June 7, 2009

Environmentalists worry about wildlife in Sunderbans

KOLKATA, 5th JUNE: Environmentalists are worried of the devastation caused by Cyclone Aila to wildlife, particularly tigers, in the Sunderbans, which stretches over a vast area in South and North 24 Parganas districts.

Forest officials, though, have not confirmed how many animals persished due to it."Some animals might have lost their lives in the cyclone. But we don't know how many were killed," West Bengal Forest minister Ananta Roy said. "We have ordered a survey to be completed by June 15 to determine the number of animals which may have been killed," he said.

Top forest department officials, however, claimed that the storm did not cause much damage to the forest."Wildlife, including tigers, were not much affected as the mangrove withstood the ferocity of the cyclone, though carcasses of two deers were recovered," Field Director of Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (STR), Subrata Mukherjee told PTI.

He said that forest department teams which visited the forest after the cyclone did not come across much damage. Director of Sunderbans Biosphere reserve N C Bahuguna confirmed the death of five deers, but said other wildlife was safe.

Asked whether there was a possibility of some wildlife being washed away following inundation after the cyclone, Mr. Bahuguna said, "The forest is intact. Every year most areas in Sunderbans experience inundation and wild animals are accustomed to such conditions." A tiger, he said, had strayed at Jamespur immediately after the storm, but forest department personnel had sent it back to the forest. Mr. Bahuguna said the wild animals must have taken shelter on higher reaches in the forest during the storm.

NGOs and environmentalists working in the Sunderbans, however, apprehended otherwise. Raja Chatterjee, secretary of The Junglees questioned how forest officials could claim that wildlife was not hit by the cyclone. "Tigers in the Sunderbans are expert in climbing trees and might have taken refuge there or might have reached higher areas. Fishing cats and jungle cats can even survive on trees.

But what about deer and wild boars? In all likelihood they were affected," Mr. Chatterjee said.He said it was not possible to assess the damage in the Sunderbans which covered a huge area in such a short time and suggested a helicopter survey for a proper picture.

Ajanta Dey, project coordinator, Nature, Environment and Wildlife Society who visited Sunderbans after the cyclone, said that she found carcasses of livestock, but not of wild animals."But it is difficult to assess from outside whether wildlife was hit by the storm or not," she said.
Mangrove tigers

Cyclone Aila’s trail of destruction in India and Bangladesh has brought world attention to the plight of tens of thousands of people who spend their entire lives in the path of tropical storms. There is concern also for the Sundarbans, a vast landscape that weathers the same cyclones. As one of the world’s largest mangrove ecosystems, this region is unique in hosting endangered tigers.
Concern for these magnificent animals mounted when Aila struck, but scientists have been pointing out that they have probably fared better than people. After all, tigers enjoy the natural advantage of being excellent swimmers. It would take a detailed survey to assess if there have been serious losses but the only unusual post-cyclone event recorded so far has been that of a tiger rescued from a human dwelling.
The Sundarbans mangroves form part of global natural heritage. The composite 10,000 sq km spread of islands and tidal waterways are particularly rich in biodiversity, ranging from scores of birds to monitor lizards, river dolphins, spotted deer, macaques, and tigers. In a status report presented in 2008, India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority did not venture an estimate of the tiger population in the Sundarbans because of ongoing sampling work, but reported the presence of tigers in 1,586 sq km of the landscape. Bangladesh has declared about 1,000 sq km of the contiguous area on its side as wildlife sanctuaries. Reliable population sampling for the Sundarbans tigers is crucial as good baseline data are required for conservation effort.

Preserved ecosystems provide important benefits to communities. In the case of the Sundarbans, that is evident from the significant amount of honey and wax collected by villagers each year. The mangroves are also a rich breeding ground for fish and other sea food. What is clear is that the continued sustenance of the small communities in the more hospitable parts of the Sundarbans will depend on how quickly the major threats are mitigated.
The key factors that could damage this ecosystem are sea level changes and intensifying weather events linked to climate change, commercial-scale exploitation of forest produce, and physical elimination of mangroves in the name of land acquisition. If what some research scientists believe is true, loss of the mangroves would also mean removal of protection for inland human habitations from cyclones. The available evidence underscores the need for India and Bangladesh to create a strong bilateral framework to preserve the Sundarbans — a listed UNESCO world heritage site and a lifeline for coastal communities.

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