Cyclone Amphan destroys one-third of world’s largest mangrove delta, tiger habitat
Around one-third of the world’s mangrove delta – the Sunderban --- has been damaged by Cyclone Amphan, according to a preliminary assessment of the West Bengal forest department. However, there is no confirmation of deaths of tigers or other animals in the delta, officials said.
“Around 1500 sq km of forest area has suffered massive damage in the cyclone. The nylon net fencing that was set up to prevent tigers from straying into villages has also been damaged. There are no reports of any animals killed so far in the storm,” said Ravi Kant Sinha, chief wildlife warden of West Bengal.
The Sunderban delta comprises 102 islands of which 54 have human settlements while the rest have forests. It has around 4200 sq km of forests crisscrossed by rivers and creeks. This is the only mangrove in the world where tigers live. There are around 100 tigers in the Indian part of the Sunderban.
“We have surveyed almost 70% of the forest area using mechanized boats. Two drones were also used to assess the damage. Extensive areas of mangrove forests have been damaged. But we haven’t found any carcasses of animals yet. We didn’t even see birds circling above any particular area of the forest which could have hinted that there could be a carcass,” said S Kulandivel, joint director of Sunderban Biosphere Reserve.
Located at the southern tip of Bengal at the mouth of the sea, the dense mangrove is known to protect human settlements including the city of Kolkata, acting as a shield against cyclones.
“The mangroves do not just help to reduce the wind speed drastically when the storm moves through the delta but even helps to break the waves and the storm surge triggered,” Sugata Hazra, professor at School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University said.
It had saved Kolkata from the wrath of Cyclone Aila in 2009 and from Cyclone Bulbul in 2019. But this time the mangrove forest has suffered the most, a forest department official, said after preliminary stock taking. A detailed survey is still going on, he said.
Between 2017 and 2019 the delta had already lost nearly two percent mangrove cover, according to the state of forest report 2019. The FSI report also said that since 2011 the very dense mangrove cover, which comprise pristine and thick mangrove forests, has come down from 1038 sq km to 996 sq km in 2019.
“As incidents of tiger straying was a major problem in the Sunderbans, nylon net fencing has been put up along the forest boundary surrounding the fringe villages. But out of the 211 km of fencing around 100 has been ripped apart by the storm,” said Sinha.
The Forest Department has already repaired the fencing along 60 km which was in ‘most trouble-some’ areas such as Kultali, Ajmalmari, Uttar Gurguria and Dakshin Gurguria. These areas had witnessed the maximum cases of tigers straying in the past.
Even though there have been no reports of animal deaths after the storm and no carcasses have been found, former top forest officials have warned that tiger straying could increase in the coming months.
“After Cyclone Aila wild boars could not be found as they could not bear the 4-6 hours of water inundation and died and were swept away. We could not find their carcass. Large animals like tiger and deer survived. But due to shortage of pray (as wild boars were small in number) tiger straying (human- tiger conflict) started. It was a nightmare for forest staff and villagers. I fear that,” PK Vyas, former chief wildlife warden of West Bengal said.