Sundarbans doesn't deserve an elegy so early  

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: August 02, 2018 22:13:38 | Updated: August 03, 2018 21:19:00

The International Tiger Day 2018 has coincided with a government circular on tours of the Sundarbans. The day is observed annually. Issued by the department of forest, the circular proposes that the government slap a ban on the visits to the mangrove forest for a 3-month period, June-August, from next year. The aim of the prohibition is leaving the animals of the forest alone during this period. It is the breeding time of many of these animals. The initiative is indeed noble. Given the ordeals the mangrove forest has lately been made to undergo, several other bans ought to have been in place. But they remained a mirage. Meanwhile, the Sundarbans continues to become robbed of its pristine features, and lose its biodiversity.

The fast declining number of its tigers in the recent decades amply speaks of the bad times the forest has fallen into. The Royal Bengal Tiger has long been synonymous with the Sundarbans. The mangrove forest on Bangladesh side covers an area measuring 6,000 square kilometres (sqkm ) of the total 10,000 sqkm. The rest of the forest in the southern West Bengal, India, covers an area of 4,110 sqkm. The mangrove forest in Bangladesh part lies on a coastal belt along the Bay of Bengal to the south. Large parts of it are found also deep inside, to the north.

Unlike the hills that went mostly to the northeastern Bengal in today's India after the 1947 partition, the then East Bengal, now Bangladesh, got the major segment of the Sundarbans. Apart from the Royal Bengal Tiger, the mangrove forest is home to a number of animal species including the aquatic ones. A wonderful variety of tree and plant species adds to its botanical richness. Along with many wild plants and trees, scores of animal species including birds, which were native to the forest, have gone extinct. With the total number of tigers at present estimated at mere 106, the plight of the Sundarbans is understood. The unabated trend in the loss of the forest's biodiversity stood out in the last few decades. With little efforts taken to rein in the process of damage, the whole forest was found entering a phase of slow disappearance.

The Sudarbans has been a great tourist attraction since long. After its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, the forest's international status witnessed a phenomenal boost. But depressing scenarios were in the making. One of those was the mad rush of tourists. They eventually replaced the sightseers who were aware of the environmental aspects of the forest. The new breed of tourists cared little about the imperative of leaving the wildlife species undisturbed. The trend continues, and goes on gaining an evil force. In place of the tranquility and solitude found in the past, the forest atmosphere nowadays echoes with the sound of music and noise coming from tourist launches. Five rivers flow through the Sundarbans. Using them for transporting goods to and from the nearby Mongla Port was once rare. Lately, the sinking of oil tankers and coal-laden vessels portends ominous times for the forest. In the years from 2014 to 2016, four major accidents occurred in the forest's Shela River. In December, 2014, an oil tanker carrying 350,000 litres of furnace oil collided with a cargo vessel. The tank finally sank, spilling oil into two dolphin sanctuaries. The oil slick later spread in an area of over 37 miles seeping through the forest's network of canals. Earlier in May the same year, a fertiliser-carrying vessel sank in another river flowing through the forest. To the chagrin of the ecologists, the response of the authorities concerned to these disastrous incidents was perfunctory.

Noisy goods-laden vessels and trawlers moving on these rivers are a routine spectacle. This and other cacophonies scare the previously fearless tigers forcing them to retreat into the deeper forest recesses. The behaviour leads to a hitherto unseen movement pattern of tigers. In the past these animals and a few others used to shift from one forest area to another. Tigers swimming across canals and smaller rivers to newer places were common. It has long stopped. In the case of large rivers, these otherwise strong animals avoid cross-river swims. The increase in the movement of cargo ships and trawlers also makes tigers shun the rivers.

According to wildlife experts, this has led to the confinement of the animals to a few limited areas of the forest. It is suspected to be playing a role in the drop in the animals' reproductive activities carried out across a broad area.

Among many others, it's the tiger that lures most of the tourists to the forest. Few people are fortunate enough to see tigers in naked eyes. They are not invisible, but give only fleeting glimpses. The forest and tourist departments have in place tiger watch towers in the forest. Still the people able to watch tigers from these tall observation points are not many. But it is the thrill and suspense related to the possibility of watching the animal that matters to the tourists. In a country with few tracts remaining densely forest covered, Sudarbans stands out as a great spot. The experience of seeing a tiger move majestically in the wild prompts a large section of tourists to undertake Sundarban tours. The rate at which tigers have started vanishing lately, it may not take long to declare this animal species an extinct one.

It's only well-thought-out projects on increasing the tiger population, which can save the animal. Against the backdrop of stop-gap and purely ceremonial measures, the possibility of putting in place effective programmes on tigers appears illusory. Without tigers, the Sundarbans is set to become shorn of its inherent beauty and magnificence. The share of deer, rhesus monkeys, crocodiles and water birds is also not negligible. So is the case with the typical Sundarban trees.

On top of all, an unalloyed solitude and enchanting natural beauty distinguishes the forest. It has been in place since the ancient times after it was formed with the combination of awe-inspiring expanses of forest land and water. Genuine tourists visit the mangrove forest to spend a few days amid the environs unspoiled by urban bustle. To the disillusionment of many, these idyllic features of the largest mangrove forest in the world have started wearing out. On becoming a veritable fall guy, the once-mindboggling forest is now found headed for disappearance. The ecosystem of the massive mangrove forest shows clear signs of falling apart.

Encroachment on the domains of nature has been a scourge since the early phase of industrialisation. Like many other natural sites, the Sundarbans is now considered one of the many which have been badly hit by different types of encroachment. Allowing dozens of industrial units to start operation on the outer peripheries of the forest has sounded notes of alarm. According to environmental scientists and conservationists, these industries are feared to leave a damaging impact on the forest in the long run. Perhaps there are few nations in the present world which send their imperative of saving a forest resource to the back burner this nonchalantly. With the mangrove forest eventually disappearing, the rich varieties of animal and plant species, too, will be shoved into the process of extinction. Maybe, those days are not too far when the interested people will be advised to search the Internet to have an idea of the Sundarbans animals like the Royal Bengal Tiger or the spotted deer. Apart from the environmentally hit wildlife populations, the lately ubiquitous poachers' swoop on the Sundarbans emerges as a new threat. The prime target of these hunters is tigers, which they, as part of the alleged international syndicates, kill to collect the animals' body parts. These fetch fabulously high prices in the global market of alternative medicines and stimulants. Given the fast drop in the number of the Sundarban tigers, the poachers, however, may shift their focus from the mangrove forest to the other venues.

All this translates into dreadful prospects related to the forest's future. In order to help it survive in its previous glory, upon admitting the neglect long shown to it, the Sundarbans can still be given a new lease of life. It's because the site is part of nature. Any damaging process affecting it can be reversed. Regeneration largely defines the working of nature. The time of giving up on the Sundarbans, in all likelihood, is still far off. In spite of its decaying process, tourists still love to venture into its unexplored depths. Many even suggest the Kotka beach along the Bay of Bengal be declared a formal tourist spot. Others advocate the creation of highly protected and exclusive reserve forests deep inside the Sundarbans.  


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