The State of the Sanctuaries in the Sunderbans
Dr. Mahfuzul Haque focuses on how some people cause environ­mental degradation in the Sunder­bans

ON A chilly and foggy morning in early January we arrived at Katka forest station. The night before, we had anchored in a creek near to Katka. I was accompanying a team of FEJB journalists to see for myself the state of sanctuaries in the Sundarbans. We were travel­ling along with 30 tourists, local and foreigners, in a motor launch named Aboshar, a tourist launch operated by a private company called Guide Tours Ltd.
For the tourists, it was a real break for four days, enjoying the sunshine, reading books, playing indoor games, watching the birds and wildlife and what not. But for us it was work and no play. While the other tourists kept their eyes on their binoculars, we were busy discussing our day's plans and sharing each other's notes. It was an assignment for us to look into the situation of bio-diversity and wildlife in the sanctuaries.
We were lucky to have a travel guide, Rimon, an NSU graduate student of Environmental Science. Rimon knew well the name of the trees, birds, wildlife and insects of the Sundarbans. During a break in our journey, he very politely shared his future plans of staying in the Sundarbans for the rest of his life - a very noble and ambitious aim indeed on the part of a young man of his age, particularly when many others are leaving the country for abroad.
Kachikhali-Katka sanctuary is in the Saronkhola range and one of the three sanctuaries in the Sundarbans. Earlier, it had all area of 21 square miles only. In 1996, the area was extended up to 120 square miles. Activities like felling trees, catching fishes, killing or poaching animals and birds in the sanctuaries are banned. In fact, in the whole of the Sundarbans, felling of trees, excepting for supply of Gewa for the Khulna Newsprint Mills, is prohibited. The only other woods allowed to be ex­tracted are Garan for fuel purpose and Golpata for thatching the roofs. The Forest Department issues seasonal permits to Bawalis [wood cutter], mawalis [honey collector] and fishermen in the non-sanctuary areas. The other two sanctuaries are Nilkamol at Hiron Point and Mandarbari at Burigoalini Range.
The three sanctuaries were also declared by Unesco as the World Heritage Sites in February 1999. The Forest Act of 1927 and the Wildlife [Preservation] Act of 1973 prohibited activities like felling of trees, catching fishes, killing or poaching animals or birds in the sanctuaries. Due to poor enforcement mechanism, depletion of forests and disappear­ance of animals and birds continue unabated in the Sundarbans. Moreover, guidelines in line with the declaration of the World Heritage Site are yet to be framed and implemented in the three sanctuaries.
During our tour of Katka sanc­tuary, we talked to a number of forest officials and employees regarding any specific guidelines in line with the declaration of the World Heritage Site. Unfortu­nately, they expressed their total ignorance about it. As there is no provision of issuing permits in the sanctuary, the officials consider posting there as a sort of "punishment." The officials lack motivation and training to under­take the challenges. They are also deprived of many social amenities, incentives and financial benefits to work in a desolate outpost like a sanctuary. At Katka, the forest guards and employees complained that they were not getting their house rent allowances as per rule. They are financially handicapped, as they need to incur extra ex­penses for families at home. They are poorly equipped too. Against the powerful firearms of the poachers and dacoits, the forest guards are helpless with their old 303 rifles. To our utter amazement, we found those old guns were tied with scotch tapes and strings.
Picnic parties are allowed to enter the forest, including in the sanctuary. During our stay there, we found a number of launches with amplifiers blaring out music cruising on the creeks of the Sundarbans. The serenity and tranquillity of the sanctuary get a jolt with Hindi songs coming out from the loudspeakers competing with each other. Many visitors were seen chasing the herds of deer and the animals who were running helter-skelter for their life. When the night fell, to our utter surprise, we found a bonfire set by the picnic parties inside Katka forest office campus belching out plumes of smoke. Madness of their songs and dances drove the animals deep into the jungles for safety. The officials ignored such activities, may be due to their sheer ignorance of the rules and regula­tions or perhaps they wanted to have a break from their daily monotonous life. Some of the forest guards were seen warming up themselves beside the bonfire. On query, Golam Mustafa, the Range Officer of Katka, admitted that a devastating forest fire last year had originated from a burning cigarette thrown by a tourist. Forest Officer Biplob Chakravarty was quick in getting his men to fight and in douse the blaze.
The permits for entering the Sundarbans are issued by the Forest Division office at Khulna. In the permit, it is clearly men­tioned that all activities concerning use of firearms, killing or poaching of animals and birds, fishing, using of microphones, setting fire inside the forest, etc. are strictly prohib­ited and punishable under the Wildlife [Preservation] Act of 1973. We wondered whether the forest officials are aware of those conditionalities. On query, they de­fended themselves by saying that most of the time, it was difficult for them to enforce the measures due to lack of manpower and resources.
The forest officials alleged that during the weekends in the winter, at times, more than a dozen launches and trawlers carrying around 3000 visitors anchor at Katka. The whole area is swarmed by them as they chase the animals, litter the rivers and the sea beach with plastic water bottles, poly­thene bags, disposable plates, etc. No one is there to admonish them. The officials also alleged that when challenged, some visitors used their political connections and power influences.
According to Rimon, our tour guide, the tiger population at Katka-Kachikhali sanctuary is around six. A mother tiger has been carrying three cubs of different ages, unusual though. We saw footprints of the tigress on our way to Katka beach. Tigers are perhaps the most intelligent animals in the forest. As they spread a fowl smell, they hunt their prey from behind and against the wind. The Range Officer of Katkha said that he could see tigers twice during the last eight months. People are confused about the tiger population in the Sundarbans. It ranges between 250 and 400.
At Katka beach, the coarse sand and regular slope against the green line of Sundari, Gewa and Kewra trees emerged into a beautiful tourist spot less crowded than that of the Cox's Bazar one. We also found there polythene bags, trash cans, plastic bottles littering the beach. Unfortunately, we found no warning notes in the permit letters or a billboard against the dumping of wastes and polythene bags.
-Earth Feature Service
Source: The Financial Express, 27 September, 2001