Khulna, Bangladesh – The Sundarbans, a mangrove forest area which covers an area of approximately 10,000 square kilometres in the delta, formed by a confluence of Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in the Bay of Bengal, faces threats from the effects of climate change and natural disasters such a cyclones, which hit Bangladesh often.
This Unesco Heritage Site spans from the Hooghly river in India’s West Bengal state to the Baleswar river in Bangladesh. It comprises of closed and open mangrove forests, agriculturally used land, mudflats and barren land, and is intersected by multiple tidal streams and channels.
The Sundarbans covers Bangladesh’s Khulna division and extends over 6,000 square kilometres.
The forests provide habitat to 453 faunal wildlife, including 290 bird, 120 fish, 42 mammal, 35 reptile and eight amphibian species.
The beauty of the Sundarbans, flanked on several sides by waterways, can be viewed via cruise ships which ply daily for tourists and locals, usually on a two-night cruise which stretches for some 30 hours.
On Thursday, some 36 members media workers and academics from Asia, Europe and Africa were brought on a two-night cruise along the Sundarbans, complete with several stops to explore the lush mangrove forests and see its unique evolution after being devastated by Cyclone Sidr in 2007.
The cyclone resulted in the once barren sand islands to start to sprout trees and new vegetation, but it also left a trail of destruction of hundreds of year old trees being uprooted. Many boats and quarters were destroyed.
In the protected forest itself, herds of deer quickly gathered to feed on leaves provided by rangers. The deer were wandering around peacefully.
The trek was sparsely covered with foliage and we were kept well away from densely vegetated areas for fear of the mighty Royal Bengal Tiger, whose paw prints were visible.
In 2007, Cyclone Sidr damaged around 40 percent of the Sundarbans. The forest is also suffering from increased salinity due to rising sea levels and reduced freshwater supply.
In 2009, Cyclone Aila devastated the Sundarbans with massive casualties, as well as tremendous damage to the natural ecosystem there.
Despite these natural disasters, climate change effects and rising saltwater encroachment, the seasonally flooded Sundarbans freshwater swamp forests, lying inland from the mangrove forests on the coastal fringe, keeps reinvigorating itself and has the added advantage of having no inhabitants for the most part, except for a number of fishing communities.
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 intertidal mudflats develop micromorphological features that trap and hold sediments to create a substratum for mangrove seeds. The morphology and evolution of the aeolian dunes are controlled by an abundance of xerophytic and halophytic plants.
To get to the Sundarbans, we had to board a domestic flight from Dhaka, hop on a turboprop aircraft for 40 minutes, ride a bus to Khulna for two hours and go to Mongla, the main boarding point for an eight to 10-hour cruise on a fairly comfortable boat which can accommodate up to 24 cabins.
The cruise vessels anchor in the wee hours of the morning and after a scrumptious breakfast, we boarded a trailing motorised boat and headed to shore to have a trek along the mangrove forest which were littered with debris from the cyclone.
Another boat ride took us to tiger point in Kochikhali before we called it a day and headed back to Mongla for the bone wrenching four-hour drive to Jaishore airport. We were tired but thrilled after discovering Bangladesh’s unique selling point of sustainable eco-tourism.