Bangladesh — The world’s largest mangrove forest is recovering fast from one of the worst disasters in its history, a year after it was badly damaged by a devastating cyclone, Bangladesh officials say.
The Sundarbans bore the brunt when Cyclone Sidr — packing winds of up to 250 kilometres (150 miles) an hour — slammed into southern Bangladesh on November 15, 2007, killing over 3,500 people and wiping out thousands of villages.
Assessments by the forest department said the cyclone had left a trail of devastation unseen for decades, with some 1,500 square kilometres (600 square miles) of the forest damaged.
But now, Bangladeshi officials say things are looking up for the mangrove swamp, made up of around 200 lush forested islands, separated by a complex network of hundreds of tidal rivers and creeks.
“There are positive signs all around. The government’s policy to leave the forest untouched has helped,” said Sundarbans forest chief M. Shahidullah on Saturday.
Officials say the vast swamp has recovered substantially and that the government’s policy of leaving the forest to regenerate without human intervention helped it to regrow quickly.
“Golpata, the main tree of the mangrove forest, have started growing in the severely affected areas. Some of the areas have become leafy and the animals have returned,” said Shahidullah.
The 10,000-square-kilometre forest straddles the borders of Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal state and lies on the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta.
Experts say the huge expanse forms an important buffer shielding millions of people from the worst impact of the Bay of Bengal’s many cyclonic storms and tidal waves.
Although uninhabited, the jungle is a magnet for thousands of impoverished villagers who live along its boundaries and work as fishermen there or collect honey and wood.
It is also one of the few havens for the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger, and is thought to be home to around 10 percent of the animal’s worldwide population of between 5,000 and 6,000 – down from 100,000 in 1900.
Cyclone Sidr ripped through vast swathes of the Bangladesh side of the forest, uprooting hundreds of thousands of trees.
The force of the winds left many more stripped of their foliage and bark, giving the appearance of having been hit by a forest fire.
The forest department had initially considered assisted regeneration, such as clearing fallen trees or sowing seeds in the worst-hit areas.
But the government changed its mind after experts said the Sundarbans forest, a United Nations World Heritage site, would be best served if it was left alone.
The country’s emergency government banned any human entry or collection of honey, leaves and fallen trees in the worst affected eastern parts of the forest.
“It worked amazingly,” said Ashraful Islam, head of the government’s Bangladesh Forest Research Institute.
“I visited the affected areas a few months back and I saw hundreds of thousands of ‘burnt’ trees becoming leafy again.
“The forest is recovering fast. The trees have started regenerating and I believe within two to three years whole areas will look like they did before the cyclone,” he said.