Conservation Conversations

THE SUNDARBAN KUNDU COUPLE’S EFFORTS TO PROTECT THE UNIQUE MANGROVE ECOSYSTEM AND ITS WILDLIFE

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GREEN MINUTE NEWS: Wildlife conservationists Joydip Kundu (also Member, West Bengal Wildlife Advisory Board) and his wife Suchandra Kundu (Honorary Wildlife Warden of Kolkata) are founder members of the Society of Heritage and Ecological Researches (SHER).

Working to reduce Human-Tiger conflict in Sundarbans, SHER has been providing LPG cylinders to fishermen so that they don’t venture into forests for firewood and cook on their boats during their fishing trips. SHER has conceptualized and implemented this scheme in Sunderbans landscape for the first time.  

R S TEJUS spoke to them on their pioneering work in the Sundarban landscape.

Q1. The Sundarbans’ unique landscape sustains the megafauna – the tiger. Elaborate.

Sundarbans, the world’s largest active delta has its own charm and uniqueness with its matchless biodiversity and ecosystem services. 

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An archipelago of around 104 islands with its own aquaculture system, Sundarbans is magical for its rich array of flora and fauna in a mangrove ecosystem formed by the deposition activity of three great rivers – the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. 

In 1973, the Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR) which was notified became part of the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve. Here, the River Matla divides Sundarban Reserve Forest (RF) into STR (on the east) and RF of South 24 Parganas Forest Division on the other side. 

This largest protruding deltaic complex of Sundarban is studded with phenomenal halophytic vegetation called Mangroves, a salt tolerant woody plant that occurs in the inter-tidal zones flooded by the sea twice daily. The landscape of Sundarbans adorned with different types of root systems like pneumatophores, stilt roots, buttress roots to survive in this climatic condition. 

These robust lateral roots fasten mangrove plants in loose sediments so firmly that the dense cover of Mangrove can endure storms and cyclones.

Photo credit: Joydip Suchandra Kundu

The amazing adaptability of the Tiger as a Species makes it the top consumer of the Sundarban Mangrove Forest ecosystem

Besides its usual prey base like wild pig, chital, rhesus macaque, water monitor lizard, the tiger has adapted itself to meet its necessities from estuarine fish, crabs and other organisms not normally included in its feeding habits. 

Q 2. How have wildlife and flora adapted to this ecosystem?

This extraordinary terrestrial littoral forest offers shelter and food to aerial and arboreal life forms and to creatures that live in the mud. Most animals in this ecosystem have a great amount of adaptability and are powerful swimmers. They have even adapted to a diet of aquatic foods.

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Rare and highly endangered animals including Estuarine Crocodile, Fishing Cat, Leopard Cat, Smooth-coated Otter, Small-clawed Otter, Water Monitor lizard, Gangetic Dolphin, Irrawaddy Dolphins, River Terrapin, and others inhabit this unique forest. 

The Sundarban marine ecosystem supports numerous aquatic lifeforms such as fish, shrimps, crabs and gastropods and Arthropods with multitude of invertebrates. The wonder species Mudskippers also typify the Sundarban like Tiger.

The avian diversity in Sundarban is phenomenal that includes a large number of arboreal birds as well as migrants from the higher altitudes that visit the area in seasons.

Q3. What are the bird species found in this Mangrove habitat?

Eight of the 12 species of Kingfishers found in India – share the Mangrove habitat in Sundarbans. They are Common Kingfisher, Brown-winged Kingfisher, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Ruddy Kingfisher, White-throated Kingfisher, Black-capped Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher and Pied Kingfisher. 

Among them Brown-winged and Collared Kingfishers, are mainly restricted to the mangrove forests of India along with Mangrove pitta and Mangrove whistler. Goliath Heron has a small breeding population in STR area. Sightings from last few years confirm the occurrence of a breeding population of Buffy Fish owl, the smallest of all fish owls. 

Q4. What are the immediate threats plaguing the tiger reserve? 

The threats to the mangrove eco-system are due to biotic pressure from the surrounding environment and human induced Climate Change.

The immediate threats are:

  • Reduced flow of sweet water from upper river catchments due to dams, frequent cyclones and sea water surges from Bay of Bengal are triggering salinity level into the Sundarban mangrove system. These have put the less salt tolerant/sweet water species- floral and faunal in grave risk.
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  • Human-Animal conflict- A large part of communities (BPL families) living within this bionetwork are highly dependent on its services and to get the maximum economic gain in a shorter span of time, they utilize this fragile eco-system for fishing, honey collection, small wood collection etc. This over dependence on forest resources is an immense threat to the ecosystem. 
  • Chemical pollution – the persistent dumping of urban and industrial waste, fertilizers/pesticides used extensively in the catchments of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers and their numerous tributaries pollute both the water channels and the landmass, and consecutively affect the aquatic vegetation and fauna directly. From the seaward side, major pollution occurs through oil spills causing damage to aquatic fauna and seabirds.
  • Long international porous border along the eastern boundary of Indian Sundarbans makes the forest and wildlife vulnerable to all probable criminal activities.

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Q 5. What about ongoing and future threats?

Climate Change has had some lethal effects on the Sundarban eco- region. 

The variability in the climatic parameter is being constantly increased due to human-induced global warming. Every year, the region is frequented by seasonal thunderstorms, nor ’westers, tidal surges. Every six hours, river water rises and drops as regular tidal occurrences due to its deltaic location. 

But Global Warming induced sea-level rise is pushing back the brackish sea water more into the coastal rivers at an alarming level. 

Due to the low-lying nature of the delta, the tidal water is going inward to a worrying distance and this inward water flow is obstructing the drainage and inundating the forest islands for a prolonged period. This has a distressing effect on the ecology as more the permanent inundation of the forest less the wildlife habitat. 

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Besides, Cyclones have become more frequent and severe. 

Within a span of two and a half years three high category cyclones (Bulbul, Amphan & Yaas) lashed Sundarban, though during Yaas there was no gale wind but the cyclone’s landfall coincided with high tide and the water surge broke most of the embankments, flooding the villages and making farm fields sterile. Fringe dwelling communities of STR getting devoid of farming due to this climate hazards increase their dependence on tiger forest resulting in more fatalities in Human-Tiger conflicts

With soil erosion of the islands – the coastal line of the Sundarban in India & Bangladesh has reduced. The forested ones too have eroded.  Global Warming induced sea level rise is slowly eating up the shoreline and inundating the mangrove habitat and its ecosystem.  

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Q6. Since the spread of Sundarbans is more in Bangladesh, is there any joint conservation operation between the two? 

India and Bangladesh have a Joint Treaty on Conservation. 

There have been a couple of bilateral meetings between the two countries including protection and Tiger population across the entire landscape. In 2018, a joint Tiger estimation (census) was conducted by both following the same protocol laid down by Wildlife Institute of India. Bangladesh had also participated in training programs conducted by WII.

(FOR ALL IMAGES, PHOTO CREDIT: JOYDIP SUCHANDRA KUNDU)