World's largest mangrove forest under threat
The Sundarbans, situated in Bangladesh and India, is part of the world's largest delta
THE SUNDARBANS, Bangladesh (CNNSB) -- It's early evening in the Sundarbans mangrove forest. As the moon rises on the tidal plains, a royal Bengal tiger makes its stealthy way through the sundari trees. It creeps up to the fresh water bank to target his prey, a lone spotted deer. As the tiger pounces into the chase, birds scatter. It is only a matter of time before the tiger brings down its prey.
The spotted deer isn't the only thing in danger. The rare tiger and the Sundarbans -- one of the world's largest wetlands ecosystems -- are also at risk.
In addition to the human impact of tiger poaching, illegal fishing and logging, environmental problems, such as global warming and erosion, also are taking a toll on the area.
CNNSB's Sadiq Islam reports on an endangered area of Bangladesh
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Two-thirds of the Sundarbans' 6,000 square kilometers (3,750 miles) lies in the southwestern delta regions of Bangladesh; the remaining third is in India. The next largest mangrove forest is located in Malaysia, but is just one-tenth its size.
Effects of environment
The water level of the Bay of Bengal has been rising over the years, according to Mowgli, a tour guide for The Guide Tours company in Dhaka, who says global warming is the likely cause.
"These higher levels are in turn slowly eroding the mud-based mangroves," he said. Fresh water from the rivers, which normally pours out of the Sundarbans, is now being pushed back by the saline waters of the bay.
Dams and barrages that are being built north of the Sundarbans in India have decreased fresh water levels, which has killed some types of vegetation.
Many fishermen are attracted to the teeming waters of the Sundarbans. Although commercial fishing is prohibited in some protected areas, illegal shrimp farming and fishing does take place, according to Ian Lockwood, a photographer and environmentalist. Many fishing boats inadvertently net unwanted native fresh water dolphins and turtles, which in turn are becoming endangered.
"Nets dredge out other species and the shrimp fry (baby shrimp) is caught and exported to be grown to produce more," Lockwood said. "However, countries like the U.S. have banned importing of shrimp that have been caught in the wild."
Endangered tigers protect forest
Due to the loss of its natural habitat and poaching, the national symbol of Bangladesh, the royal Bengal tiger, is in danger of extinction. It is estimated there are less than 400 royal Bengal tigers roaming the Bangladeshi Sundarbans. Limited numbers of armed government forest guards are in charge of protecting the area against poachers.
"The Sundarbans is very important to the future of the royal Bengal tiger, as it is one of the few areas where the long term genetic viability of the tiger is possible, due to large enough population and habitat size," said Tessa McGregor, biologist and tiger specialist.
"Man-eating tigers have preserved the Sundarbans since people are scared of them. Without this threat, the Sundarbans could have been agricultured by now," Lockwood said.
According to official figures, about 34 people are killed each year by the man-eating tigers, the Environmental News Network reported.
Deforestation on the rise
"Illegal logging is on the increase," Mowgli said. The mangroves are partially in the district of Khulna, which is also the site of a government paper mill. The factory relies on nearby legal timber supplies, but with the Sundarbans so close, illegal loggers have been making forays into the inner regions of the forest, cashing in on millions of dollars worth of stolen wood.
Tourism is the most recent problem for the Sundarbans, according to McGregor. As the beauty of the area is advertised around the world, more and more travelers arrive in large tour boats.
"People traveling in and out of the Sundarbans are the main reason for trash, considering there are no locals living in the area," McGregor said. Increased traffic also increases noise and air pollution, as well as the potential hazard of oil spills.
To help protect the forest, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) labeled the forest a World Heritage Site in 1987 in India and 10 years later in Bangladesh. This status provides for international aid, including money, technical cooperation, training, and assistance with educational and promotional projects.
World Heritage sites are selected based on "outstanding" natural features from an aesthetic or scientific point of view, according to UNESCO's Web site.
Some believe those efforts aren't the only answer.
Sadiq Islam: Born in Norway but now living in his parents' homeland of Bangladesh, Islam just completed his junior year at the American International School in Dhaka. Active in student council, he also received the National Presidential Award for Community Service. He plans to attend college in the United States after graduation.
"I believe that what must happen is for there to be greater awareness for the critical role that the Sundarbans plays in the ecology of Bangladesh," McGregor said. "This would help put pressure on the government to protect this vital asset of Bangladesh."
CNN Student Bureau reporter Chris Brekke contributed to this report.
Bengal tigers face shrinking refuge, food supply
October 16, 2000
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