Figure 1. Chital deer standing in mangrove swamps. Source: Wikipedia.com
Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal share the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, one of the Indian sub-continent’s most biodiverse ecosystems. Historically, emblematic Asian species, such as the Javan rhinoceros and leopards roamed the area, but they became locally extinct primarily due to human pressures. However, the ecosystem is still teeming with biodiversity: animals like the chital deer and the Irrawaddy dolphin inhabit the area and more than 90% of India’s mangrove plants exist here. Moreover, the only Bengal tigers adapted to living in mangrove forests make their final stand in the Sundarbans.
This region provides a multitude of ecosystem services, be they cultural, like education and recreation, or provisional, like seafood and timber. Most consequential, though, are its regulating services since the mangrove swamps provide a natural buffer against the tropical storms of South Asia. Furthermore, the Sundarbans provide carbon sequestration, having absorbed almost 4.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the present. According to a study conducted by the University of Calcutta, this amount is valued at nearly $79 billion on the international market.
Figure 2. Map showing the entirety of the Sundarbans. Source: Wikipedia.com
Climate change’s effects pose the greatest threat to the Sundarbans. Surging sea levels are leading the way, having risen at twice the global average since 1985, which is problematic since most of the region is less than one meter above sea level. Consequently, the mangroves are not photosynthesizing nearly as much nor are they regenerating like they have in the past. In addition, the increased frequency and intensity of cyclones is a destruction risk, threatening the livelihoods of both local people and wildlife.
Apart from climate change, however, deforestation is an ongoing trend. In fact, in the 20 years before 2009, forest cover was reduced by 5%. The loss of forest has triggered more human-animal conflict, which has led to the extirpation of several species. Moreover, erosion endangers the mangrove ecosystem, destroying mud dykes in which trees plant their roots, counteracting the protection they provide against the sea and cyclones. What is more, overfishing pressures the ecosystem even further. Also, adjacent cities’ pollution and oil docks have a huge impact on the wildlife that call the mangroves home. In fact, the risk of an oil spill is seen as another of the principal threats.
Figure 3. Predicted sea level rise impact on the Bangladeshi Sundarbans. The baseline is the year 2000. Source: Loucks et al., 2009.
In terms of conservation, there have been many efforts to preserve this ecosystem. In 1987, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making the Sundarbans world-renowned and better protected due to their intrinsic value. The region also became part of the Man and the Biosphere program, an initiative designed to simultaneously improve local people’s livelihoods and protect the environments shared with other species.
At the national level, India’s federal government made its part of the Sundarbans a protected biosphere reserve. The country also runs Project Tiger, a national tiger conservation program involved in the Sundarbans’ initiatives to protect the mangrove-adapted population. At the regional level, the state of West Bengal is developing an action plan on climate change that recognizes the dire need to protect the Sundarbans from this threat, as well as proposing different mitigation tactics. In Bangladesh, the Wildlife Act of 1974 controls the exploitation of the forest. For example, it imposes restrictions upon entry, fishing and hunting. While on paper these measures seem to be progressing, the governments hinder these efforts by struggling implement them.
In recent years, both national governments have implemented co-management projects to improve the financial conditions of local people by providing them with a role in forest conservation. Moreover, nearly 3000 km2 or 15% of the land is divided between seven protected areas. Presently, the condition of the Sundarbans is in a downwards spiral, but it has the potential to improve given the new collaboration between the two countries, along with the other efforts already being carried out.
Figure 4. The location of the Indian Sundarbans. Source: DasGupta & Shaw, 2015.
Among the challenges in effectively protecting the Sundarbans are the lack of climate change awareness and the economic pressure of adapting to climate change in two countries with high poverty. The Bangladesh Forest Department has, despite having various policies in place, inadequately protected the ecosystem because of poor bureaucratic implementation capacity, a major obstacle in the prevention of further degradation. The fear of man-eating tigers also strains a keystone species; humans are more likely to kill the animals out of fright and reducing the population of Bengal tigers has the potential to disrupt the entire ecosystem’s equilibrium.
Figure 5. Bengal tiger stalking through the Sundarbans forest. Source: Wikipedia.com
Going forward, if the Sundarbans are to be maintained, education about this magnificent ecosystem must take precedence where its relevance is greatest: in Bangladesh and India. In the struggle to mitigate catastrophic climate change, its importance as a natural fortification against the increased cyclone threat and as a carbon sequestration service must be at the fore of conservation education. Reforestation of mangrove species would be useful to protect against both cyclones and to conserve the habitat of forest-dependent species, as well as for carbon sequestration. In addition, ecotourism would promote learning, besides creating local employment opportunities. In fact, cooperation with the inhabitants of the Sundarbans should be one of the keys in conserving them because they will be protecting the forest for their own livelihoods, but at the same time, safeguarding society’s greater interests. The times of conservation without considering the needs of local people have passed and the Sundarbans present the perfect situation to for co-management between the state and the forest’s residents.
Climate change and its ensuing sea level rise are undoubtedly a challenge. Nonetheless, the collaboration between the Indian and Bangladeshi governments–with a strong focus on good governance, implementation and accountability–has the potential to be the key to ensuring a future for the Sundarbans.
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