ONE of the largest mangrove forests in the world and a unique tiger habitat, the Sunderbans in West Bengal is facing a serious threat to its ecosystem from poaching and rampant felling of trees. Situated at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal in the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, the Sunderbans covers an area of around 10,000 sq km. Of this, 4,262 sq km is in India and the rest is in Bangladesh. Of the 60 varieties of mangroves and mangrove associates that are found in India, the Sunderbans accounts for 50, many of which are rare. Known for its biodiversity, the region has been identified as a World Heritage Site by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (Frontline, April 28, 1990).
Although forest officials deny that any indiscriminate felling of trees has been going on, informed sources in the Environment Department of the Government of West Bengal said that the substantial increase in the region's population had led to the exploitation of the Sunderbans. In 1951, the area's population was 11,59,559; by 1991 it had risen to 32,05,552. Today it stands at approximately 40 lakhs. Most people in the region are poor and depend on the forest for livelihood and, more specifically, their firewood needs.
According to Radhika Ranjan Pramanik, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member of Parliament from the Sunderbans, the blame does not lie with the poor local residents alone. "There is a major racket being run in the Sunderbans by timber merchants, who bribe forest officers and workers and get a free hand in collecting as much timber as they wish," Pramanik told Frontline. This flies in the face of claims made by forest officers that the indiscriminate felling of trees had been brought under control. Pramanik further said that the sundari tree, a variety of mangrove from which the Sunderbans got its name, was fast vanishing from the region as it had become one of the prime targets of the timber merchants.
Bimal Kumar Sarkar, Divisional Forest Officer, 24 Parganas (South), attributed the depletion of the mangroves to the increasing levels of salinity, mostly in the western part of the Sunderbans. In the 16th century, owing to tectonic movement, the western part of the region rose, and in the process the entire region got tilted towards what today constitutes Bangladesh. As a result, the main branch of the Ganga, the Ghaghara, shifted eastwards and ultimately began to course through the Padma. With the passage of time, the rest of the branches of the Ganga also started flowing eastward. Consequently, sweet water inflow in the western part of the Sunderbans got drastically reduced. "For the proper growth of mangroves, the ration of salt water and sweet water should be 50:50. Owing to the lack of sweet water in the western part, the forest cover is less dense and the mangroves there are of the dwarf and bushy type," Sarkar told Frontline.
Another problem threatening the Sunderbans' mangrove ecology is the collection of tiger prawn seeds. The Sunderbans has a mono-crop agricultural pattern, which means that the people of the region have no alternative sources of income from farming. Thus, burdened by poverty, over two lakh people have turned to collecting tiger prawn seeds, using nylon nets, which are dragged along the river banks. In the process, apart from destroying mangrove seedlings and eliminating the possibility of a regeneration of mangroves along the river banks, at least 74 species of fish are also destroyed (Frontline, November 17, 1995).
A survey conducted in 1994 by the S.D. Marine Biological Research Institute, 24 Parganas (South) revealed that on an average in the process of collecting 519 prawn seeds, at least 5,103.25 gm of other seed varieties that sustain different categories of fish are destroyed. S. Mukherjee, Deputy Field Director, Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, said: "This is the most serious problem threatening the region. Though we are trying hard to regulate this practice, in reality the situation has gone beyond control and is damaging the entire estuarine ecosystem of the area." The steady destruction of so many varieties of fish, in turn, has adversely affected animals, which depend on them. It is also threatening to endanger the different species of crocodiles, which form one of Sunderbans' major attractions. "Step by step the food chain of this ecosystem is breaking up, and its effects will only be understood later," said Mukherjee. The activity is also eroding the 3,500-km-long embankment, which protects villages in the region from floods.
According to Pramanik, the increased exploitation of the forest is directly related to the decrease in the tiger population in the Sunderbans. "Tigers are the best conservators of the forest. They keep human beings away. If there are no tigers in the Sunderbans, the forest area would be left bare in months," he said. However, lack of food and excessive poaching are decimating the tiger population. "Tiger poaching is taking place in the entire Sunderbans area. There are also instances of tigers straying into the vicinity of a village in search of food and being killed by the local inhabitants," said Mukherjee. Last year two such incidents were recorded - one near a village in Pakiralaya on July 30 and another in Kishosimohanpur on October 2. In 2000, six cases were reported. Being a riverine forest, during high tide nearly 90 per cent of the Sunderbans is submerged. Moreover, the muddy ground makes it difficult for tigers to put their hunting abilities to optimum use. "The local people's cooperation has to be there to preserve tigers, and for that there has to be a programme to generate awareness," said Mukherjee.
However, there are only 197 forest guards to combat poaching across the vast area. The number of staff sanctioned for the preservation of the entire forest land and its animals is 302, which is insufficient. The presence of the Royal Bengal tiger, unique to the Sunderbans, is the main reason for the poaching. The price of its long-striped skin ranges from Rs.80,000 to Rs.2 lakhs a piece. Its claws, tongue and testicles fetch high prices.
According to informed sources, some of the biggest importers of tiger products from Indian poachers operate through Chinese territory. Certain traditional Chinese and Korean medicines make use of tiger bones. West Asia is suspected to be another major destination for tiger fur. The annual global trade in wildlife is estimated to be worth approximately $20 billion, of which more than 30 per cent is illegal. However, according to forest officials, ultimately only the middlemen and the intermediaries are caught. "It is very difficult to link up or link down," a source in the Forest Department told Frontline. Also, difficult terrain, lack of communication facilities and mobility constraints make it difficult to apprehend poachers, who are usually local people who have intimate knowledge of the terrain.
Also, largely because of poaching, the deer population is declining rapidly. As a result, a large number of tigers, which feed mainly on deer, have moved to the adjoining forests of Bangladesh. Since the institution of the Tiger Project in 1973, the core area of the project, which covers approximately 2,500 sq km, was supposed to be protected against exploitation.
However, according to government sources, poaching and exploitation of forest resources continue. As per the last wildlife census, the tiger population in the Sunderbans in 1999 was 254, as against 269 a decade earlier.
The ecological significance of the Sunderbans is immense. Apart from serving as a shield against natural calamities, it checks atmospheric pollution. It has a seemingly unlimited capacity to absorb pollutants from both air and water. A recent study revealed that every day more than 23 kg of pollutants are dumped into the estuaries in the Sunderbans. Although the Sunderbans has an enormous capacity to absorb industrial effluents and other forms of pollutants, experts feel that if the present situation continues for long, it might affect the ecosystem adversely. Atanu Kumar Raha, Chief Conservator of Forests (south) and Director, Sunderban Biosphere Reserve, told Frontline that the latest Geographic Information Systems (GIS) report showed that in the past 70 years, 220 sq km of forest land had been submerged. "Even 150 years ago, the Sunderbans was the home of the one-horned Indian rhino, the Javan rhino, wild buffaloes and even river dolphins. All these are now extinct," Raha said.
Realising the importance of the Sunderbans, the government of West Bengal set up in 1999 a mangrove eco-park in Jharkhali, an island in the Sunderbans. The Sunderbans Development Board allotted 10 hectares of land and the State Environment Department came forward with financial assistance. The aim of the project is to rehabilitate sundari trees. Local people have been roped in to take part in the project. Also, in order to help create awareness, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research has set up the Mangrove Ecological Museum in Kolkata. The museum preserves samples and photographs of plants and animals and collects data on them. The West Bengal government is also engaged in framing an ambitious plan for the all-round development of the deltaic system.