Updated: Aug 29
The 26th of July is International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem. To celebrate, Dr. Orton describes her journey to the world’s largest mangrove forest and explains why we should be talking more about these magical places…
Arriving in the Sundarbans under a sky full of stars, with the only lights coming from fireflies and a solitary golpata barge, I knew very little about mangroves. I had a vague idea that they are a kind of tree that can tolerate salt water and is adapted to fluctuating tide levels. I had heard that the Sundarbans is the world’s largest mangrove forest and the only mangrove forest in the world to have tigers. I had no idea, though, how important mangroves are to people – and how much mangrove forests need us.
Stretching from the Bay of Bengal over parts of India and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans is a dense jungle that is constantly shifting: while one third of the forest is permanently under water, the entire forest is at the mercy of the tides. It is an environment in flux, and this presents unique challenges to the plants and animals who make it their home.
Mangroves have an ancient lineage, having emerged towards the end of the Cretaceous period; the oldest mangrove fossil dates from 70 million years ago from Brazil. Before this, in the Devonian period, there were lush swamp forests of trees and ferns with stilt-like root systems. Today, the roots of the Sundarbans’ mangroves give me the impression of floating through a natural cathedral, as we navigate some of the narrower channels of the forest.
The Sundarbans is an incredibly important ecosystem. It is home to the chital or spotted deer, otter, wild boar, rhesus monkey and of course the Royal Bengal tiger. I had travelled to the Sundarbans to find out about the tiger’s relationship with local people, as part of a very personal research project – but I was to learn that the forest itself is worth our attention.
It's not just the land animals that make the forest so special: mangroves are also valuable habitats for migratory fish and birds. In the estuaries, there are crocodiles, Ganges river dolphins, Irrawaddy dolphins and incredible little fish called mudskippers that can live on land by holding water in their mouths and extracting air.
In an environment hostile to reproduction, with few pollenating insects, mangroves synchronise the flowering season with annual changes in climate and use viviparous seedlings adapted to a saline environment. Thick wax leaves or hairs defend against attacks from microorganisms, insects and herbivores.
At the same time, mangroves support these creatures. They are productive, an energetic pathway in relation to other life forms. Organic matter such as roots, leaves, bark and wood is produced, becoming available for other lifeforms such as bacteria, fungi and herbivores. These in turn feed other animals such as the tiger.
Without the mangroves, all of this would be lost.
PEOPLE NEED MANGROVES
It’s not just wildlife that would be lost without the Sundarbans. If it were not for the forest, millions of people would perish in cyclones or tidal waves. They are a buffer zone, protecting India and Bangladesh from the Bay of Bengal. Many mangroves can resist hurricane-force winds and can do the work of costly artificial barriers against these threats.
Mangroves are expert problem-solvers: they avoid excess water loss by closing leaf pores during hours of greatest heat. They solve the problem of the Sundarbans’ unstable, muddy soil with supporting roots that double as respiratory organs.
Economic activity must be carefully managed, but when done responsibly and in dialogue with local people, mangroves provide opportunities for fishing, nipa palm collection, wood collection and honey collection. Sundarbans honey, collected by the brave mowalis, is delicious.
The Hidden Gift of The Sundarbans
Finally, mangrove forests are rich cultural and social environments for humans: the Sundarbans is an important part of our shared global heritage as well as belonging to the cultural and environmental heritage of India and Bangladesh.
Not only is the forest home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, the national animal of both India and Bangladesh, it is has also been a source of inspiration for great artists and writers from the area. Acclaimed Indian writer Amitav Ghosh famously immortalised the Sundarbans in his novel, The Hungry Tide and his retelling of the Bonbibi legend, Jungle Nama.
For me, though, the most precious cultural gifts that the Sundarbans has given us are the vernacular narratives and folk songs of the ‘ordinary people’ who live on the forest boundaries. Here, Muslims, Hindus and the indigenous Munda live side by side and narratives of the forest goddess Bonbibi are kept alive, as are the stories of her brother Shah Jongoli, Dokkhin Rai the tiger-demon, and the young boy Dukhe. Gunins and other religious practitioners offer protective rituals for those who enter the forest (make sure you come back to the blog soon for an in-depth look at these!).
My upcoming radio documentaries and research papers will document the dangers of working in the forest, narratives of the Sundarbans from Muslims, Hindus and Munda as well as other aspects of life on its boundaries. I’ll be posting about this here, too, so revisit this space for more!
People I interviewed in the Sundarbans expressed their despair about challenges they and the forest face as a result of erosion, cyclones and other environmental threats. Cyclones can sweep away farmland and houses. Whole sections of villages may be uprooted or left isolated from the mainland and affected farming communities may have little choice but to switch to fishing as a means of income. Some have even told me that they think the only solution is to move away from the Sundarbans.
The Sundarbans itself has suffered from deforestation, rising water levels and depleted freshwater due to upstream dams and barrages. Cyclones can also be a threat, for example Cyclone Sidr in 2007, which damaged 30% of the forest, and Cyclone Aila in 2009.
I don’t want my research to be a record of something valuable we once had that’s been lost. The people of the Sundarbans need the forest, and so do the rest of us. If it is lost, it is a loss for us all.
The Sundarbans Needs Us
This is where you come in: we need to talk more about mangroves. Research into ecological function and food webs of mangroves only began in the 1970s and mangroves have historically had a weak lobby. Few people are aware of their function and values relative to other important ecosystems like rainforests.
Today, the picture is changing, with more scientists taking an interest in ‘blue carbon’ - carbon stored in coastal and marine ecosystems such as mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrasses. Mangroves are finally getting the attention they deserve.
You can help by informing yourself and raising awareness of the importance of mangrove ecosystems on social media. The Orton Academy Instagram account has a highlight reel dedicated to the Sundarbans and it’s people, and there’s lots more to come on this website about the cultural heritage of the area.
The conversation is just getting started. Join in!
For those who would like to take action to preserve our wild spaces, there’s plenty you can do. One thing to remember is that local people are best placed to protect the environments they call home and it can be counterproductive to assume that outsiders have all the answers.
I’m a big believer in starting with your own community and wild spaces that are local to you! One thing we’ve been doing here at Orton Academy and Research is creating a wildflower meadow. Read about how we’ve done this and the history and importance of Britain’s wildflower meadows in our blog post, The Yellow Rattle Experiment and find out how it’s developing in our 2023 wildflower meadow update!
Think about your own area and how you can protect vulnerable but important parts of your own environment. You might even want to start your own project investigating the cultural importance of wildlife in your area. I work with independent scholars undertaking their own research for an independent project, writing a book or simply those who have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with me and contact me to get started!
FIND OUT MORE:
To learn more about Dr. Orton’s research into people’s relationships with animals, visit Our Research Page to listen to her lectures on anthropology and wildlife, or read her blog post on Himalayan narratives to find out why we should prioritise the voices of local people in anthropological research. Learn more about how humans and animals work together in Bangladesh in Dr. Orton’s blog post about fishing with trained otters.
Explore the links between natural and cultural heritage and study wildlife and cultures from across the world in our online private tuition course, Culture and Conservation, or study people across the world in our Anthropology courses. These courses are templates of possible routes of study and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals. Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule – whether you are undertaking your own research for an independent project, writing a book or simply have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her!