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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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