The Mangrove Forest of Bangladesh and India

Mangrove forests comprise of trees and shrubs that grow only in tropical and subtropical areas because they cannot develop in low temperatures. They prefer soils with reduced concentrations of oxygen where they can survive because of their aerial roots, such as pneumatophores, that allow gas exchange.

General facts about the mangrove forest of Bangladesh and India

It is also known as the Sundarbans and represents the largest of its kind in the entire world with an area of approximately 4000 square miles. It extends from Jambudwip, an isolated island in the West Bengal state of India, to south of Mongla, a small port town in Bangladesh. The Sundarbans lie at the confluence of many large rivers, including the Ganges, Padma, Brahmaputra, and Meghna.

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Biodiversity

The Sundarbans literally means “beautiful forest” in Bengali and its name may have been inspired from the Sundari trees such as Heritiera littoralis and Heritiera fomes, which can be found abundantly and serve as raw material for the construction of houses, furniture and boats. Other abundant trees are the gewa (genus Excoecaria), keora (genus Sonneratia) and goran (genus Ceriops).

Sundari tree (Heritiera littoralis)

The mangrove forest offer a wide range of habitats for hundreds of aquatic and terrestrial species, including the famous Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), classified as endangered by the IUCN as of 2010. These beautiful carnivores are being threatened by poaching, supported by a huge demand from China, where people still believe in the efficacy of medicines such as tiger bones and body parts of wild tigers. A sad example of how dangerous superstitions can be is represented by India’s Sariska Tiger Reserve in the state of Rajasthan, where poaching led to the death of all its 26 tigers back in 2006.

Other animals in the Sundarbans include macaques, wild boars, fishing cats, brown-winged kingfishers, sawfish and many more. Amongst the recently extinct species are the Javan rhino and the single horned rhino, which disappeared from the Sundarbans in the second half of the 20th century due to poaching and hunting by the British.

The Bengal tiger

Honey Hunting in the Sundarbans

The principal honey producer in the Sundarbans is Apis dorsata, commonly known as the giant honey bee, an extremely defensive species that can grow up to 2,5 centimeters long and it has never been domesticated. Honey collectors, locally known as “Mouwali”, have practiced honey hunting in the mangrove forest for centuries during the months of April, May and June. The Mouwali walk through the dense forest and when they spot a giant honey bee colony, they fan smoke towards the bees to make them flee thinking the woods are on fire and that there’s no reason to stay behind and protect the hive. The collectors cut pieces of honey-soaked beeswax, but they leave some untouched so that the bees don’t have to rebuild the entire thing from scratch. Currently the Mouwali harvest around 50% of all the honey in Bangladesh.

Beekeeper in Bangladesh’s Sundarban Forest; Photo copyright: National Geographic

Conservation

Even though the Sundarbans ecoregion is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the governments of both Bangladesh and India have failed to completely secure the integrity of this natural region, resulting in protected areas that cover only 15%, including Sundarbans East, Sundarbans South and Sundarbans West Wildlife Sanctuaries in Bangladesh, and a few more sanctuaries in India.

Mangroves can store up to five times more carbon than other areas such as tropical forest, but due to extensive deforestation, pollution and the increase in the salinity of water, it is quickly losing its ability to absorb the carbon dioxide, which will affect the entire fragile ecosystem of the Sundarbans, consequently impacting the people and the animals that depend on it.

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