Biodiversity of largest mangrove forest in world under threat

Researchers' call to limit number of tourists visiting Sundarbans

A Monitor Report 16 Feb, 2017  |    -      +
Khulna : A large number of people visit the Sundarbans every year and the flow increases specially in the winter. This increasing number of tourists has become a threat to the biodiversity of the largest mangrove forest in the world. For this, researchers have called for limiting the number of tourists.

The findings of a study on the number of tourists the World Heritage Site can sustainably accept, conducted by the Department of Environment Science of University and Centre for Integrated Studies of Sundarbans with the financial support of the World Bank from 2013 to 2015, was released recently.

Researchers pointed out that the ecosystem of the Sundarbans is very complex and fragile. The slightest disturbance adversely affects the flora and fauna. And the present pressure on the forest is not sustainable.

The number of tourists have been increasing over the last decade and during the tourism season - from November to March - over 45 thousand tourists visit the nine "tourist spots" of the Sundarbans on a single day. Tourism insiders said.

There is no control over these groups of people who litter the forest with leftover food, polythene, chips packets, phensedyl bottles, syringes for pushing drugs, pet bottles, cigarette packets, torn sponge sandals, which hurt the flora, fauna and micro -organisms of the forest.

The sound generated by the vessels, travel on or searchlights they use while navigating the vessels at night affect the animals or mammals like bats and dolphins, which use sound waves to travel.

The human intrusion may lead to the forest animals in the Sundarbans lose their reproductive capability too. Already salt water crocodiles, two types of vultures, Gangetic and Irrawady dolphins and otters have become either extinct or are facing the threat of extinction.

First mapped in 1764, the Sundarbans is now barely one-third of its original size and is continuing to shrink.

These concerns have compelled UNESCO to include the Sundarbans in its Man and the Biosphere Programme. The programme includes the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve in the "Global Network of Island and Coastal Biosphere Reserves Contributing to Action on Climate Change and Sustainable Development."

This has also led the researchers recommend limiting the number of tourists. They suggested that not more than four thousand visit the nine tourist spots of the mangrove forest, including Katka, Harbaria, Karamjal and Kalagachia, on a single day.

Free for all

A journalist who travelled to the Sundarbans recently described the situation as a free for all. Like all other "tourist spots" of the forest, it was a "bazaar" at Karamjal crocodile breeding centre. "Shak" leaves were being sold to tourists to feed deer in the enclosure while peanuts at the monkey enclosure. Yet another person was selling poultry. "Throw it and the crocodiles will come," the seller yelled.

People living on the edge of the forest said "picnic groups" enter the forest with loudspeakers being played so loud that they even cause distress to the human beings, not to talk of the animals.

They suggested that traditional boats be used for cruising inside the Sundarbans and those with machine-driven ones be discouraged, and the tourists return within the daylight hours as lights at night disturb the animals. The machine-driven boats also dump used burnt oil into the rivers or the canals, which causes harm to fish and dolphins.

Local residents urged people to bring their trash back, as the rubbish thrown into the forest would soon become unmanageable.

A set of regulations were drawn up in 2014 to bring down the number as well as control the flow of visitors. Prior permission from the Forest Department was a prerequisite. There was a bar on the use of loudspeakers and the visitors were told not to throw litter on the ground or on water.

The water vessels were to have environmentally-aware guides. Not over 150 persons could be on a water vessel at daytime and not more than 75 persons at night. Generators were to be switched off by 10pm. But these rules have been thrown to the winds.

An old sareng said, the tourist vessels generally abide by the rules but the "seasonal businessmen" flout those. Students, who are supposed to be environmentally aware, also do not obey the rules, he said.

Sundari trees

Another study of soil and water and satellite imagery has shown that the largest mangrove forest in the world will be without the Sundari trees - that gave the Sundarbans the name - by 2050. The Sundari is the mangrove forest's most valuable timber species with good carbon absorption capacity.

The study said most of the rivers, tributaries and distributaries that flow through the Sundarbans originate from the Ganges (Padma). The construction of Ganges Barrage at Farakka has led to increased salinity. As a result the number of Sundari trees, which depend on sweet water, has decreased.

The number of Keora, Baen, Gewa and Goran trees, which are mostly used as firewood and can withstand saline water are increasing, but their ability to absorb carbon and produce oxygen is less than Sundari trees.

The reports feared that sweet water fish species found in the rivers and canals of the Sundarbans will also be lost as a result of this increased salinity. The number of sweet water fish earlier was six times than that of fish of brackish water - where sweet and saline water mix.

Cellphone towers

The environmentalists also expressed concern over the request to the government by a cellphone operator to set up towers inside the Sundarbans. They pointed out that the waves transmitted from one tower to another, though inaudible to human beings, would hamper the movement of animals within the forest. The animals emit their own signals to move from one place to another. "Simply put they would lose sense of direction," they added.

"The Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest and sanctuary for a number of the world's most endangered species. The forest has the largest single population of Royal Bengal Tigers in the world. But this unique ecosystem is under threat. We have to act now. We can save the Sunderbans - not just for us, but for generations to come," appealed environmentalists.

Voluntourism is a growing international phenomenon and a key market segment for emerging destinations. This is what should be practiced here, travel and tourism insiders opined, adding, people who are environmentally aware and care about ecology should only be allowed.

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