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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : May 2001 : Environment - Bangladesh: Giant mangrove forest in great danger

Environment - Bangladesh: Giant mangrove forest in great danger

By Tabibul Islam
Global Information Network
May 7, 2001

KHULNA, BANGLADESH - The destruction of the world's largest mangrove forest continues even as environmental experts and state officials warn against the dire consequences of its loss.

The Sundarbans, found in Bangladesh's southwest Greater Khulna District bordering the Indian state of West Bengal, is under threat partly because of rising sea levels that have increased salinity and siltation in the area.

But experts also point out that activities such as logging, draining of marshes, human settlement, and construction of embankments for shrimp cultivation have contributed to the destruction of the ecological equilibrium of the Sundarbans, which means "beautiful forest."

"With indiscriminate felling of trees by settlers and outsiders, smuggling of timber, logs and other resources, Sundarbans is now faced with a physical malady never witnessed before," said a forestry official of Bangladesh.

A retired public official who has just returned from a recent visit to the famous forest echoed this view. He said poachers, smugglers, dacoits, forest personnel and even law enforcers are plundering the Sundarbans, which constitutes about 44 percent of the total forest area of Bangladesh.

Covering 1,400 square kilometers, the Sundarbans shields the millions of people of Greater Khulna District from cyclones and supplies Bangladesh with as much as 45 percent of the country's timber and firewood needs.

The forest is also home to a wide array of plants and at least 20,000 kinds of animals, including tigers, monkeys and spotted deer. Experts have even counted some 315 species of birds, 400 species of fish, 53 species of reptiles and eight species of amphibians among its residents.

The Sundarbans was declared a World Heritage site in 1997 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO). At the unveiling of the World Heritage plaque two years later, Bangladesh Premier Sheikh Hasina described the forest as a gift from God.

She also called upon the people to help protect it, saying, "It is the duty and obligation of all of us to save it from gradual extinction."

Yet today, the state-owned Khulna Newsprint Mills that is adjacent to the Khulna Divisional Headquarters is among those contributing to the Sundarbans' demise with its disposal of untreated effluents upstream of the forest, as well as through its non-sustainable use of a key mangrove species for its newsprint.

Experts have also noted the threat posed to the Sundarbans by the effluents of Calcutta, capital of India's West Bengal, and its surrounding areas.

Untreated urban wastes containing assimilable nitrogen and phosphates being discharged by factories on the banks of the Hoogly and other rivers flow down the Bay of Bengal and through the Sundarbans.

In addition, scientists say an oil slick over a wide area around the Sundarbans and oil spills from ships and tankers passing by the forest have the potential to trigger what an "unmanageable disaster."

As it is, experts say, mature and submature Sundari trees, which make up more than 70 percent of the forest, have died in the last three decades.

More than 20 percent of these Sundaris -- whose timber is used extensively in house-building and boat-making -- are now also affected by a unique disease that causes the trees to start dying from the top down.

Experts do not rule out the eventual demise of the Sundarbans itself unless the destructive human activities are stopped and the increasing salinity in the area is checked. They say siltation has led to the raising of the riverbank that in turn has caused water to be trapped in the forest.

In the past, the water used to burst over the banks. Today, however, stagnant water submerges the respiratory roots of the mangrove trees, and hampers the seed germination process that used to guarantee the regeneration of trees.

Forest officials worry that the changes in the mangrove will not only mean Greater Khulna will be more vulnerable to cyclones, it will also destroy many species of flora and fauna there.

They add that diminishing plantlife would mean less food for many of the animals. As a result, there are fears of the tigers becoming man-eaters as the number of deer and other natural prey dwindle.

Of the two dozen species of mammals that used to be abundant in the Sundarbans, five -- rhinoceros, wild buffalo, hog deer, gaur and swamp deer -- have all but disappeared.

The population of crocodiles, frogs and snakes has also shrunk considerably, mainly because of poaching and the destruction of their habitat. But experts say the number of reptiles is likely to increase as the environment within the Sundarbans becomes more suitable to their kind.

At a national conference on the Sundarbans last month, President Shahabuddin Ahmed reiterated the call for the protection of the forest.

He also emphasized the importance of making government policies and programs on forest preservation "people-oriented" and integrating the activities of non-government organizations and researchers with those of the state.

Observers, however, say that another kind of "collaboration" dominates in the Sundarbans. While 60,000 people, including 10,000 fishermen, earn their living from the forest, the majority are involved in illegal activities that have the tacit participation of some forest officials and staff.

Many experts, however, are hoping that the Sundarbans Biodiversity Conservation Project that was launched last year would soon begin reversing the negative trend in the forest.

The six-year project aims to improve the conservation management of the Sundarbans, update the institutional capacity of the management of the reserved forest and alleviate the poverty of the 3.5 million people living in the sub-districts surrounding the Sundarbans.

It also aims to formulate policy for enhancing the market value of the forest resources.

Government revenue from the Sundarbans is now about $6 million, but officials believe this could easily be raised to as much as $80 million with proper management.

The total project cost is $77 million, of which 45 percent will be financed by the Asian Development Bank. The Global Environment Facility has also pledged to take on 15 percent of the project's expenditure.



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