The Sundarban Biosphere Reserve (SBR), ‘part of the largest mangrove forest in the world’, ‘now a wetland of international importance’, is presently facing innumerable environmental and socio-economic problems, including global climate change, rising sea levels, frequent tropical cyclones, coastal erosion, depletion of mangroves, and immense population pressure on the shrinking habitat of the Royal Bengal Tiger.
The forest is home to 260 species of birds, single largest home to the Royal Bengal tiger and other threatened species such as the Estuarine Crocodile, Indian Python, Gangetic Dolphin, Terrapin Turtles, Olive Ridley Turtles and Hawksbill Turtle. This indicates that the Sundarban forest ecosystem is a natural biodiversity hotspot.
In the last three decades, we have lost 10,000 hectares of the mangrove in sundarbans. The tiger and the crocodile in the land and water respectively are the two top consumer groups of animals in this ecosystem. Their existence is very much essential to maintain ecological balance by the sustained growth of other species.
This articles highlights the importance of mangrove not only as a climate regulator but also as a natural habitat to a range of fauna native to the region. It also explores the impact of cyclone on the wildlife and the reasons behind increasing incidences of wildlife-human conflicts post-cyclone. This article also brings to light the link between the deadly tropical cyclone and the escalating crisis of biological annihilation that remains unexplored by the media to a large extent.
The Sundarbans acts as bioshields against the tropical storms that are a habitual occurrence in the eastern coast. They protect the land from the storm surges and studies have shown that they reduce the height of the waves by 31%.
Pneumatophores, a halophytic variety of shrubs, predominating in coastal mangrove forests of Sundarbans, have prop-roots that sustain the soil and protect the soil against strong tidal waves. Mangroves often minimize wind speed by modulating the wind ‘s strength. They serve as natural buffers between land and sea and also shield against river-bank erosion.
The forests act as a source to replenish some of the critical fish stocks of Sundarbans. The mangroves have been protecting Kolkata and the other adjoining cities and towns of West Bengal from the wrath of the storm. Sagar, Mousuni, Frazergunj and Bakkhali are areas in West Bengal that have sustained significant damage after clearing the mangroves where human settlements have come up. The eastern part of the delta has sustained lesser damage, where there is dense mangrove, as pointed out by Abhijit Mitra, a marine scientist and former professor at the University of Calcutta.
Five to six tropical cyclones hit the eastern coast every year originating in Bay of Bengal, of which two to three cyclones are considered to be deadly. After the 1999 Super cyclone ‘Phailin’ that hit the Eastern Indian coast greatly affecting the state of Odisha, there have been a few more cyclones that have created rampant damages along the eastern coast.
To name a few, ‘Sidr’ in 2007, ‘Aila’ in 2009, ‘Bulbul’ in 2019 and the recent super cyclone that hit the state of West Bengal in May, 2020 has created a havoc and has deepened the humanitarian consequences amongst the COVID-19 crisis. The increased frequency of the storms can be attributed to climate change that continues to weaken the mangrove ecosystem that not only acts as carbon sinks but also helps mitigate global warming.
Supercyclone ‘Amphan’ is being regarded as the deadliest cyclone originated in the Bay of Bengal in the 21st century, causing damages and loss at an ‘unprecedented scale’ especially in the coastal districts of the South Bengal with wind speeds scaling over 170-190 kmph. Situated on the coast, the Sundarbans had to bear the brunt of the massive storm surges and high winds.
It is not completely possible to assess the damage caused by cyclones to the wildlife. Such tragedy is not only “‘incalculable’ in a quantitative manner but also ‘unknowable’ in a qualitative manner” as our comprehension of the intricate web of dependencies of the native species and their relationship to tropical cyclones is limited. However, highlighting some of the incidences would bring clarity on the immense damage and the need to conserve and protect wildlife in these ecologically fragile areas.
Some animals do possess the ability to sense an imminent storm and may seek refuge to a safer location. But according to Pegasus Foundation, which provides support for wildlife protection, for most animals “the survival of a hurricane or tropical storm is a crapshoot.” Lack of ways to evacuate the animals has taken a toll on the faunal inhabitants of the region.
As per the reports, cyclone Aila killed wild creatures as a result of exhaustion and shock. Animals like deer, reptiles and wild pigs had been swept away. Such cyclones kill a lot of fish which is a source of food for the majestic inhabitant of Sundarbans and the ‘Fishing cat’ which is also the State animal of West Bengal. The strong winds destroy the nylon nets provided to mark the territory of the forest and to prevent the tigers from entering the human settlement .
There have been increasing incidences of tigers encroaching into the human habitation post-cyclone in search of food resulting in wildlife-human conflicts. Wildlife-human conflicts (WHC) pose a significant obstacle to the protection and conservation of wildlife in the forests across the world. This is becoming a crisis that the world is facing today with the increase in number of endangered and extinct species.
Exponential increase in population, development and livelihood necessities, global climate changes and other environmental factors have necessitated a direct competition among the humans and wildlife to compete for a resource base that’s gradually depleting. Hence, we see increasing incidences of wildlife venturing or encroaching on areas inhabited by human.
Human conflict with tigers can be divided into three categories: tiger attacks on human beings, tigers attacking domestic animals, and tigers venturing into the human inhabited lands. Post cyclonic conditions create shortage of food for tigers and hence they prey on the domesticated animals. Deer depend on trees like Sundari, Byne, Keora for their food, and storms or increased salinity has led to a steep fall in their numbers.
This will create food shortage for big cats. Presently, there are 96 protected tigers in the Sunderban Biosphere Reserve. Post Amphan, to monitor the situation in Sundarbans, a control room had been set up by the forest department to monitor and prevent the tigers from entering human habitation. The reason for escalating incidences of these conflicts post cyclone is also because the storms accompanied by heavy rain for days leave most of the fields and ponds inundated with saline water.
The people who are dependent on these sources for their income lose their livelihood. This results in the inexperienced groups venturing into the forest in search of food or means of earning a living such as honey collection and increased dependence on the other kinds of Non-Timber Forest Produce.
Amphan is a unique case where things have worsened due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Thus, this raises several significant questions on the cyclone’s impact. Many migrant labourers have returned from their place of work with absolutely no means of livelihood in such a crisis.
As a result, several have fallen back to the forests or are catching fish and crabs to make ends meet. Men venturing into forest lands to serve their needs have also resulted in the conflict. In a circumstance like this, the frequency of such occurrences are therefore on a high.
Rebuilding shelter belts should be given utmost importance which are the breeding ground of species such as the Olive Ridley Turtles. However, the type of trees we choose to plant determines its efficiency in withstanding the wrath of the future cyclones. Trees such as cashews or exotic casuarinas will take only 6-7 years to grow but are less resilient as compared to tropical trees that take almost two decades to grow fully such as Neem and tamarind (Mohanty, 2019) provided they are planted at a distance of 300 metres away from the high tide line.
Compensation records of human-wildlife conflicts could be utilised to identify an overview of the distribution of the conflicts across the regions and prioritise areas that need immediate intervention (Sengupta, 2020). This would be an easy and faster way to identify regions that require urgent involvement. However, compensation claims are often not filed as the amount paid is unsatisfactory and delayed.
Further, there are misconceptions among the field staff of the forest department that the claims can only be filed when the damage is done by a particular species. Hence to make this approach work, the forest department has to make sure that the losses compensated match the market value, are dealt timely and the people affected by the conflict have a compassionate ear to pour out their problems.
The only way to stop the crisis of Biological annihilation from intensifying is by saving the Sundarbans. As per reports, majority of cyclones develop over the Bay of Bengal, and the eastern coast of India is most vulnerable to its fate. Thus, the Bay of Bengal is also knows as ‘Storm Breeder’. Realising that cyclones are a natural phenomenon that will keep occurring every year with its intensity increasing as a result of climate change, we can do our bit by saving the the mangroves at every cost by spreading awareness about its prominence.
Sundarbans stretching over 10,000 square kilometres protect the coast and the lives of people residing in two countries. Ghoramara Island in India, situated along the western edge of the Sundarbans have already lost their mangroves as a result of erosion and deforestation. To save Sundarbans from the fate of being lost, we need to check the rising level of global warming. It is estimated that by the end of 2020, 20% of Sundarbans will be lost.
Sea levels in the Sunderban delta are increasing by 3.14 milimeter a year as compared to the global sea level rise of 2 millimeter per year. A one metre rise in sea level is capable of inundating 17 % of Bangladesh and the entire Sundarbans. Hence the protection of Sundarbans is no longer an option but is very imperative for our survival.