The Sundarban Biosphere Reserve is located in the districts of North and South 24 Parganas of West Bengal and consists of three zones—core (1692 sq km), buffer (2233 sq km) and transition (5705 sq km). The core zone is represented by the Sundarban National Park and the buffer includes three wildlife sanctuaries at Sajnekhali (362 sq km), Lothian (38 sq km) and Haliday (6 sq km).
The Sundarban is the world’s largest inter-tidal area spread over 26000 sq km formed at the union of the two mighty Himalayan river systems, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra which flow into the Bay of Bengal along India and Bangladesh. The boundaries of the Indian Sundarban extend from the river Hoogly to the river Raimangal.
Comparatively recent in origin, the Sundarban is not more than 7000 years old and rose by the gradual deposition of silt carried down by the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. Tidal creeks and offshore linear tidal shoals, aligned perpendicular to the shore line and separated by swales, characterise the 2585 sq km Sundarban Tiger Reserve, which came into being in 1973 under the ‘Project Tiger’.
In 1987, the Sundarban National Park (SNP) was declared a World Heritage Site by the World Heritage Centre (WHC), UNESCO and in 2001 the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve was included in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. Eighteen civil blocks in the districts of South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas form the transition zone of the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve.
Global and national significance
The Sundarban constitutes 63 per cent of India’s total mangrove cover and all of eastern Indian fisheries remain dependent on it. The flora is made up of a diverse group of salt-tolerant, mainly arboreal, flowering plants that grow primarily in tropical and subtropical regions (Ellison and Stoddart, 1991). It is the world’s only mangrove tiger land and has the world’s largest mangal diversity with 84 mangrove and associate species. Sundari, gewa or gengwa (Excoecariaagallocha), nipa palms (Nypafruticans) and other halophytic (salt-tolerant) species are the dominant flora in the mangrove swamps (Mitra, 2000).
The first attempt at estimating the total mangrove area in the world was undertaken as part of the FAO/UNEP Tropical Forest Resources Assessment in 1980, where the world total was estimated as 15.6 million ha (FAO, 1981). More recent estimates range from 12 to 20 million ha (Aizpuru et al., 2000). Mangrove swamps are important in retarding coastal erosion, consolidating silt and protecting the shoreline (Saenger, 2011). The swamps act as a system in which trees in every zone have a different role to play. Damage to the system can result in irreversible coastal erosion. Thus, while protecting Kolkata and its suburbs from the rage of annual cyclones from the Bay of Bengal, the Sundarban and its mangroves, at the same time, act as a sink for the enormous quantities of untreated effluents per day.
The People: The human population in the Sundarban is generally concentrated in the reclaimed areas, which were part of the mangrove forests until as recently as 1833. The total human population of the area is over 4 million (Census, 2011). Since the estuaries and meandering rivers abound in saline water, most lands here are unsuitable for agriculture. Fresh water for drinking purposes is available only at depths of 300-400 m, which makes its availability and exploitation a costly affair. Understandably, widespread poverty is prevalent.
Worse, storms and cyclones are a regular affair in these parts, especially during the pre-monsoon period. On an average, the Sundarban experiences a cyclone of varying intensity once every four years. Each such cyclone results in widespread destruction and death. For instance, when Cyclone Aila struck the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve in May 2009, there was extensive damage to agricultural lands and rainwater harvesting structures. Tidal surges saw saline water enter villages and destroy ponds and other fresh water sources.
Transport infrastructure is lacking in these parts with islands facing the Bay of Bengal being the worst sufferers. Country boats and launches are the only means of travel with connectivity to the mainland remaining highly tenuous. Inaccessibility acts as a serious constraint for any development in the region.
Lack of irrigation and poor quality of land makes the Sundarban a single-crop region. People supplement their incomes through fishing and collection of firewood, honey and bee-wax from the forest. Forays into the core areas, despite official diktats, result in confrontations with tigers, often resulting in severe injury and death.
The uniqueness of the habitat in the Sundarban Biosphere has contributed to certain behavioural traits, characteristic to the Sundarban tiger, such as an amphibious lifestyle, non-tolerance of human presence in its domain and more.
The Conflict: The Sundarban is uniquely different from other forests anywhere in the world on account of its highly inaccessible terrain and islands criss-crossed by creeks that remain inundated by saline water and tides turning twice every day. Often, the Royal Bengal Tiger (Pantheratigris) strays into the fringe villages around the forest, where it is killed by irate villagers. Even otherwise, the fishing community always remains at risk while fishing in the creeks and rivers around the forest.
Hard pressed and miserably poor, the fringe population has never appreciated being barred by the forest staff from fishing and collecting forest products from the entire Sundarban Biosphere Reserve. In the past, this almost created a prey-predator relationship between people and the forest department as and when a tiger strayed into the villages and had to be rescued by the Forest Department.
Flash Point and turning around: Sundarban tigers are known worldwide for their aggression, intolerance of humans and tendency to attack fishermen, honey collectors and wood cutters who venture into their reserves. There are several reasons for this. Having adapted itself to the saline marshes and pneumatophore-laden terrain, the Sundarban tiger is an excellent swimmer with reasonably poor hunting skills. This has it surviving on a diet of crabs and fish and attacking people who venture inside the Reserve. Even otherwise, its predisposition to attacking humans is an age-old trait which finds reference in several old district gazettes. Records prove that the tiger was treated as a pest and a major hurdle in grabbing forest land for agriculture and tree felling. Hence, until as recently as 1960, people were rewarded for killing tigers. Interestingly most attacks occur within the Park. Tiger attacks rarely occur outside the Reserve; the few that do are accidental in nature. This is ample testimony to the intelligence of the tiger.
Using ‘human masks’ and electrified dummies as suggested coping strategy may have confused the tiger for some time, but the measure was obviously not effective enough for locals to opt willingly for the same. However, honey collectors continue to be persuaded to use them for their safety (Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, 2016). The adoption of a policy of holistic management, which included massive efforts directed at strengthening protection as also a large scale eco-development programme involving local communities seemed to yield the best results in mitigating human-tiger conflicts.
The management input, supported by fund flows from the State and Project Tiger was under two broad categories:
- Eco-development activities to foster self reliance and to reduce the pressure on natural resources in the buffer and core zones within the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, besides involving locals in forest management; and,
- Bringing in scientific inputs in forest management, especially as regards delta dynamics in the Sundarban and developing a mechanism to reduce the straying of tigers into villages, besides enhancing the capability of forest personnel to deal with emergencies.
People’s Participation in Sundarban Biosphere Reserve Management
Although guidelines for the involvement of local communities for forest management had been issued as far back as 1991 and 1996 (later revised in 2008), this never really took off until 2001. It was on July 29, 2001 and October 2, 2001 when Pakhiraya and Kishorimohanpur—two respective hamlets in the transition zone of the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve saw irate villagers put tigers that had strayed from the adjoining mangrove forests, to death reflecting the animosity that the local communities had against the tigers; they were also in bitter fight with the Forest Department over the issue. Since 2001, however, a total of 14 eco-development committees and 54 forest protection committees have been registered involving a large section of the fringe population. These committees entitle members to usufructuary benefits, besides defining duties to be performed for the conservation of the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve. As of now, the eco-development committees have already started receiving 25 per cent share of eco-tourism revenue. The committees are currently involved in protection of the core and buffer zones of the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve through manning of floating check posts, checking of nylon net fences and keeping track of tiger straying. A democratically elected executive committee of locals has enabled the building of a platform for discussions with the forest staff and brought in transparency in forest management. A massive eco-development programme is underway to facilitate the provision of alternate livelihoods to locals. The objectives of the eco-development activities include:
- To actively involve village communities in conservation of biodiversity of Sundarban Biosphere Reserve;
- To promote conservation awareness values for long term sustainable utilisation of natural resources by reducing biotic pressure;
- To improve socio-economic conditions of fringe villages through some prioritised, site-specific and need based eco-development packages, having integration with activities of other government departments and NGOs;
- To generate alternate employment to reduce traditional dependency on forests, through provision of vocational training and inputs; and,
- To reduce man-animal conflict and to improve transition-buffer linkages for long term sustainable management of the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve.
Eco-development works undertaken
Despite having a high water table, the Sundarban is a classic example of ‘water-water everywhere, not a drop to drink’ with little potable water. The rainwater is harvested which is used for all purposes resulting in widespread diseases. Lack of fresh water has also resulted in rainfed agriculture. Construction of deep tube wells for drinking water has therefore been taken up to overcome the shortage. Water harvesting structures including digging of ponds, which enable local population to pursue cultivation of a second crop as also activities related to pisciculture have also been put in place to supplement incomes.
Constituting clayey silt, the Sundarban is an inter-tidal zone that experiences tides every 6½ hours. It abounds in muddy and slushy areas, with the slippery clayey soil making it difficult to walk. Hence, five feet wide all weather ‘brick paths’ are now proving to be a boon. Since it is difficult to connect Sundarban villages (particularly those situated in remote islands) to the grid, solar streetlights and lanterns are being provided in remote villages as alternative sources of energy. Incidentally, they also prevent tigers from straying into villages.
Given the importance of water transport in these parts, jetties are the only link for these islands to the outside world and the mainland. Repairing of existing jetties, and the building of new ones has helped people a great deal. The villagers are encouraged to adopt a set of diversified agricultural activities for which seedlings for farm forestry, fruit seeds for orchards and fuelwood and fodder plantations are given. They are also supplied apiary boxes so as to carry on bee-keeping (apiculture). In addition, provision of poultry, duck-rearing and piggery units are made available to villagers. Livestock improvement programmes using artificial insemination and immunisation also exist to help the people.
While interested women’s groups are provided with sewing machines, vocational training in apiculture, crab rearing, sewing and tailoring is being imparted to help locals earn their livelihood. Other activities include supply of smokeless challahs as well as provision for health services through medical camps.
The impact of the programmes undertaken is evident from the outcome. A majority of the villagers no longer practice poaching and illicit felling, and many of them are actively involved in rescuing wildlife. Since 2002, over 200 wild animals have been rescued by locals and handed over to the officials of the Reserve. Animals rescued include tigers, cobra, otter, estuarine crocodile and spotted deer. Sustained efforts of the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve management have helped win over the locals and made them realise that conservation of the Sundarban is essential for their own survival. Sustainable harvesting of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) to support livelihoods in the fringe villages has resulted in a change of attitude among locals from confrontation to cooperation, which is a must for long-term management of the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve.
Networking for Research and Monitoring
Apart from getting local communities involved in conservation and management, the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve embarked on a multipronged strategy of research and monitoring. These involve:
- Putting up ‘nylon net fence’ all along the forest – village interface to prevent straying of tigers into human settlements;
- A radio collaring project to understand tiger behaviour in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India in order to scientifically understand tiger ecology and hence mitigate human-tiger conflict;
- Establishment of a GIS laboratory to monitor changes in mangrove vegetation and Sundarban delta dynamics on a time scale. Studying the impact of Cyclone Aila on the fringes of the buffer-transition zone has shown that 23 per cent of agricultural land was rendered unsuitable for cultivation for at least two years;
- Human resource capacity enhancement for handling problem tigers has helped in speedy action during the crisis time. The modernisation programme involving use of speed boats, tranquilising equipment and better training has acted as a force multiplier;
- A collaborative research project undertaken with the WWF has been taken up to study the prey-predator relationship and may lead to new ways for resolving human-tiger conflict; and,
- A collaborative research project with the Marine Science department of Calcutta University has also been taken up to study water monitoring and hydrodynamics.
Animal conflict is the norm in overcrowded regions of the world. As populations expand, communities are keen to exploit the forests to make a living. Involving communities in the conservation and management of forests brings in a sense of belonging and has them advance the cause.
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