Sundarbans Conservation, a global project

Essay from the interviews conducted with local villagers, tiger reserve guides, officers from Indian Forest Services, local environmentalist entrepreneurs, and wildlife documentarians.

A brighter future for Manaranjan’s family

In the backdrop of a massive education scam that rocked West Bengal, one of the most populated states in India, a native villager of Dayapur in the Sundarbans region, Manaranjan Mandal, coughs before he speaks about a future for his children. He believes that it is only education which can bring light into their lives. 

The teacher recruitment corruption exposed that schooling in West Bengal is being offered by underqualified people, who allegedly secured their jobs by mostly bribing the state education machinery. A state minister and several ministry aides are found to be persons of interest in this scam. Federal Economic Offences and vigilance agencies of India seized large amounts of assets, fund accounts, and properties, allegedly acquired through corrupted means. When the news about the scandal became viral, regional political tensions were at a peak. They were infused due to polarising political ideologies of opposing groups, the one governing the state of West Bengal and the one at the helm of India’s federal government.

”The future appears dark but with education to my children, it can be bright. It is sad that, in schools, underqualified teachers teach”

Manaranjan Mandal on the teacher recruitment scam in west bengal

Manaranjan used to work as a safari guide in the Sundarbans. This is one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. These forests are known for their wide range of fauna and provide habitat to diverse wildlife, such as the Bengal tiger and other threatened species. But these forests are also endangered by human activity, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. The region has also become increasingly prone to floods and cyclones.

Manaranjan Mandal at his home in village Dayapur,

Manaranjan shared his experience when a cyclone with wind speeds of 250 km per hour washed away his house. He said that only a single room was left. After his house was damaged, his family received merely twenty-three thousand rupees, roughly 250 Euros, as disaster relief compensation from the government authorities. The cyclonic storm had flooded his village in about 35 minutes.

Manaranjan told CouncilPost that the locals were taught in classrooms, how to make barriers of mangrove trees to protect their houses from cyclones. Nowadays, locals receive alerts from the weather department and villagers get alarmed to be able to find safe shelter. While early warning systems have been introduced, public authorities have not been able to provide sufficient support for rebuilding.

Manaranjan told CouncilPost that villagers are aware that water levels have been rising, but they could not grasp the extent, in absence of tools and resources. Mangroves are now growing near the state’s capital Kolkata as water levels rise and seawater moves into urban areas. Locals in Sundarbans predict that this will eventually damage the ecological balance. Freshwater sources near cities are getting saline, with an immense impact on humans and the ecology.

Due to the tidal water level rising, soil erosion results in mud areas in the mangrove forests. These areas used to be dry regions that would get flooded only during tidal waves.

There are at least eighty-four vibrant species of mangrove plantations. In the regions closer to human settlements, these plantations are now under threat. The cattle-rearing human habitats have adopted non-local species of cattle like goats, which graze almost everything, including mangrove seeds that fall as part of a natural pollination cycle.

Manaranjan hopes that intervention projects like desalination projects and policy interventions could mitigate these challenges. 

As a human, in our natural tendency to consume the whole planet… we exhausted our planet.

Manaranjan Mandal, local farmer and Former Tiger Reserve Guide

There are at least forty-two forest guides in this Sajnekhali zone of Sundarbans and a little more than a hundred in the Sundarbans region. These are mostly local inhabitants like Manaranjan. They have developed knowledge of the marshy terrains and the tidal water movements. They have been observing the changes in the national park over the past decade. This local community of forest guides assists tourists with a responsible wildlife safari. They also educate the tourists about the conservation mandate of the IFS for the serene mangroves’ rich forests. 

An international survey by Muellners Foundation

This article is part of an ongoing open research project by Muellners Foundation. 

Copenhagen/Kolkata: September 2022: Two members of the Muellners Foundation visited India’s border regions in Sundarbans national park to observe tiger reserves and the human-forest conflict. 

They spoke with the officials of the Indian Forest Department. They interacted with the local community of villagers. On the tour across the protected tiger reserve, the members were escorted by environmentalist Rajesh Shaw‘s team. Rajesh has founded an ecological tourism village model - Tour de Sundarbans, on one of the islands in the Sundarbans forests. 

From Kolkata, it is a three-hour drive to the national park. The stretch runs next to a water drainage system. The canal starts at Kolkata landfill and runs into the same delta in which Sundarbans lies, on the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers delta.
Sunny Shaw, works at Eco Village, Tour De Sundarbans.

Sunny Shaw spent his childhood in Kolkata. He shared that the Kolkata landfill had turned into a huge trash mountain since his childhood. A drainage line runs across the stretch for several kilometres on the way to reach Gosaba, the entry point into the Sundarbans. Sunny pointed out that the local rag pickers live next to the drainage in slum dwellings. They pick up plastic trash to sell in leather tanning factories in nearby Canning.

Outskirts of the city of Kolkata, India

At the end of this drive, Foundation members reached a makeshift embankment from where they took a fifteen-minute ferry to Gosaba. Local villagers use these public ferries to cross across the several islands in the Sundarbans region.

From Gosaba, they took a ride in a three-wheeler vehicle to another makeshift embankment, Here, the team of the Eco Village were waiting with a small country boat. 

The local fisherman who rowed this wooden boat carefully navigated the waters of Sundarbans under the moonlight, through the mangroves, across nearby human settlements. The boat would sometimes get stuck in the protruding roots and low-hanging branches of the mangroves in the low tidal waters.

Finally, the crew reached the Eco Village.

A jungle safari looking for tigers

The next day, the boat tour through the Tiger Reserve was led by wildlife photographer Ajay alongside a crew and Krishna Pada Baidya, Sundarbans Tiger Reserve Guide.

This team also brought a woman onboard from a nearby village, who assisted the group by cooking food on the tour. There were six human souls on the boat.

The seats on the boat are made up of used seats from automobiles, a visible feature of the tourism endorsed by Rajesh’s eco-village concept in Sundarbans.

Paw marks of tigers in a low tidal setting 

An hour into the tour, a sighting took place where three tigers were spotted by several wildlife safari crews. As the boat sailed through the narrow stretch of a low tidal wave, they noticed monstrous pug marks. These were at least three tigers, Tour lead Ajay confirmed. 

The Bengal tiger is a solitary animal, and very territorial. It moves through different zones in Sundarbans for mating. Ajay told CouncilPost that the avg. lifespan of apex predators in the Sundarbans region is about fourteen years. Freshwater sources have become scarce. As a result, tigers must resort to drinking salt water, which potentially affects the quality and length of their natural lives.

Indian Forest Services (IFS) has therefore constructed fresh water sources for wildlife and nurseries to protect endangered species of flora and fauna in the Sajnekhali range, in linkage with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

Mangrove forest in the protected Sundarbans delta

Krishna Pada Baidya, hailing from Dayapur and a Tiger Reserve Guide, and Jones Justin, the ISF Deputy Director of the region, both confirmed to CouncilPost that at least 96 tigers have been sighted using camera traps. Based on images from the solar panel-enabled camera detection systems, IFS is using computer imaging technology to identify the unique stripes of each tiger to avoid deduplication in tracking data

Efforts and Challenges of India’s Forest Agency in Conserving Sundarbans

Amidst the challenges faced by the native population, it appeared that the human-wildlife conflict has taken a dramatic shape in the local ecological context. To understand more, Foundation reached out to India's Forest agency.

Muellners Foundation had earlier reached out to a Ranger in one of the local zones. Rangers mostly spend their time in the most remote parts of the jungles. It was our collective impression that Rangers get transferred or rotated in IFS regularly.The last ranger Biswajiv Raj was in the Sajnekhali range for only four months. 

Sundarbans Forest Department‘s Chief Conservator Tapas Das was kind enough to send a young and energetic bureaucrat for the interview with the Foundation. 
Jones Justin is the Deputy Director, Sundarbans Zone, IFS in the year 2022.

IFS has a headquarter in Kolkata and an office closer to the national park in the small town of Canning. IFS infrastructure not only supports the Indian territory, which accounts for 40 per cent of the Sundarbans but also the wildlife that moves through the India-Bangladesh border.

Jones told CouncilPost that the coordination remains a massive challenge between the Forest Department and other development agencies, which are active in the region. He also asserted that the public policy on climate change intervention should go with a data-based approach. 

Jones told CouncilPost that currently, IFS does not have enough data on the effects of climate change on the region. So, several quantifying measures about the data from the local ecology are missing. He told CouncilPost that the Indian side in the Sundarbans delta has noted less freshwater inflow since 1990. Tidal waves are also increasingly higher than previously. 

The IFS has now moved to exercise efforts on measuring carbon sequestration and is experimenting in partnership with the industry on these efforts. Indian Forest Services is currently incubating two such pilots with major Indian cos.

Jones also informed CouncilPost that another visible effect of climate change included a rain deficit in the region. The Deputy Director told CouncilPost that in their department’s focused mandate on biodiversity protection, the agency has challenges in achieving comprehensive coordination with other development stakeholders, which are active in the region. IFS has started projects based on community-based engagement models but they have not been able to scale them due to these challenges. 

While there are challenges related to coordination amongst Indian agencies, Bangladesh-based fisherman activity in the Sundarbans region and immigration conflicts also pose challenges for India’s Forest Agency. Therefore, certain agreements for wildlife management have been placed between Bangladesh and India, and informal coordination drives some of their work forward.

Jones has always felt more connected to nature since childhood. He grew up in Tamil Nadu and never missed a chance to visit woods during family weekends. Hailing from a business family, a naturalist and conservationist, Jones studied to be an engineer. He then joined the IFS four years ago. He stressed that the digital infrastructure can support the local tribal population and can be an enabler

The local villages got connected to the power grid in 2019.

During the survey, Foundation members observed that the local community is consciously aware of climate change - they feel its impact in their everyday lives. They are facing rehabilitation challenges due to cyclones. Members observed telecom and power grid infrastructure set up in Gosaba island, and the island where Eco village lies. Members observed that a high school was set up in 2011 in Gosaba. 
In another location in Dayapur, members observed a primary school. Many classrooms were bustling with children, but there were very few teachers. Most of them were seen assembled in faculty rooms. 

Fishing in the Sundarbans?

For many locals in the mangrove forests, fishing is an essential activity to create a livelihood. While small local fisheries have been active in the region for decades using only minimally invasive fishing interventions, their impact on the forests is still considerable. Therefore, there are restricted areas in the Sundarbans where fishing is not permitted to protect the habitat and its biodiversity. To diversify their livelihoods, many villagers who have small portions of fields are also cultivating rice.

In the Sundarbans delta, there were reports of fishermen routinely heading into the protected reserves, with small country boats. They generally stay in these boats for days and nights, while fishing with their nets. In the protected reserves, fishing is illegal. If a local fisherman gets killed in a tiger accident, the family gets post-mortem compensation from the public authorities. But this is the case, only when the deceased fisherman carried a license.

Local villagers also head into the tiger reserves for collecting honey and other forest-based food. At least forty local tribal villagers get killed each year due to the human-tiger conflict.

In the protected tiger reserves, Foundation members witnessed a live seizure of a fishing country boat by an IFS patrolling boat. Tour lead Ajay told CouncilPost that they were possibly fishing in the protected regions. Ajay deduced that the Rangers were dragging the fishing boat, tied with theirs, for further processing at the Range’s station. 

Away from air-conditioned vanity to sustainable tourism

Rajesh Shaw, the founder of the Tour De Sundarbans, an eco-friendly sustainable tourism initiative, explained their eco-village concept.

Rajesh Shaw informed CouncilPost that the embankment on the periphery of their eco-village has recently fallen apart into the waters as a consequence of soil erosion. His team then brought an earth-moving machine to create a temporary structure. 

”Desalination projects are very important to the Sundarbans region where the human population lives.”

Rajesh Shaw, Tour De Sundarbans

Rajesh told CouncilPost that competition exists with other tourism companies in the region. Many luxury resorts have come up now. They offer facilities like air conditioning and vanity kits, in the middle of the villages. There are no air conditioning units in Rajesh’s eco-village. In the absence of resources, ecovillage has not yet been able to quantify the carbon footprint of its establishment.

Rajesh‘s team also wants to help support and organize the Self Help Groups for local women but faces challenges. Upskilling women in the villages remains a major challenge amidst a domestic gender-discriminatory environment. The rural environment, Rajesh exclaimed, ”treats women as inferior in intelligence and stereotypically backwards in the local community”. Rajesh is committed to changing this environment. With Tour De Sundarbans, Rajesh is able to support women by offering them seasonal work to help Tour De Sundarbans build eco-village huts.

About Sundarbans Conservation:

Deforestation started being noticed in 1903, 54 islands have been noticed to be deforested, and 48 mangrove islands have been grazed.

There are a total of 152 islands in this roughly 4264 sq km region where conservation activities are governed by the declared Wildlife Sanctuary Act, 1976, the National Conservation Part, 1984, and the Wild Heritage Site, 1987.

The 1330 sq km national park core zone is restricted, protected, and not permitted for human activity.

A 1255 sq km buffer zone has been set up for forest-based activity. There are at least 80 documented species of Mangrove trees in these marshy lands. 

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