Who is Sundari?
Sundari is how people in India and Bangladesh call this magnificent tree that academicians refer to as Heritiera fomes, a species of mangrove tree that dominates the sprawling 10,000 km² forests of Sundarbans.
The H. fomes (Sundari), like other mangrove trees, are found in the deltaic confluence of the river with the ocean. Mangrove marshlands experience regular onslaught of salt water brought by the tides. Furthermore, the swampy soil, oxygen deprived and hyper-saturated with water, is hostile to most plant species. However, trees like the Sundari are the queen of the marshlands. They can extract oxygen from the air through specialised aerial roots (penumatophores) that jut out of the mud, and the leaves of these trees have glands to excrete excess salt.
It is a mother, a benefactor, and a protector.
A Sundari tree produces hard timber that is fine-grained, tough, and elastic. Thus, finds its use in construction and as firewood. Fish in the Sundarbans are an important source of nutrition for locals, who also benefit economically from the tourism industry that thrives here.
The canopy of the Sundari forest and the network of roots shelter the birds, fish, reptiles, molluscs, insects, crustaceans, and even mammals to breed and raise their young ones. Food for the little ones is often not an issue here, perhaps the reason why mangroves are aptly called the nature’s nursery.
The Sundarbans have a distinction of harbouring some of the world’s rarest and elusive animals such as the Royal Bengal Tiger. India’s national aquatic animal, the Gangetic River dolphin (Platanista gangetica), which is a rare riverine dolphin can be found frolicking in the waters of the Sundarbans. The list of critically endangered animals that find shelter among the branches and roots of the Sundari trees is long.
The Sundaris not only protect wildlife, but they are also known to shelter human beings from devastating cyclones. The Sundarbans are excellent at carbon sequestration and help our fight against climate change.
The Sundarbans are the world’s largest mangrove forest; however, the area under the forest has decreased drastically due to both natural and anthropogenic factors. The natural degradation is primarily due to conversion of the mangroves into sand bars, wetlands, and swamps while major anthropogenic reasons for mangrove degradation include urbanisation, conversion of mangrove into cropland, salt mining, and aquaculture.
While checking human activities can help, mitigation of damage from climatic factors will require a strategic approach. Use of geospatial technology to identify suitable mangrove species and landmass for mangrove restoration can be practiced.
The Sundari trees and their namesake, Sundarbans, undoubtedly provide great ecological and economic service, and their degradation can be catastrophic. The conservation of the mangrove trees will also help in preventing many species of animals from going extinct. It is therefore essential that we identify the factors responsible for the loss of our mangrove forests and make sincere conservation efforts.