that the forest department was looking for female guides I opted for it. This will also make me self-dependent and I can earn something for my family,” mentioned 34-year-old Bhaswati Kamila Sarkar, a resident of Dayapur, who had earlier laboured in a village nursery college and as a coach in a self-help group.
Bithika Ray, 45, another would-be guide, said she would lay special focus on making tourists aware of the perils of plastic in the Sunderbans. “The mangroves are like a shield for the rest of south Bengal. By jeopardising the future of the mangroves, people would be jeopardising their own future,” said Ray, who has had a seven-year stint with self-help groups in the past.