The Sundarbans are a place. They are a magical, mystical mangrove forest located within the borders of modern-day Bangladesh and India. This ecological habitat goes far, wide, and deep. It’s a place you can visit as a tourist. It is also an area that tens of millions of people call home, too.
Additionally, the Sundarbans is one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. Today we will look at the features of this landscape and mangroves in general. We will explore the mysteries still within it, and how the health of thriving mangrove ecology fits into the broader picture of climate resilience and sustainable earth systems.
There is so much to learn from the Sundarbans (also spelled Sunderbans). Like the roots of the beloved mangrove tree, let’s get our feet wet with the facts and follow the tides to a broader understanding of this mystical planet upon which our lives unfold.
If you don’t live in the coastal tropics, mangroves may be new to you, but they are endlessly fascinating ecozones critical to our planet’s health. These forests are coastal wetlands with big ripple effects. According to the archeological record, mangroves first appear in the Late Cretaceous, 100–65 Ma. Their evolution is closely tied to sea-level changes through geological eras.
Mangrove swamps are distinct for their brackish to saline tidal waters. They are often found in estuaries where the salt water of the ocean meets the fresh waters of a river delta. Whether you are traveling the tip of Florida, the coasts of Mexico, or the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, these forests are famously difficult to navigate – impenetrable for those who do not know their way. These areas are called “intertidal zones”. If you are new to these environments, you will definitely need a guide to find your way back out again!
Mangrove trees, the defining aspect of these forests, have unique evolutionary adaptions. These adaptions allow them to survive in harsh salt-water environments. Because of the saltwater of oceans in these coastal areas, the surrounding sediment in these areas has high salinity and low oxygen. The trees use long roots, salt-blocking pores, and breathing bark to compensate and survive in brackish water or pure salt-water conditions depending on the species. They also can also grow and utilize “pneumatophores” which are snorkel-like structures that stick out of the mud to further supplement breathing. With these clever adaptions, the trees then form the backbone of crucial habitats for many other species as well.
Mangrove plants form a group of approximately 70 species from 20 different angiosperm families. Scientists speculate that there has actually been very little change to these species through millions of years – indicating conservative taxa. This is because populations of these mangroves through history were large and fixed in one location. Mutant mangrove genes have a greater expression in more isolated communities of mangroves. Today, the global mangrove flora is “rich in species and diversity of morphological characters”.
According to one scientific study, “Mangrove evolution, diversification, and dispersal apparently were accelerated by continental drift”. As tectonic plates moved and shifted, the landmasses spread out around the globe. So did the mangroves. The oldest known fossils of the mangroves date to 75 million years ago.
Mangrove forests are present on various continents and corners of our globe – making them a “staple ecosystem“. These species do not thrive in cooler temperatures, so you won’t find them beyond 25 degrees latitude north or south. Obviously, warming temperatures on our planet might change that in the coming years. We will touch on mangroves and climate change again later on in this piece.
Similar to coral reefs, mangrove forests are “ecosystem engineers” – sometimes their root systems form entire islands. The above and below ground structures of these trees trap sediment and act as a buffer from wave-induced erosion and are a first line of defense for various forms of life (humans included) from the brutal impact of tropical storms and currents. This is because the roots are able to break up wave energy and decrease storm surge. They also lessen the impact of typhoons. They act as a porous boundary between ocean and land.
Mangrove forests are especially interesting for biologists to study and explore for exactly this reason. Mangroves are a transitional ecosystem. In linking the marine to the terrestrial, mangroves can be model systems in studying adaptive biology and evolution in salt-tolerant plants especially. There are still plenty of mysteries surrounding the intricacies of these highly evolved species. In studying them and the way they are able to adapt to their environment, scientists are able to theorize about these processes when applied to other considerations in the realm of salt-water adaptions and carbon sequestering.
Mangroves can grow in various wetland scenarios depending on the species of tree. This includes freshwater environments, but this is unusual.
In addition to stabilizing the coastline, the intricate root systems, thick growth, and muddy bottoms (mudflats) create an ideal area for fish and other organisms to seek shelter from predators. These forests are teeming with life. This is true even as they flood twice a day and withstand the changing sea levels of low and high tide. The submerged roots of the mangroves are homes to algae, barnacles, oysters, sponges, bryozoans, shrimp, mud lobsters, and mangrove crabs. Creatures that cling, swim, stick, and slurp abound in these waters.
Specific fish species found in mangrove climates include jacks, sheep heads, groupers, grunts, and gobies.
So now that we’re all caught up on the basics of mangroves living in our planet’s coastal areas, let’s focus back in on where we started: the Sundarbans!
The Sundarbans are the world’s largest mangrove forest and are a UNESCO world heritage site. According to the UNESCO website, the Sundarbans provide “diverse habitats for several hundreds of aquatic, terrestrial and amphibian species”. These immense forests are actually a “mosaic of islands” – all different shapes and sizes. There are endless channels, nooks, and crannies of brackish water. Altogether it becomes like a labyrinth or maze of roots, trees, shrubs, plants, and other creatures – the biggest contiguous mangrove zone in the world.
So where exactly are the Sundarbans?
Well, on the continent of Asia lies the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers. Here, at the Bay of Bengal, is where a complex network of ecological phenomena takes place. There are tidal waterways, mudflats, and of course, small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove trees that contribute to this vast and critical corner of the globe. These mangrove trees form the Sundarbans.
And why should trees have to grow according to the invented borders of Homo sapiens? Mangroves certainly don’t. 60% of the Sundarban area is in Bangladesh. The rest is in India. They span from the Hooghly River in India’s state of West Bengal all the way over to the Baleswar River in Bangladesh’s division of Khulna. This whole swath of forest provides protection and sustenance for small local communities as well as massive cities such as Kolkata, India which touts a population of over 14 million people, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, with another 21 million people and a growing population.
The forest itself is always changing. This is known as an “ongoing ecological process“. Delta formations shift with the years. As a result, deltaic islands of mangrove trees newly form and biological communities shift and flow accordingly. Predictable and unpredictable factors are at play here. Events such as monsoon rains, floods, tidal influence, and plant colonization all converge together to shape this landscape.
The Sundarbans are the largest delta and mangrove area in the region. It of course provides the necessary habitat for so many species.
In some cases, it is the only habitat left for species that are not found anywhere else. Within this area are three wildlife sanctuaries that are considered core breeding grounds for a number of endangered species.
This includes show-stopping species such as the royal Bengal tiger (also known as Sundarbans tiger) and fishing cats. Other large creatures in the area include spotted deer, wild boar, dolphins, and the crafty primates, macaques. Saltwater crocodiles (also known as estuarine crocodiles) moving through the Sundarbans is the largest reptile living today – and can grow over 20 feet long. Flying through the air are the beautiful collard kingfisher birds.
Amongst the Sundari tree mangroves, the list of wildlife in this area is seemingly endless. To date, we have recorded the presence of 290 birds, 120 fish, 42 mammals, 35 reptiles, and eight amphibian species.
In 1973, Sundarbans National Park became a tiger reserve. Later, state governments declared the area a wildlife reserve. By 1984, we recognized it as a national park.
The IUCN World Heritage Outlook lists this park as “good with some concerns”. They evaluate the current management to be effective and in overall good condition. The Bengal tiger population is increasing. The major concerns in this area are sea-level rise, hydrological alteration, and coastal erosion – all of which are projected to be severe in the coming years and will directly impact the vulnerable species that live in the Sundarbans.
Here’s a strange but hopefully obvious reminder: humans are an ancient aspect of these biodiverse environments as well. The Sundarbans are an important landmark in mythological poetic frameworks as well as documented historical events.
Today, you can see the interwoven elements of landscape and culture in indigenous communities in the area. Local people enact and embody these relationships through collecting honey, religious festivals, music and dance, and traditional mask making. From a conservation perspective, the more we are able to value these natural and cultural values, the better we can possibly bridge the gap on the conflicting elements of these dynamics.
It is impossible to put a price of value on landscapes that form our understandings of who we are and where we come from. This is one of the pinnacle issues at stake today: between systems of extractive economies and the physical and spiritual wellbeing of all creatures.
Many people consider Mangroves priceless – but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an additional exchange of resources going on as well. For example, mangroves around the world support fisheries and also provide storm protection. Some analysts estimate that mangroves provide over 1 billion dollars a year to local communities and economies. This is through economic endeavors such as tourism, agriculture, and trade. Additionally, this includes the proactive and mitigated costs of the disasters sure to unfold if the mangroves hadn’t been in place, acting as protective barriers to communities on the coast.
Climate change continues to infuse our lives and legislation – and the future is an uncertain portrait of an ever-intensifying crisis that can be difficult to fathom.
The Sundarbans, and mangrove forests across the globe, are a part of that – as are we all.
Cyclones and tropical storms are an expected weather phenomena in these areas around the Sundarbans.
However, we are living in the midst of extreme weather events intensified by climate change. And the tropical storms that move through the coastal regions of our planet continue to impact areas in increasingly destructive ways.
Famously, in 2009 cyclone Aila hit the Bay Of Bengal. Floods and mudslides ensued and over 191 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless. Some 2 million people were impacted by this storm, many stranded on islands and others with agricultural fields (and livelihoods) completely flooded.
The Sundarbans help to buffer communities from this impact. However, the strength of these storms will continue to increase. This, all while mangrove forests are disappearing due to anthropogenic pressures.
For example, scientists estimate that one-third of mangrove forests across the world have been lost in the last few decades. This is due to construction for tourist hotels, shrimp farms, and wood harvesting.
And while Sundarbans mangrove forest is a protected area on a legislative level, even those protections will not exclude the saline waters from changing with increased temperature or nearby pollution. Even in spite of the efforts people have taken to conserve the area, a 2021 assessment from the IUCN Red List Of Ecosystems lists the Indian Sundarbans as endangered.
This dark cycle of human desperation and ecological ruin can feel endless. Many activists and thinkers are exploring how to reframe our ideas around wilderness and protected areas. In acknowledging that we are a part of nature, we might respect the pristine wilderness as well as city streets like a “reserve forest” of sorts. Then, we might finally learn to live in balance with the intricate network of our planet. This is an exciting alternative. We can do more than simply setting aside select areas of the planet as “pristine” and worthy of protection, while absolutely trashing the rest.
The Rampal Power Station is currently under construction just 14 km north of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh. Once completed it will be the country’s largest power plant. Public accounts of the corporate dealings value the contracts at 1.49 billion. The project violates environmental assessment guidelines and in 2016, UNESCO advised abandoning the project.
Citizens in the area have been raising alarms about the impacts of construction alone on the fragile waterways of the Sundarbans. The plant will import staggering amounts of coal each year in order to function. Corporations will move the coal – all of which will be transported via ship that cuts through the protected area, not to mention scattering toxic chemicals and debris as they pass. All surrounding areas – protected, and not – will be at grave risk.
Journalists report activists organizing on behalf of the forests – with people arriving at nearby hospitals after police used tear gas and rubber bullets to terrorize protests in the Dhaka University in 2017.
The project is still ongoing and unfinished. Local news sources point to the construction process stretching out into 2022 or longer. There continues to be an outcry from local communities as well as environmental activists around the world. In some ways, these issues are straightforward narratives of exploitation and extraction. People must determine the nuanced conversations about how developing countries allocate resources – not corporations.
Like many forest ecosystems around the world, mangroves work to sequester carbon and impede climate disaster. When we protect and defend these existing systems and organisms, we save ourselves the trouble of inventing expensive technology to accomplish what nature already provides.
In order for mangrove restoration and protection to really work, we need local stakeholders, officials, and land-based workers to continue forming coalitions and multi-faceted solutions to best support the coastal regions and the diverse communities that live there.
And as we strive to integrate more sustainable philosophies into our societies, there’s a lot to learn from the Sundarbans and the way mangrove forests operate in general. These ecozones are fluid, shifting, tough, protective, diverse, and adaptable. The challenges we face as a species and as a planet are layered and interconnected like the roots and sediment layers of the forests.
Tourists flock to watchtowers in the park, simply to take in the smells, sounds, and other sensations of biodiversity thriving in the throngs of mangroves. For the communities that live in and near the Sundarbans, this biosphere reserve is a forest that connects the past, present, and future together. Continued scientific study paired with humble learning from indigenous knowledge steeped in these forests is a positive way forward.
Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and Earth.com.