JHARKHALI, 21 MAY: An ecological disaster is underway in the Sunderbans. Sundari trees, from which the region derives its name, are gasping for life with the rise in sea level and subsequent decrease in the flow of fresh water from the rivers that feed the delta. Of the 60 varieties of mangroves found in India, the Sunderbans account for as many as 50 and many of them are rare species. But with the increase in the salinity, numerous freshwater mangroves are being replaced by more salt-tolerant species such as Ceriops decandra (Jhanti Goran) that are slowly but surely colonising the saline banks.
The ecological significance of the Sunderbans is immense. Mr Tushar Kanjilal, a Sunderbans expert, said: “Mangroves are the first guard against cyclones and storms. It acts as a wind-breaker.”
An official of the Propagation Centre for Endangered Mangroves at Jharkhali, Sunderbans, said that prawn seed collectors have done considerable harm to their efforts to replant mangrove. Sundari trees that constitute about 70 per cent of the forest have been dying for the past 30 years, while 20 per cent are afflicted with a disease that kills the trees from the top down. However, Mr AK Raha, principal conservator of forest, West Bengal, said: “Sundari trees have been decreasing from hundreds of years. It is not that one Aila will come and finish them. The Indian side of the Sunderbans has fewer Sundari trees than Bangladesh because the inflow of sweet water is still there on that side. Cyclones do not cause permanent damage. The villages hit by Aila are now almost back to normalcy.”
Visits to the Aila-hit villages prove that the places are far from normal. A report by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre under the United Nations Environment Programme states that the northwest margin of the mangroves in the Sunderbans and some forest tracts on low-lying islands were cleared for agriculture two hundred years ago and various exotics introduced. Some varieties have been lost to the higher salinity partly due to large-scale irrigation schemes on the Ganges upstream. The report further states that “localised die-back of Sundari has been noticed. Its top-dying is probably due to the decrease in freshwater flow.”
Mangrove re-plantation drives are on in the region but more salt-tolerant species of mangrove are being promoted. Because of the rise in salinity in the rivers and creeks, Sundari plants are either perishing or have a stunted growth. The number of Sundari trees is dwindling and forest officials claim that though illegal felling of trees has been stopped, increase in the region’s population had led to the exploitation of the Sunderbans. The villagers are not the only ones to be blamed for this. “Small rackets are still operational in the Sunderbans and the Sundari tree is one of their prime targets because of its high demand,” said a member of a local NGO.