Indian Sundarban was accorded the status of ‘Wetland of International Importance’ under the Ramsar Convention. The Sundarbans comprises hundreds of islands and a network of rivers, tributaries and creeks in the delta of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal in India and Bangladesh. Located on the southwestern part of the delta, the Indian Sundarban constitutes over 60% of the country’s total mangrove forest area. It is the 27th Ramsar Site in India, and with an area of 4,23,000 hectares is now the largest protected wetland in the country.

Importance of Sundarban

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) is an international agreement promoting the conservation and wise use of wetlands. It is the only global treaty to focus on a single ecosystem.

Wetlands actually provide freshwater and food, and serve as nature’s shock absorber. The mangrove forests protect the hinterland from storms, cyclones, tidal surges, and the seepage and intrusion of saltwater inland and into waterways. They serve as nurseries to shellfish and finfish and sustain the fisheries of the entire eastern coast.

The Indian Sundarban, also a UNESCO world heritage site, is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger. The Sundarban Tiger Reserve is situated within the Site and part of it has been declared a “critical tiger habitat” under national law and also a “Tiger Conservation Landscape” of global importance. The Sundarbans are the only mangrove habitat which supports a significant population of tigers, and they have unique aquatic hunting skills.

The Site is also home to a large number of rare and globally threatened species such as the critically endangered northern river terrapin, the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, and the vulnerable fishing cat. Two of the world’s four horseshoe crab species, and eight of India’s 12 species of kingfisher are also found here.

The uniqueness of the habitat and its biodiversity, and the many tangible and intangible, local, regional and global services they provide, makes the Site’s protection and management a conservation priority. Recent studies claim that the Indian Sundarban is home to 2,626 faunal species and 90% of the country’s mangrove varieties.

Threats to Sundarban

  • Wetlands, critical for biodiversity, are disappearing rapidly, with recent estimates showing that 64% or more of the world’s wetlands have vanished since 1900.
  • Major changes in land use for agriculture and grazing, water diversion for dams and canals and infrastructure development are considered to be some of the main causes of loss and degradation of wetlands.
  • While the Indian Sundarban is a biodiverse preserve, over four million people live on its northern and northwestern periphery, putting pressure on the ecosystem. Concerns have been raised about natural ecosystems being changed for cultivation of shrimp, crab, molluscs and fish.
  • The Ramsar Information Sheet lists fishing and harvesting of aquatic resources as a “high impact” actual threat to the wetland.
  • The other threats are from dredging, oil and gas drilling, logging and wood harvesting, hunting and collecting terrestrial animals.
  • Salinity has been categorised as a medium and tourism as a low impact actual threat in the region.
  • It is also vulnerable to climate change and requires better management and conservation practices.

Ramsar Convention and its Criteria

The Convention on Wetlands, called the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

The Convention’s mission is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”.

The Convention uses a broad definition of wetlands. It includes all lakes and rivers, underground aquifers, swamps and marshes, wet grasslands, peatlands, oases, estuaries, deltas and tidal flats, mangroves and other coastal areas, coral reefs, and all human-made sites such as fish ponds, rice paddies, reservoirs and salt pans.

How did Sundarban qualify?

The Indian Sundarban met four of the nine criteria required for the status of ‘Wetland of International Importance’ —

  1. presence of rare species
  2. threatened ecological communities,
  3. biological diversity,
  4. significant and representative fish and fish spawning ground and migration path.

Environmentalists and forest officials say the Ramsar status will help to highlight conservation issues of the Sundarbans at the international level. The part of the Sundarban delta, which lies in Bangladesh, was accorded the status of a Ramsar site in 1992, and with Indian Sundarban getting it too, international cooperation between the two countries for the protection of this unique ecosystem will increase. This could lead to a better conservation strategy for flagship species such as the tiger and the northern river terrapin.

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