- India has designated Sundarban Wetland (Sundarban Reserve Forest) as a Wetland of International Importance.
- The wetland designation, India’s 27th, under the Ramsar Convention, will help increase the visibility of the region on international platforms as also enhance international co-operation between India and Bangladesh in the wise use of the wetlands.
- Activities such as dredging, oil and gas drilling, fishing and harvesting aquatic resources, hunting and collecting terrestrial animals, logging and wood harvesting and air-borne pollutants are “high impact” actual threats to the site.
The Sundarban Reserve Forest (SRF) in India, located within the largest mangrove forest in the world, the Sundarbans, is now a Wetland of International Importance, making it the largest protected wetland in the country.
Home of the royal Bengal tiger, the Sundarbans, encompass hundreds of islands and a maze of rivers, rivulets and creeks, in the delta of the rivers Ganges and Brahmaputra on the Bay of Bengal in India and Bangladesh.
The wetland designation, India’s 27th, under the Ramsar Convention, will help increase the visibility of the region on international platforms as also enhance international co-operation between India and Bangladesh in the wise use of the wetlands, experts believe.
Ramsar Convention is the only international treaty focused on wetlands. The last Indian site that was designated as a Wetland of International Importance was Gujarat’s Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary in 2012.
“Now it is India’s largest protected wetland. This is going to help us bring the issues of the Sundarbans in the international fora, from the wetlands side as well,” Ravi Kant Sinha, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, West Bengal told Mongabay-India.
“We can also make the Sundarbans officially part of treaties, in which it did not figure despite it being a good area, such as the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, Central Asian Flyaway action plan and we will also try to work out a plan on marine species,” said Sinha.
Read our story on migration as adaptation in the Indian Sundarbans.
The total area of Indian Sundarbans region is about 9,630 square km, out of which close to half is occupied by the Reserve forest which covers around 4,230 sq km.
Natural resource economist Ritesh Kumar of Wetlands International, who worked with the designation team for the Ramsar tag, stressed that Ramsar listing is a clear statement of intent by the central government to ensure wise use, through maintenance of wetland’s ecological character.
“Thus, the designation commits the central and the state government to put in place management that can secure wise use,” Kumar said.
A haven for biological diversity
Officially referred to as Sundarban Wetland by the Ramsar Convention, the SRF met four of the nine criteria for identifying Wetlands of International Importance. They are Criterion 2 (rare species and threatened ecological communities), Criterion 3 (biological diversity), Criterion 7 (significant and representative fish) and Criterion 8 (fish spawning grounds/ nursery and/or migration path).
The Sundarbans is the only mangrove habitat which supports a significant population of tigers. These big cats have unique aquatic hunting skills, the Ramsar citation states, adding that the Sundarban Tiger Reserve is situated within the Site and part of it has been declared a “critical tiger habitat” under national law and also a “Tiger Conservation Landscape” of global importance.
Also of interest are the true mangrove plants (34 species) and their associate plant species (40) thriving in two wetland classes: estuarine waters and coastal brackish/saline lagoons.
The site is also home to a large number of “rare and globally threatened species such as the critically endangered northern river terrapin (Batagur baska), the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) and the vulnerable fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus).”
Additionally, it supports at least 87 species of fish including the critically endangered river shark (Glyphis gangeticus).
Read our story on the Gangetic river dolphins disappearing from the Indian Sundarbans.
Ritesh Kumar observed the current management is closely aligned with the ‘protected area approach’ but it could be extended to focus more on the nature-human relationship.
“Given the large extent of the wetland and the scale of forcing factors that govern the ecosystem, there is considerable scope for management to be much more dynamic and centred on the nature-human relationship,” Kumar told Mongabay-India.
The Ramsar Convention’s wise use approach provides such a framework and recognises that the relationship people have with wetlands needs to be factored in while developing management strategies and action plans, he said.
Further, the designation provides an opportunity for India and Bangladesh to align their management and cooperate on wise use of wetlands. This can help expand the domain of international cooperation dialogue between the two countries, Kumar said.
Tackling actual and potential threats
In terms of factors (actual or likely) adversely affecting the designated site’s ecological character, data provided in Ramsar Information Sheet (RIS) shows that tourism and recreation are characterised as “low impact” actual threats.
“Tourism for all protected areas is always a threat. We can’t think of stopping tourism because it gives us good publicity. We have a carrying capacity and we allow boats inside in accordance with the carrying capacity that we have calculated. The routes that have opened up are accordingly, we don’t allow boats everywhere,” Sinha said.
The RIS labels activities such as dredging, oil and gas drilling, fishing and harvesting aquatic resources, hunting and collecting terrestrial animals, logging and wood harvesting and air-borne pollutants as threats that are “high impact” actual threats.
“There is a potential for oil and gas in the Sundarbans. As of now, we need not worry about drilling as there are enough economically viable sources elsewhere,” Sinha said.
Salinisation is shown to be having “medium impact” though it has the potential to have a “high impact” on the site’s ecological character.
There are about 4.2 million people living in the north-west and the northern periphery of the Reserved Forest as per as 2001 census. There is no cultivation or grazing inside the forests. But the innumerable creeks and rivers provide spawning ground for shrimps, crabs and molluscs.
Read our story on how a cross-border coal power plant could put Sundarbans at risk.
No fishing is permitted within the National Park and Sanctuary areas, but in the rest of the Reserved Forest areas, fishing by permit-holders is allowed.
Stepping up and ahead, a monitoring system to assess changes in ecological character, and particularly the risk of human-induced adverse change is important, Kumar suggested.
Management based on the diagnostic evaluation of wetlands, considering linkages with the river basin and the coastal zone shall be of great value to the conservation of wetlands features – ecological, socioeconomic as well as institutional, he said.
“The site managers also have access to the global expertise on wetlands management, and can even commission an advisory mission for management. Finally, Ramsar sites do have a priority in global funding mechanisms – such as the Global Environment Facility,” Ritesh Kumar added.