Tourism: Emerging as a threat to Sundarban ecosystem

--Junaid K. Choudhury, MF Yale, USA and Zahir Uddin Ahmed

Sundarban extends in Bangladesh and India. About 60% of this tract is in Bangladesh, while the rest is in India. Bangladesh part of Sundarban is the largest productive contiguous mangrove forest in the world, located in the Southwestern part of the country between latitudes 89000¢ and 89055East and longitudes 21030and 23030 North. This was declared as “Reserve Forest”(RF) during 1875-76, and was placed under the Forest Department (FD) for management. Since then its area in Bangladesh has remained free from any encroachment. During the British rule in India, Sundarban was twice its current size. Its Northern part that was not declared as RF got lost to agriculture and habitation. At present, only the Sundarban Reserved Forest (SRF) area is generally termed as Sundarban. It extends over an area of 577,356 hectares, where in there are numerous creeks and canals, which covers about 175,724 hectares as water. The Bangladesh part of Sundarban possesses very rich biodiversity both with respect to its flora and fauna. Recognizing its importance and uniqueness, the UNESCO declared part this forest as a world heritage site in 1997. This World Heritage Site consists of three wildlife sanctuaries, namely Sundarban East (in Bagerhat district), Sundarban West (in Satkhira district), and Sundarban South (in Khulna district). The total area of the World Heritage Site is about 1,400 km2, of which 490 km2 is water.

Entry into any part within the territory of Sundarban Reserved Forest, without prior permission from the Forest Department, is legally prohibited. Previously none other than the resource harvesters, namely fishermen, wood cutters, fuel-wood collectors, honey collectors, etc. used to seek and get entry permit for some such specific activities for a given time as shown on their permits. Till 1987, that was the prevailing situation.

Break through: Sundarban has no road network and is completely devoid of any type of human settlement. The only mode of movement is water crafts, which used to be manually plied, extremely slow moving wooden boats. Though it has water everywhere, all of that are saline and unfit for human use not only for drinking but also for other general use such as for cooking, washing etc. On the top of that the Sundarban had large number of crocodiles in its water bodies and Bengal tigers on its land sites. Both of these, though in the past, used to be viewed as serious hazards, have rightly turned out to be the most important elements of recreation to the tourists at present.

As against such harsh surroundings, Sundarban possesses a heavenly scenic beauty coupled with the quite but soothing sounds of birds, monkeys, deer, etc. Sundarban; being a site of heavenly beauty, with the passage of time and advancement of water transportation facilities; started to attract tourists, not for harvesting any resource, but for enjoying its scenic beauty. Till 1987, the Forest Department on behalf of the Government had no general arrangement to formally allow tourists to enter Sundarban for the purpose of recreation. The break through occurred when an executive order was issued by the Government vide their Office Order number 66 dated January 1st, 1987, allowing the visitors to enter SRF in lieu of a fee. The fees per person per day were Taka 4 for those entering on board motor launches and Taka 2 for those entering by country boat. This is how tourism got initiated in Sundarban. With the passage of time, the fees got enhanced, at present over 20 private companies started taking tourist to Sundarban and the nomenclature got transformed from simple “tourism”to “ecotourism”.

Tourism intrusion: As the tourists are allowed formally to enter Sundarban, on payment of a fixed entry fees, just for the purpose of recreations, a new window for the Forest Department (FD), Government of Bangladesh got unveiled for earning revenue. At this stage the FD started to take steps to encourage ecotourism, primarily to earn revenue and at the same time to enhance the livelihoods of Sundarban dependent people living around Sundarban by providing training to enable them to be good tourist guides. At Kotka and Kochikhali there are Forest Rest Houses wherein the general tourists are hardly allowed to stay overnight. Initially however, the tourists used to go to Kotka-Kochikhali (Sundarban East Game Sanctuary) area only, for 3 to 4 days on board motor launches. This is quite expensive. To bring down the costs of visits to Sundarban within the reach of common people, the FD developed a tourist spot at Koromjal during 2003 and another at Harbaria in 2005. These tourist spots can be visited in a day and can be reached very easily from Mongla port by motor boats at little expense. At present, every day hundreds of visitors visit these tourist spots. Any visitor now can have a day?s trip to Koromjal and/or Harbaria to earn a firsthand sightseeing experience of Sundarban. With the passage of time tourists are now interested to go to every possible spots within Sundarban. Forest Department, having an inbuilt mind-set of earning revenue for the Government, stretched this window of tourism, to enhance the revenue earnings. At present since the FD is allowing the visitors to go anywhere within Sundarban, the tourists are intruding everywhere and anywhere within Sundarban. Private companies have grown like mushrooms to facilitate Sundarban tourists. Some of the private entrepreneurs have started buying land adjoining the Northern boundary of Sundarban and building cottage type guest houses to attract more and more tourists to Sundarban. At present, on every holyday, hundreds of tourists are going to Kotka, Kochikhali areas, using loudspeakers all the time of their stay, landing here and there, lighting fire anywhere they like in the name of pick-nick, throwing trashes all over, so on and so forth. Tourism industry has thus started intruding into Sundarban. Uninterrupted continuation of such situation, very shortly, will become a serious threat to Sundarban ecosystems. Under the above stated context it is worthwhile to mention that IUCN in one of its recent (2011) studies identified nine items as major threats to Sundarban ecosystems, which are:

1. Overexploitation of resources 2. Extraction of poles for fixing fishing nets at every trip of fishing 3. Top dying of Sundri 4. Poaching 5. Poison fishing 6. Impact of alien invasive species 7. Forest fire 8. Tourism pollution and 9. Poor regeneration.

It can be seen that this list has “Tourism pollution” as one of the major threats to Sundarban ecosystems.

Ecotourism: The present day emphasis is not on “tourism” but on “ecotourism”. In 1999, the International Ecotourism Society defined “Ecotourism” as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. Ecotourism is a happy mix of conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement and participate in ecotourism activities should follow the following ecotourism principles: 1. Minimize impact. 2. Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect. 3. Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts. 4. Provide direct financial benefits for conservation. 5. Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people. 6. Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate. In view of these the question is; are we on the right track?

Analyses of prevailing scenario: Though the tourists are visiting Sundarban officially for the purpose of recreation since 1987, the data on these are not easily available. The data about the number of tourists entering Sundarban and the revenue earned thereby during the last 10 years as under.

Analyses of these data reveal the followings: With the passage of time the number of visitors has increased. The different types of regressions tried, resulted R2 as under.

Of the above mentioned analyses, for the purpose of projections, the use of the linear trend will be most suitable. Projection over a long period will be erroneous. Thus attempts have been taken herein to project the required for the year 2020. The linear equations have been used for the purpose of estimating the number of visitors and revenue per visitor in year 2020.

Trash thrown by tourists in the Sundarban Reserved Forests. Photo: Junaid K. Choudhury. The graphic presentation of the data is as under.

Using equations; y = 13.531x – 27058 for estimating the number of visitors and y=2.698x + 17.404 for estimating the revenue per visitor. It is found that in year 2015 and in 2020 there will be 207000 and 275000 visitors respectively. The revenue per visitor in 2015 and 2020 will be Taka 35 and Taka 71 respectively. Since the revenue is realized on the basis of the citizenship of the visitor, such as local or foreigner, and the equipments such as still camera, movie camera etc. that they carry, we have estimated the revenue per visitor as well. This will be the scenario if the existing trend prevails.

Discussions: In connection with the ecotourism in Sundarban and its future it has to be borne in mind that the number of tourists per year need to kept within the carrying capacity of the area so that the ecosystem does not get jeopardized. The tourists at present are causing lots different types of pollutions of which throwing of trashes all over, noise by using loud speakers, sound of the generator and lighting all the night, etc. are major ones. For the purpose of sustainability the followings are urgently required. 1. Assess or calculate out the yearly carrying capacities of each of favorite sites and limit the visitors at that level, may be on first come first serve basis. Advance sale of visitors? permits may be introduced. 2. The activities of the tourists must be strictly regulated to ensure “zero” pollution, especially with respect to trashes, sound and light. 3. The entry fee per tourist need to be adjusted every year depending on spots to be visited and demand, to ensure best possible revenue for the Government and at the same time enhance the facilities to the tourists. At present there are no tourism rules or pollution control rules for Sundarban Reserved Forests. It is learnt that the FD has initiated the process and a draft on this is waiting for its formalities at the office of the Chief Conservator of Forests. Framing of rules alone will be of no benefit unless these can be implemented properly. Proper implementation will require enhancing the number of FD staff and building their capacity.

Conclusions: It is high time to take well thought steps in this regard and as early as possible, else the tourism will ruin the pristine and beautiful ecosystems of Sundarban.

References: Aziz, M. A., I. U. Ahmad, T. K. Dey, A. Hossain, Md. Islam, Md. A. Islam, T. Child, C. J. Greenwood, A. C. D. Barlow. 2010. Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan: Threat Assessment 2009-2017. Bangladesh Forest Ecotourism website: IUCN: 2011, Biodiversity conservation study. Khan, M. M. H. 2011. Tigers in the mangroves: research and conservation of the tiger in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh. Arannayk Foundation, Dhaka, Bangladesh. New Age, 2011. Forest biodiversity: our common future by Mohammed Abdul Baten and Muhammad Selim Hossain (30.05.2011). Prain, D. 1903. Flora of Sunarban.

i.          Retired Deputy Chief Conservator of Forests, Part time faculty NSU, Freelance consultant and working on Sundarban for over 20 years.

ii          Deputy Conservator of Forests & at present working as the key manager of Sundarban Reserved Forests.