Stuart Forster visits Sundarbans National Park to look at wildlife and conservation in West Bengal, India.
Many of us tend to think of efforts to conserve the world’s natural resources as a fairly recent trend. In fact, the mangrove forest of the Sundarbans region has been a reserved area since 1875. Yet it is only in recent years that researchers have identified the significance of the mangroves to the general well-being of West Bengal and Bangladesh.
Ten per cent of the world’s tropical cyclones occur towards the north of the Bay of Bengal and experts warn that the mangroves of the Sundarbans – which are a series of islands and network of rivers stretched across a 354 km wide delta of tidal waterways and saline mudflats, between the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers – are a protective natural buffer against the destructive extremes of cyclones. The mangroves, which grow to heights of between 1.8 and 3.6 metres, absorb some of the storms’ raging power, thus protecting people and settlements further inland.
The mangroves as natural barriers
The protection that nature provides for free would prove dear to replace. The United Nations Development Programme estimates that $294m would have to be invested to build the 2,200 km of flood and storm embankments required if man-made barriers were to provide the same level of protection as the mangroves. And the upkeep of the man-made barriers would come with an annual maintenance bill in the region of $6m.
Worryingly, some experts predict a 45 centimetre rise in global sea levels by the end of the century. That could result in the destruction of almost three-quarters of the Sundarbans’ mangroves and also have a major impact on the region’s ecosystems.
Rising sea levels and population growth
The resultant rise in salt levels and the acidification of soil, the flooding of the Ganges delta and changes to the water table are also predicted to have major effects on the region’s human population and their quality of life. At present this process is being accelerated by natural subsidence in the Sundarbans, due to seasonal flooding washing away topsoil, which is causing the equivalent of a sea-level rise of approximately 2.2 mm per year.
Environmentalists point out that this is not the only risk to the area’s long term security. The salinity of the Sundarbans is increasing. Experts know this process as salinitization. When asked about the root cause of the issue, some experts point a finger in the direction of the Farraka Barrage, which, since 1974, has been diverting the upstream freshwater inflow of the Ganges with the aim of alleviating silting in the Port of Kolkata. This accounts for a 40 per cent decrease in flow of fresh water during the dry season.
Environmental action and conservation
Rather than waiting until it’s too late, and the mangroves are lost, conservationists and a number of NGOs, such as Mangrove Action Project, are working to raise awareness of the importance of conserving the remaining mangrove forests in protected areas.
They advocate environmentally aware tourism and environmentally aware acts, including the re-planting of carefully selected mangrove species along freshwater sections of reclaimed land, a technique that has already been successfully tested on Sagar Island.
The Sundarbans in three generations
Without such steps – and environmentally aware decisions when infrastructure and development projects are planned – environmentalists fear that there may be very little left of the Sundarbans for tourists three generations from now.
That, they warn, would represent a significant loss, not only for India but for the world, as the Sundarbans is one of just 193 natural sites on UNESCO’s list of 981 world heritage sites
Wildlife in Sundarbans National Park
The Sunderbans National Park has an area of 2,585 square kilometres, of which 1,330 falls within a core protected area. Increasing numbers of tourists are becoming aware of the Sundarbans’ attractions – such as the region’s diverse wildlife, its complex ecosystems and the stunning natural scenery – thanks to cruises offered by West Bengal Tourism.
Tours are run on ships such as the M.V. Chitrarekha, pausing at sites of interest, nature camps and the Mangrove Interpretation Centre at Sajnekhali, where visitors have opportunities to learn about the 260 species of birds, 42 species of mammals, 35 different reptiles and eight species of amphibians which live here.
Crocodiles, monitor lizards and dolphins
Many people are surprised to learn that the Sundarbans hosts the largest estuarine crocodiles in the world, as well as monitor lizards, olive ridley turtles and rare irrawady dolphins.
Nonetheless, most visitors come hoping to spot one of the region’s famous tiger population, the scourge of the wild honey collectors, known as mouli, who enter the forest wearing masks on the back of their heads to minimise the risk of attack by the big cats; they believe that if the tiger thinks it is being watched then it is less likely to strike.
Tigers in the Sundarbans
While the plight of the world’s tiger population gains significant column space in the world’s press, it is only recently that awareness of the threats to the Sundarbans has started to gain resonance. Some people believe that the region was named after the mangrove species which botanists know as Heritiera fomes, known locally as sundhari. Others argue the name is derived from the region’s natural beauty; in Bengali sundar means “beautiful” and bans translates as “jungle”.
Hopefully decisive action now will ensure much of the area currently inhabited by mangroves will survive and that the region continues to benefit from the forest’s protection and the flow of tourists.
The Sundarbans National Park website holds information about lodges and visiting the park.
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