Sundarbans

Sundarbans and Conservation Contemporary Challenges

Sundarbans is a part of the largest delta in the world which is formed by the rivers Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna. The region is a swamp adjacent to both the plains and the sea and is intersected by several river tributaries, creeks and canals. Its mangrove forest acts as a natural flood barrier. However, increased deforestation and damage to the mangrove forests for extraction of resources is not only leaving the coasts progressively exposed and more vulnerable to storms, but also depleting the rich biodiversity of the region.

Brief Synthesis

The Sundarbans mangrove forest, the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world, lies in the coastal region of the Bay of Bengal. With a total area of 10,000 km2, 60% of the property lies in Bangladesh and the rest in India. The land area, including exposed sandbars, occupies 414,259 ha (70%) with water bodies covering 187,413 ha (30%).
The site is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, and presents an excellent example of ongoing ecological processes.

Biodiversity

The site supports exceptional biodiversity in its terrestrial, aquatic and marine habitats; ranging from micro to macro flora and fauna. It takes its name from the dominant mangrove species, Heritiera fomes, locally known as Sundari tree. Its exceptional biodiversity is expressed in a wide range of flora; 334 plant species belonging to 245 genera and 75 families, 165 algae and 13 orchid species.

It is also rich in fauna with 693 species of wildlife which includes; 49 mammals, 59 reptiles, 8 amphibians, 210 white fishes, 24 shrimps, 14 crabs and 43 mollusks species. The varied and colorful bird-life found along the waterways of the property is one of its greatest attractions, including 315 species of waterfowl, raptors and forest birds, 9 species of kingfisher and the magnificent white-bellied sea eagle. It is also known for Indian pythons (Python molurus), saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus), various monkey species and dozens of fish.

আরো পড়ুন : সংকট ও সম্ভাবনার আগামী বিশ্ব

It is of universal importance for globally endangered species like the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), Ganges river dolphins (Platanista gangetica) and Irawadi dolphins, estuarine crocodiles and the critically endangered endemic river terrapin (Batagur baska).

The Sundarbans was designated a Ramsar site under the Ramsar Convention in 1992. Three wildlife sanctuaries in Bangladesh Sundarbans East, Sundarbans West and Sundarbans South are enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1997. These sanctuaries form the core breeding area of a number of species of endangered wild life.

History of Human Habitation

The Sundarbans was declared a protected forest in 1878, which marked restriction of the use of forest resources in certain areas. Nevertheless, a policy for reward was adopted by the government to induce hunters into killing tigers. This led to large- scale slaughter of tigers in Sundarbans between 1881 and 1912, when more than 2,400 adult tigers were killed in the region.

Unregulated alteration to the forest ecosystem, with increased forest area brought under human settlements and agricultural land, along with construction of embankments, triggered a number of extirpation and contraction of habitat for several species, over the period. The species now known to be extirpated from the region are: the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis); the swamp deer (Cervus duvaucelli); the Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus); the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus); and the chitra turtle (Chitra indica).

Now-a-days, around 0.6 million people are dependent in various ways on the Sundarbans’ resources, such as fish, crabs, honey, and nipa palm, or golpata (Nypa fruticans), for their livelihood. While human interference such as deforestation in the past years has contributed to the degradation of the forest and increased human-animal conflict; pollution, toxic silt and untreated domestic and industry effluents carried by the rivers downstream has restricted the fresh water supply, causing further loss in the biodiversity of the region.

Climate Change and Sundarbans

The fact that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the official advisor on natural World Heritage, has recommended that the Sundarbans be classified as a ‘World Heritage in Danger’ should worry us all. Climate change poses a threat to this great forest due to a rise in sea level.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report and a report by UNESCO, an anthropogenic 45 cm rise in sea level likely by the end of the 21st century could lead to the destruction of 75 percent of the Sundarbans mangroves. Loss of the mangrove forest will result in the loss of the protective biological shield against cyclones and tsunamis.

Addressing Concerns on Conservation

The property is composed of three wildlife sanctuaries, which were established in 1977 under the Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) (Amendment) Act, 1974. Along with the Forest Act, 1927, the Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) (Amendment) Act 1974, control activities such as entry, movement, fishing, hunting and extraction of forest produces.

The property is currently well managed and regularly monitored by established management norms, regular staff and individual administrative units. Considerable research has been conducted on the Sundarbans wildlife and ecosystem. International input and assistance from WWF and the National Zoological Park, the Smithsonian Institution as well as other organizations has assisted with the development of working plans for the property, focusing on conservation and management of wildlife.

Restoration Initiatives

Management of the Sundarbans Mangrove Forests for Biodiversity Conservation and Increased Adaptation to Climate Change (SMP) is a project of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Government has recently cancelled construction of six coal-based power plants, as part of the Nationally Determined Contributions (DNC) of carbon emission. Government introduced SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) patrolling system in the Sundarbans. SMART is the product of a consortium of nine global conservation agencies in close collaboration with government authorities and other key stakeholders.

Government has imposed restrictions on cutting trees in the Sundarbans till 2030. A complete ban on entry into the forest for three months (breeding season for the local wildlife) is now being implemented. Three areas of the Sundarbans were declared as wildlife sanctuaries with 1,397 square kilometres in 1996. The protected area was increased to about 3,180 square kilometres in 2017.

Five areas of the canals covering 40.52 kilometres was declared as dolphin sanctuaries. Four new ponds were excavated and 84 existing ponds were re-excavated to ensure freshwater for wild animals.

To minimize human-animal conflicts, the government formulated a rule in 2021 to compensate the people who get victimized by animal attacks. The Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan (2018-2027) has already been formulated. The Forest Department has formed 49 village tiger response teams, involving local people, to mitigate the tiger- human conflicts along the forest.

Moreover, Bangladesh and India reached a Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) in 2011 to manage and sustainably develop the Sundarbans under an umbrella framework agreement. Delta Vision 2050, a vision made by the WWF, is a phased plan in which the population living in the area would leave the same, then mangrove restoration would be started.