State: West Bengal
What is your personal relation to the natural coastal or marine site you represent?
My field assistant, Ranjitda, is native to Sunderbans. He is 64 years old. Poverty and illiteracy had forced him to work as a fisherman for the past 40 years. Three of his very close relatives have been devoured by the tiger. The 2009 cyclone, Aila, destroyed acres of paddy field and houses, including those of Ranjitda, where even today the saline soil is a major impediment to rice cultivation. Yet, such hardships have not effaced the smile from his face. He feels no rancour towards the tiger for what happened to his family; instead he insists that it was after all they who had trespassed in the tiger country. He feels that it is only due to the ferocity of the tiger, the mangrove forest still survives, and without these natural barriers, the cyclone would have claimed his family’s lives as well. The respect and love he feels towards the tiger and the forest is extremely poignant. Ranjitda is the face of Sunderbans; he represents what most people in these areas endure. It is an honour that my research will perhaps lead to awareness and conservation of these critical and fragile mangrove ecosystems, on which thousands of Ranjitdas’ livelihoods depend.
What are the specific problems and threats of your natural coastal or marine site?
Ban on forest resource use and the fear of tiger have protected the Sunderbans mangroves until now. However, the biggest threat to its continued persistence is climate change. Sea levels are predicted to rise and reduce the tiger habitat by 96% over the next 50-90 years, with increased incidence of damaging cyclones. Additionally, increased salinity due to the eastward tilt of the Bengal Basin is a major threat to the mangrove species. Upstream dumping of sewerage and factory effluents along with uncontrolled tourism have led to water and soil pollution. Improper garbage disposal induce people to either dump the trash in the rivers or burn them. Constant erosion of the mud embankments by the side of human habitation has led to a perpetual fear of flooding and loss of lives and properties. Local livelihoods are in a state of crisis. On one hand, extreme poverty and poor returns from cultivation force people to take up fishing in spite of the inherent risks from tigers, crocodiles and turbulent waters. These fishing practices are often unsustainable and disturb the fragile ecosystem. On the other hand, illiteracy, unemployment force the youth to go outside the state for employment opportunities.
Why do you think is it important to safeguard your natural coastal or marine site?
Sunderbans is the world’s largest contiguous mangrove and the only one harbouring tigers, which are considered as natural man-eaters. It is a mystery how the tiger survive and breed quite successfully in this difficult terrain, characterized by slippery mud banks, submergence of almost 60% of islands during spring high tides, low variety of prey, and sharp pneumatophores in the forest floor impeding movements. Sunderbansharbours a variety of other wildlife, many endangered, like tje fishing cat, spotted deer, Irrawaddy dolphin, estuarine crocodile, river terrapin, fishes and invertebrates. Many enigmatic species have already gone extinct from this landscape. These mangroves act as windbreaks to devastating cyclones, and protect the coast from soil erosion. They are natural water purifiers and provide breeding and nursery grounds to aquatic animals. The constant threats from tigers and natural calamities have led to the formation of a distinctive culture. The forest goddess, BonBibi is venerated by both Hindus and Muslims alike. Sunderbans form an integral part of their folklores and tradition, also providing alternate sources of livelihood such as fishing, honey collection and ecodevelopment. In lieu of its unique biodiversity and cultural values, Sunderbans is a World Heritage Site, and is extremely important to be safeguarded.