A delicate balance
It is necessary to create environmental awareness and other livelihood alternatives for the villagers to keep the Sunderbans’ fragile eco-system going. FRENY MANECKSHA
Over the years the biosphere’s delicate balance has been upset because of shrinking habitats and poaching. This in turn escalated man-animal conflicts.
One evening in February 2002, as Col. Shakti Ranjan Banerjee, conservationist and former Director (West Bengal) of WWF India, was appreciating the splendour of the Suznekhali sanctuary in the Sunderbans, he learnt that a tiger had been sighted on Bal i island. Sunderban tigers are powerful swimmers. This one had swum across the wide river expanse that separates Bali, one of the 54 inhabited islands from the 48 uninhabited islands that form the core jungle area.
In earlier days it would have lost its life for straying into human territory. This time, even though some islanders had lost a family member in tiger attacks, they did not stone the animal. Instead, led by environmentally-conscious school teachers, they helped the forest officials to lay a trap so that it could be released back into the wild.
It was a definitive moment for Col. Banerjee. “I felt something must be done to help these villagers earn a livelihood as well as be part of the movement that seeks to preserve the unique biodiversity of this delta that has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.”
In the fragile ecosystem of the Sunderbans, both humans and animals wage a knife-edge battle for survival. An ever-changing dance of creation and destruction is enacted daily in this arena of rivers and tributaries because of the occurrence of two high tides and two low tides. Receding tidal waters leave behind chest-deep alluvium and create large mudflats that support a rich variety of crabs, snails and mudskippers. Estuarine crocodiles and monitor lizards come out to bask in the sun on the mudflats. But the high tide washes away large chunks of land and submerges the mudflats, forcing crabs to take shelter in muddy holes or climb trees. Crocodiles go back into the water.
Due to the high salinity, the soil becomes non-porous and oxygen cannot enter the forest areas. But, in a wonderful adaptation to nature, trees here breathe through pneumataphores (roots that grow up through the mud creating a carpet of sharp spikes which absorb oxygen) stilt roots, and perforated barks. Some 84 species of mangroves and mangrove-associate plant families not only survive in this alluvial soil but also bloom spectacularly like that of the Sundari, Golpata, Kankra and Khalsi.
Tigers too have developed different traits. Agile swimmers, they are as much at home in water as on land. They drink the saline water and eat whatever they come across ? fish, crab or man. Not habitual man-eaters, they nevertheless consider man to be part of the food chain and will attack if there is a confrontation, even accidental.
For the people of the Sunderbans life is tough as there is limited land for agriculture. Other forms of livelihood like fishing, gathering honey or collecting wood may bring them into conflict with the tiger or crocodile, especially if they venture into the deep forests where creeks are very narrow and visibility is poor because of dense vegetation. This constant struggle with hostile elements has influenced the mythological traditions of the region. In a remarkable synergy of two religions, the goddess Bonbibi (mother of the forests) and her consort Dakshin Rai are worshipped by both Muslims and Hindus as protectors who can subdue the tiger. Manasa is worshipped to keep venomous snakes at bay and Manik Pir is invoked for the welfare of cows.
Over the years the biosphere’s delicate balance has been upset because of shrinking habitats and poaching. This in turn escalated man-animal conflicts. In 1978, the setting up of the Tiger Reserve banned Sunderban inhabitants from venturing into the core area for fishing or collecting honey. Some villagers began adopting a hostile attitude towards forest officials and the big cats.
So when the Bali villagers did show willingness to help conservationists, Col. Banerjee and others resolved to initiate steps that could enable them to earn through ecotourism and other forms of livelihood. Help Tourism, a major ecotourism operator that focuses on community benefits, began a prolonged dialogue with the villagers. The concept of a Jungle Camp with ethnic cottages providing basic amenities and solar power was drawn up. This would not only generate employment but also enable villagers to have a say in administration. It would also create environmental awareness.
Help Tourism also helped organise medical camps for the Bali villagers whilst a consortium of non-governmental organisations and Belinda Wright’s Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) drew up developmental programmes. These include non-formal education projects with book banks, laundry and tailoring units and setting up an organic rice processing plant.
Another notable feature has been increasing interaction between villagers and tourists. Col. Banerjee accompanies tourists aboard the luxurious liner Paramahansa run by Vivada Inland Waterways and takes them to Bali where they can be familiarised with the fascinating culture of the Sunderbans. A dance-drama troupe from Bali entertains tourists with its jatra on Bonbibi and Dakshin Rai.
Environmental messages are spread through WPSI and WWF and poaching has been curbed to a great extent.
One of the biggest proponents of these activities is Anil Mistri, former poacher and now field director of WPSI. Deer meat, considered a delicacy, is often served at wedding feasts, so it was not unusual for Mistri to hunt deer like many others. The dramatic turnabout came in 2002 when a friend shot a deer that had young ones. Full of remorse, Mistri met forest officials and was inducted into conservation efforts. He has since helped build up the Bali Nature and Wildlife Conservation Society. There are 22 schools on Bali island where nature clubs are flourishing. Children are now convinced of the need not to hunt deer to maintain the ratio of deer to tigers and lessen chances of man-animal conflicts.
Mistri’s message of protecting the Sunderbans has gone global. According to scientists, the Sunderbans are South Asia’s largest “carbon sink” mopping up large amounts of carbon dioxide. It is a crucial link in the efforts to prevent global warming. At a conference, held in Argentina in 2004, he spoke first-hand of his observations on the rising sea waters that pose a great threat to the Sunderbans. “I spoke on how summers are prolonged. Cyclones blow up at any time of the year and there are high surges that threaten our settlements,” says Mistri.
Satellite imagery shows that sea levels have risen at an average rate of 3.14 cm a year over two decades. At least four islands have disappeared or are losing chunks of land. Ghoramara island lost 50 per cent of its land mass and Lohachora completely disappeared. Tigers too are losing their homes and are forced to migrate.
As the big cat totters on the brink of extinction, Col. Banerjee is heartened by the way the message of awareness has spread in ripples from Bali island right up to Shamshernagar on the eastern edge of the Sunderbans. “At a ‘Bagh Bachao’ function there was a man I recognised. He was the father of Rupali Bauli, a young girl who had been killed and dragged away by a tiger from her hut. I am a parent and know the father’s pain. But he had realised the vital need for both the big cat and man to coexist. It was a touching vindication of our faith in the people.”
The Hindu – Magazine
Sunday, Apr 13, 2008
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