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The Sundarbans is the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world. The Sunderbans is a UNESCO World Heritage Site covering parts of Bangladesh and Indian state of West Bengal. Two-third of the Sundarbans is in Bangladesh while rest one-third is in West Bengal, India. The Sundarbans National Park is a National Park, Tiger Reserve, and a Biosphere Reserve located in the Sundarbans delta in the Indian state of West Bengal. Sundarbans South, East and West are three protected forests in Bangladesh. This region is densely covered by mangrove forests, and is one of the largest reserves for the Bengal tiger.
The Sundarban forest lies in the vast delta on the Bay of Bengal formed by the super confluence of the Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers across southern Bangladesh. The seasonally flooded Sundarbans freshwater swamp forests lie inland from the mangrove forests on the coastal fringe. The forest covers 10,000 km2. of which about 6,000 are in Bangladesh. It became inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997. The Sundarbans is estimated to be about 4,110 km², of which about 1,700 km² is occupied by waterbodies in the forms of river, canals and creeks of width varying from a few meters to several kilometers.
The Sundarbans is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests. The interconnected network of waterways makes almost every corner of the forest accessible by boat. The area is known for the eponymous Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), as well as numerous fauna including species of birds, spotted deer, crocodiles and snakes. The fertile soils of the delta have been subject to intensive human use for centuries, and the ecoregion has been mostly converted to intensive agriculture, with few enclaves of forest remaining. The remaining forests, taken together with the Sundarbans mangroves, are important habitat for the endangered tiger. Additionally, the Sundarbans serves a crucial function as a protective barrier for the millions of inhabitants in and around Khulna and Mongla against the floods that result from the cyclones. The Sundarbans has also been enlisted among the finalists in the New7Wonders of Nature.
The mangrove-dominated Ganges Delta the Sundarbans is a complex ecosystem comprising one of the three largest single tracts of mangrove forests of the world. Situated mostly in Bangladesh, a small portion of it lies in India. The Indian part of the forest is estimated to be about 19%, while the Bangladeshi part is 81%. To the south the forest meets the Bay of Bengal to the east it is bordered by the Baleswar River and to the north there is a sharp interface with intensively cultivated land. The natural drainage in the upstream areas, other than the main river channels, is everywhere impeded by extensive embankments and polders. The Sundarbans was originally measured (about 200 years ago) to be of about 16,700 km². Now it has dwindled into about 1/3 of the original size. The total land area today is 4,143 km² (including exposed sandbars: 42 km²) and the remaining water area of 1,874 km² encompasses rivers, small streams and canals. Rivers in the Sundarbans are meeting places of salt water and freshwater. Thus, it is a region of transition between the freshwater of the rivers originating from the Ganges and the saline water of the Bay of Bengal (Wahid et al., 2002).
The Sundarbans along the Bay of Bengal has evolved over the millennia through natural deposition of upstream sediments accompanied by intertidal segregation. The physiography is dominated by deltaic formations that include innumerable drainage lines associated with surface and subaqueous levees, splays and tidal flats. There are also marginal marshes above mean tide level, tidal sandbars and islands with their networks of tidal channels, subaqueous distal bars and proto-delta clays and silt sediments. The Sundarbans' floor varies from 0.9 m to 2.11 m above sea level.
Biotic factors here play a significant role in physical coastal evolution, and for wildlife a variety of habitats have developed which include beaches, estuaries, permanent and semi-permanent swamps, tidal flats, tidal creeks, coastal dunes, back dunes and levees. The mangrove vegetation itself assists in the formation of new landmass and the intertidal vegetation plays a significant role in swamp morphology. The activities of mangrove fauna in the intertidal mudflats develop micromorphological features that trap and hold sediments to create a substratum for mangrove seeds. The morphology and evolution of the eolian dunes is controlled by an abundance of xerophytic and halophytic plants. Creepers, grasses and sedges stabilize sand dunes and uncompacted sediments. The Sunderbans mudflats (Banerjee, 1998) are found at the estuary and on the deltaic islands where low velocity of river and tidal current occurs. The flats are exposed in low tides and submerged in high tides, thus being changed morphologically even in one tidal cycle. The interior parts of the mudflats are magnificent home of luxuriant mangroves.
Sundarbans freshwater swamp forests
The Sundarbans freshwater swamp forests are a tropical moist broadleaf forest ecoregion of Bangladesh. It represents the brackish swamp forests that lie behind the Sundarbans Mangroves, where the salinity is more pronounced. The freshwater ecoregion is an area where the water is only slightly brackish and becomes quite fresh during the rainy season, when the freshwater plumes from the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers push the intruding salt water out and bring a deposit of silt. It covers an area of 14,600 square kilometers (5,600 sq mi) of the vast Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, extending from the northern part of Khulna District and finishing at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal with scattered portions extending into India's West Bengal state. The Sundarbans freshwater swamp forests lie between the upland Lower Gangetic plains moist deciduous forests and the brackish-water Sundarbans mangroves bordering the Bay of Bengal.
A victim of large-scale clearing and settlement to support one of the densest human populations in Asia, this ecoregion is under a great threat of extinction. Hundreds of years of habitation and exploitation have exacted a heavy toll on this ecoregion's habitat and biodiversity. There are two protected areas Narendrapur (110 km2) and Ata Danga Baor (20 km2) that cover a mere 130 km2 of the ecoregion. Habitat loss in this ecoregion is so extensive, and the remaining habitat is so fragmented, that it is difficult to ascertain the composition of the original vegetation of this ecoregion. According to Champion and Seth (1968), the freshwater swamp forests are characterized by Heritiera minor, Xylocarpus molluccensis, Bruguiera conjugata, Sonneratia apetala, Avicennia officinalis, and Sonneratia caseolaris, with Pandanus tectorius, Hibiscus tiliaceus, and Nipa fruticans along the fringing banks.
The Sundarbans Mangroves ecoregion on the coast forms the seaward fringe of the delta and is the world's largest mangrove ecosystem, with 20,400 square kilometers (7,900 sq mi) of area covered. The dominant mangrove species Heritiera fomes is locally known as sundri or sundari. Mangrove forests are not home to a great variety of plants. They have a thick canopy, and the undergrowth is mostly seedlings of the mangrove trees. Besides the sundari, other species that make up the forest include Avicennia spp., Xylocarpus mekongensis, Xylocarpus granatum, Sonneratia apetala, Bruguiera gymnorrhiza, Cereops decandra, Aegiceras corniculatum, Rhizophora mucronata, and Nypa fruticans palms.
The physical development processes along the coast are influenced by a multitude of factors, comprising wave motions, micro and macro-tidal cycles and long shore currents typical to the coastal tract. The shore currents vary greatly along with the monsoon. These are also affected by cyclonic action. Erosion and accretion through these forces maintains varying levels, as yet not properly measured, of physiographic change whilst the mangrove vegetation itself provides a remarkable stability to the entire system. During each monsoon season almost all the Bengal Delta is submerged, much of it for half a year. The sediment of the lower delta plain is primarily advected inland by monsoonal coastal setup and cyclonic events. One of the greatest challenges people living on the Ganges Delta may face in coming years is the threat of rising sea levels caused mostly by subsidence in the region and partly by climate change.
In many of the Bangladesh's mangrove wetlands, freshwater reaching the mangroves was considerably reduced from the 1970s due to diversion of freshwater in the upstream area by neighboring India through the use of the Farakka Barrage bordering Rajshahi, Bangladesh. Also, the Bengal Basin is slowly tilting towards the east due to neo-tectonic movement, forcing greater freshwater input to the Bangladesh Sundarbans. As a result, the salinity of the Bangladesh Sundarbans is much lower than that of the Indian side. A 1990 study noted that there "is no evidence that environmental degradation in the Himalayas or a 'greenhouse' induced rise in sea level have aggravated floods in Bangladesh"; however, a 2007 report by UNESCO, "Case Studies on Climate Change and World Heritage" has stated that an anthropogenic 45-cm rise in sea level (likely by the end of the 21st century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), combined with other forms of anthropogenic stress on the Sundarbans, could lead to the destruction of 75% of the Sundarbans mangroves. Already, Lohachara Island and New Moore Island/South Talpatti Island have disappeared under the sea, and Ghoramara Island is half submerged.
Twenty-six of the fifty broad mangrove types found in the world grow well in the Sundarbans. The commonly identifiable vegetation that grow in the dense mangrove forests at the Sundarbans are salt water mixed forest, mangrove scrub, brackish water mixed forest, littoral forest, wet forest and wet alluvial grass forests. The Bangladesh mangrove vegetation of the Sundarbans differs greatly from other non-deltaic coastal mangrove forests and upland forests associations. Unlike the former, the Rhizophoraceae are of minor importance.
Ecological succession is generally defined as the successive occupation of a site by different plant communities. In an accreting mudflats the outer community along the sequence represents the pioneer community which is gradually replaced by the next community representing the seral stages and finally by a climax community typical of the climatic zone. Troup suggested that succession began in the newly accreted land created by fresh deposits of eroded soil. The pioneer vegetation on these newly accreted sites is Sonneratia, followed by Avicennia and Nypa. As the ground is elevated as a result of soil deposition, other trees make their appearance. The most prevalent, though one of the late species to appear, is Excoecaria. As the level of land rises through accretion and the land is only occasionally flooded by tides, Heritiera fomes begins to appear.
The Sundarbans provides a unique ecosystem and a rich wildlife habitat. According to the 2011 tiger census, the Sundarbans have about 270 tigers. Although previous rough estimates had suggested much higher figures close to 300, the 2011 census provided the first ever scientific estimate of tigers from the area Tiger attacks are frequent in the Sundarbans. Between 100 and 250 people are killed per year.
There is much more wildlife here than just the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). Most importantly, mangroves are a transition from the marine to freshwater and terrestrial systems, and provide critical habitat for numerous species of small fish, crabs, shrimps and other crustaceans that adapt to feed and shelter, and reproduce among the tangled mass of roots, known as pneumatophores, which grow upward from the anaerobic mud to get the supply of oxygen. Fishing Cats, Macaques, wild boars, Common Grey Mongooses, Foxes, Jungle Cats, Flying Foxes, Pangolins, and spotted deer are also found in abundance in the Sundarbans.
A 1991 study has revealed that the Bangladeshi part of the Sundarbans supports diverse biological resources including at least 150 species of commercially important fishes, 270 species of birds, 42 species of mammals, 35 reptiles and 8 amphibian species. This represents a significant proportion of the species present in Bangladesh (i.e. about 30% of the reptiles, 37% the birds and 34% of the mammals) and includes a large number of species which are now extinct elsewhere in the country. Two amphibians, 14 reptiles, 25 aves and five mammals are presently endangered. The Sundarbans is an important wintering area for migrant water birds and is an area suitable for watching and studying avifauna.
The management of wildlife is presently restricted to, firstly, the protection of fauna from poaching, and, secondly, designation of some areas as wildlife sanctuaries where no extraction of forest produce is allowed and where the wildlife face few disturbances. Although the fauna of Bangladesh have diminished in recent times and the Sundarbans has not been spared from this decline, the mangrove forest retains several good wildlife habitats and their associated fauna. Of these, the tiger and dolphin are target species for planning wildlife management and tourism development. There are high profile and vulnerable mammals living in two contrasting environments, and their statuses and management are strong indicators of the general condition and management of wildlife. Some of the species are protected by legislation, notably by the Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) Order, 1973 (P.O. 23 of 1973).
The Sunderbans is celebrated through numerous Bengali folk songs and dances, often centered around the folk heroes, gods and goddesses specific to the Sunderbans (like Bonbibi and Dakshin Rai) and to the Lower Gangetic Delta (like Manasa and Chand Sadagar). The Bengali folk epic Manasamangal mentions Netidhopani and has some passages set in the Sunderbans during the heroine Behula's quest to bring her husband Lakhindar back to life.
The area provides the setting for several novels by Emilio Salgari, (e.g. The Mystery of the Black Jungle). Sundarbaney Arjan Sardar, a novel by Shibshankar Mitra, and Padma Nadir Majhi, a novel by Manik Bandopadhyay, are based on the rigors of lives of villagers and fishermen living in the Sunderbans region, and are woven into the Bengali psyche to a great extent. Padma Nadir Majhi was also made into a movie by Goutam Ghose. Part of the plot of Salman Rushdie's Booker Prize winning novel, Midnight's Children is set in the Sundarbans. This forest is adopted as the setting of Kunal Basu's short story "The Japanese Wife" and the subsequent film adaptation. Most of the plot of prize-winning anthropologist Amitav Ghosh's 2004 novel, The Hungry Tide, is set in the Sundarbans. The book mentions two accounts of the Banbibi story of "Dukhey's Redemption."
The Sunderbans has been the subject of a detailed and well-researched scholarly work on Bonbibi (a 'forest goddess' venerated by both Muslims and Hindus), on the relation between the islanders and tigers and on conservation and how it is perceived by the inhabitants of the Sundarbans by Annu Jalais called "Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans" (Routledge, 2010) and numerous non-fiction books, including The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans by Sy Montegomery for a young audience, which was shortlisted for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award. In Up The Country, Emily Eden discusses her travels through the Sunderbans. Numerous documentary movies have been made about the Sunderbans, including the 2003 IMAX production Shining Bright about the Bengal Tiger. The acclaimed BBC TV series Ganges documents the lives of villagers, especially honey collectors, in the Sundarbans.
The Sundarbans area is one of the most densely populated in the world, and the population is increasing. As a result, half of this ecoregion's mangrove forests have been cut down to supply fuelwood and other natural resources. Despite the intense and large-scale exploitation, this still is one of the largest contiguous areas of mangroves in the world. Another threat comes from deforestation and water diversion from the rivers inland, which causes far more silt to be brought to the estuary, clogging up the waterways.
A new Khulna Forest Circle was created in Bangladesh back in 1993 to preserve the forest, and Chief Conservators of Forests have been posted since. The direct administrative head of the Division is the Divisional Forest Officer, based at Khulna, who has a number of professional, subprofessional and support staff and logistic supports for the implementation of necessary management and administrative activities. The basic unit of management is the compartment. There are 55 compartments in four Forest Ranges and these are clearly demarcated mainly by natural features such as rivers, canals and creeks.
The Bangladesh part of the forest lies under two forest divisions, and four administrative ranges viz Chandpai (Khulna District), Sarankhola (Khulna), and Burigoalini (Satkhira District) and has sixteen forest stations. It is further divided into fifty-five compartments and nine blocks. There are three wildlife sanctuaries established in 1977 under the Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) Order, 1973 (P.O. 23 of 1973).The West Bengal part of the forest lies under the district of South & North 24 Parganas.
Protected areas cover 15% of the Sundarbans mangroves including Sundarbans National Park and Sajnakhali Wildlife Sanctuary, in West Bengal, Sundarbans East, Sundarbans South and Sundarbans West Wildlife Sanctuaries in Bangladesh.
The Sundarbans plays an important role in the economy of the southwestern region of Bangladesh as well as in the national economy. It is the single largest source of forest produce in the country. The forest provides raw materials for wood based industries. In addition to traditional forest produce like timber, fuelwood, pulpwood etc., large scale harvest of non wood forest products such as thatching materials, honey, bees-wax, fish, crustacean and mollusk resources of the forest takes place regularly. The vegetated tidal lands of the Sundarbans also function as an essential habitat, produces nutrients and purifies water. The forest also traps nutrient and sediment, acts as a storm barrier, shore stabilizer and energy storage unit. Last but not the least, the Sunderbans provides a wonderful aesthetic attraction for local and foreign tourists.
The forest also has immense protective and productive functions. Constituting 51% of the total reserved forest estate of Bangladesh, it contributes about 41% of total forest revenue and accounts for about 45% of all timber and fuel wood output of the country (FAO 1995). A number of industries (e.g. newsprint mill, match factory, hardboard, boat building, furniture making) are based on the raw materials obtained from the Sundarbans ecosystem. Various non-timber forest products and plantations help generate considerable employment and income generation opportunities for at least half a million poor coastal population. It also provides natural protection to life and properties of the coastal population in the cyclone prone Bangladesh.
The Sundarbans has a population of over 4 million but much of it is mostly free of permanent human habitation. Despite human habitations and a century of economic exploitation of the forest well into the late forty's, the Sundarbans retained a forest closure of about 70% according to the Overseas Development Administration (ODA) of the United Kingdom in 1979.
Forest inventories reveal a decline in standing volume of the two main commercial mangrove species sundari (Heritiera spp.) and gewa (Excoecaria agallocha) by 40% and 45% respectively between 1959 and 1983 (Forestal 1960 and ODA 1985). Despite a total ban on all killing or capture of wildlife other than fish and some invertebrates, it appears that there is a consistent pattern of depleted biodiversity or loss of species (notably at least six mammals and one important reptile) in this century, and that the "ecological quality of the original mangrove forest is declining" (IUCN 1994).
The endangered species that live within the Sundarbans and extinct species that used to be include the Royal Bengal Tigers, Estuarine Crocodile, Northern river terrapins (Batagur baska), Olive Ridley Turtles, Gangetic dolphin, Ground Turtles, Hawks Bill Turtles and King Crabs (Horse shoe). Some species such as hog deer (Axis porcinus), water buffalos (Bubalus bubalis), Barasingha or swamp deer (Cervus duvauceli), Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus), single horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) and the mugger crocodiles or marsh crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) started to become extinct in the Sundarbans towards the middle of the 20th century, due to extensive poaching and man hunting by the British. There are several other threatened mammal species, such as the capped langurs (Semnopithecus pileatus), smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata), Oriental small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea), and great Bengal Civets (Viverra zibetha).
The Sundarbans National Park houses an excellent number of reptiles as well. Some of the common ones are Olive Ridley turtles, sea snakes, Dog Faced Water Snakes, Green Turtles, Estuarine Crocodiles, Chameleons, King Cobras, Salvator Lizards, Hard Shelled Batgun Terrapins, Russels Vipers, Mouse Ghekos, Monitor Lizards, Curviers, Hawks Bill Turtles, Pythons, Common Kraits, Green Vine Snake, Chequered Killbacks and rat Snakes. The river terrapin (Batagur baska), Indian flap-shelled turtles (Lissemys punctata), peacock soft-shelled turtles (Trionyx hurum), yellow monitors (Varanus flavescens), water monitors (Varanus salvator), and Indian pythons (Python molurus) are some of the resident species.
Some of the fish and amphibians found in the Sunderbans are sawfish, butter Fish, electric ray, common carp, silver carp, barb, river Eels, starfish, king crab, fiddler crab, hermit crab, prawn, shrimps, Gangetic dolphins, skipping frogs, common toads and tree Frogs. One particularly interesting fish is the mudskipper, a gobioid that climbs out of the water into mudflats and even climbs trees.
The forest is also rich in bird life, with 170 species including the endemic Brown-winged Kingfishers (Pelargopsis amauroptera) and the globally threatened Lesser Adjutants (Leptoptilos javanicus) and Masked Finfoots (Heliopais personata) and birds of prey such as the ospreys (Pandion haliaetus), White-bellied Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster) and Grey-headed Fish-eagles (Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus). The Sundarbans was designated a Ramsar site on May 21, 1992. Some of the more popular birds found in this region are Open Billed Storks, Black-headed Ibis, Water Hens, Coots, Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Pariah Kites, Brahminy Kites, Marsh Harriers, Swamp Partridges, Red Junglefowls, Spotted Doves, Common Mynahs, Jungle Crows, Jungle Babblers, Cotton Teals, Herring Gulls, Caspian Terns, Gray Herons, Brahminy Ducks, Spot-billed Pelicans, great Egrets, Night Herons, Common Snipes, Wood Sandpipers, Green Pigeons, Rose Ringed Parakeets, Paradise Flycatchers, Cormorants, Fishing Eagles, White-bellied Sea Eagles, Seagulls, Common Kingfishers, Peregrine falcons, Woodpeckers, Whimbrels, Black-tailed Godwits, Little Stints, Eastern Knots, Curlews, Golden Plovers, Pintails, White Eyed Pochards and Lesser Whistling Ducks.