The Importance of Plant Conservation in the Sundarbans

Kristina Algas

In any ecosystem, the survival of every animal– from the mightiest apex predator to the smallest river fish– ultimately depends on the survival of the region’s plant life. The complex ecology of the Sundarbans Reserved Forest is just one example of an ecological community that is rooted (quite literally!) in its diverse flora; this makes plant conservation efforts in the region all the more important, as the forest has been facing a biodiversity crisis over the past few decades. 

Unfortunately, efforts to restore plant life in the Sundarbans are few and far between. Tree canopies thin out and disappear as the forest itself begins to dwindle in size, leaving animals without food, shelter, and protection from human activity. Even worse, unchecked development projects around the forest make room for invasive plant species to take root and choke out native plant populations, further contributing to the cycle of environmental degradation. For these reasons and many more, plant conservation is incredibly important to conservation efforts in the Sundarbans at large– and it’s time for us to recognize that once and for all.

Why Worry About Plants?

You might not guess that the Sundarbans– with its lush greenery and thriving wildlife– is facing a plant conservation crisis. However, studies show that native plant populations (particularly mangroves) in the Sundarbans have been dwindling since the introduction of urban development. This could pose a serious threat to the entirety of the ecosystem for a number of reasons, including the loss of biodiversity and the potential benefits to humans, animals, and other plants.

Loss of Biodiversity

A spotted deer, one of the many endangered animals in the Sundarbans. Photo by Mamun Srizon on Unsplash

Although the Sundarbans is most famous for its mangrove forests, these trees only make up a fraction of the amazing biodiversity that the Sundarbans has to offer. The diversity of the forest itself, with over 334 species of flora– including 32 species of mangroves, has helped the Sundarbans earn its title as a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

Each individual plant and animal species fulfills an important role, which is determined by its ecological niche. An ecological niche is a particular, often extremely specific place in the ecosystem that can only be filled by a certain species. As plant species in the Sundarbans continue to face poor environmental conditions and the threat of extinction, the ecosystem may end up with ecological niches emptied faster than they can be filled. When a species goes extinct or is otherwise removed from its native habitat, the entire ecosystem suffers that much more for it, further imbalancing its delicate balance of give and take.

Benefits to Animals and Humans

Aside from the known psychological benefits of exposure to nature, the plants in the Sundarbans have incredible benefits to both animals and humans. For instance, the Sundari mangrove– the very tree for which the forest itself was named– has seen a variety of uses in traditional folk medicine, including healing wounds, curing toothaches, and even repelling mosquitoes. Despite this, very few sundari mangroves remain in the Sundarbans, and may even be on the brink of extinction

Additionally, the existence of certain plant species in the Sundarbans is crucial to the wellbeing of the forest itself. Mangroves do more than just provide food and shelter to the forests’ many inhabitants; they also contribute to land formation by retaining sediment buildup within their roots. In doing so, these trees quite literally hold up the ground on which the forest stands, creating habitats for countless plants and animals.

Threats to Plant Conservation

Common water hyacinths. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Invasive Plant Species

The Sundarbans is a long-term victim of biological invasion, or the aggressive destruction of a habitat caused by the invasion of non-native plant species. Unlike native plants, invasive plant species have no niche of their own in the ecosystem they inhabit, instead taking up space and resources for themselves. 

Although the actual number of invasive plant species growing in the Sundarbans is yet to be determined, we do know that about 88% of the region is home to at least one invasive plant species. There are two particularly prevalent species of invasive plants in the Sundarbans. Karanjvel (derris trifoliata) is a climbing vine that smothers anything that attempts to grow underneath it, including the saplings of native plants. Common water hyacinth (eichhornia crassipes) crowds waterways, restricting river access and driving out native aquatic wildlife. 

Many areas in the Sundarbans that are affected by biological invasion have been severely damaged by the introduction of invasive plant species, putting the entirety of the forest at further risk of degradation.

Unregulated Activity and Development

Boats on the river by the Sundarbans. Photo by Solimar International

Unregulated urban development is the major driving force behind habitat loss in the Sundarbans. If left unchecked, human activity (tourism, construction, noise pollution, boats, etc.) can disrupt and disturb nearby habitats; this can interfere with natural geographical processes, damage the health of local wildlife, and create opportunities for invasive plants to take root.

Human activity also contributes to the overuse and exploitation of local resources, especially when local policies are made without regard for environmental wellbeing. In the early years of the forest’s management as a tourist destination, only economically valuable species of mangrove were protected under conservation laws. The rest of the mangroves were left vulnerable to deforestation and damage from human activity. Ultimately, this resulted in the Sundarbans’ steadily shrinking mangrove population, with even the most prevalent species losing their presence in the forest. 

Overtourism is also a significant cause of environmental damage in the Sundarbans. Although the many tourists that visit the Sundarbans significantly contribute to the country’s economy, very few measures exist to regulate tourist activity. The overcrowding and lack of precautions taken to protect the Sundarbans often directly results in damage to local wildlife. Some travelers may even think to do deliberate harm to the plants, and will often face very few consequences due to the lack of existing policy.

Although it is ultimately up to the tourists themselves to travel responsibly, very few regulations are put in place by local stakeholders that prioritize the forest itself. Making policies that keep the forest’s best interest in mind– not just stakeholders– could make a huge difference that may determine the future of the Sundarbans.

The Way Forward: What Can You Do For Plant Conservation?

A boat crossing a river at sunset. Photo by Rashedul Islam Hridoy on Unsplash

The unfortunate truth is that the importance of plant conservation is often overlooked, especially in places facing existing conservation crises. This is especially true for the Sundarbans and its delicate ecosystem, where disturbances to plant life can send shockwaves through the entire ecological community. Here are some things you can do to promote plant conservation as a traveler and as part of your local community.

1. Tread Lightly

Perhaps the simplest and easiest thing you can do for plants is to watch where you step. Although hardy plants like grasses and dandelions can survive their own share of footfalls, delicate plants can be seriously harmed by disturbances in the soil, especially in nature reserves or other places where wild plants grow undisturbed. Be sure to respect the plant life around you– you never know what might be just underneath your foot!

2. Address “Plant Blindness” in Conservation

Plant conservation efforts have been historically underrepresented in favor of animal conservation. This is due to a phenomenon known as “plant blindness,” in which people fail to recognize plants as living beings due to a lack of traits often associated with life (movement, hunger, etc). However, this neglects the extremely important role that plants fulfill in upholding the world’s ecosystems.

By addressing the importance of plants in their own right– not as objects or setpieces, but as autonomous living beings– we begin to recognize the importance of their conservation.

3. Regenerative Tourism

Tourism can create a huge burden on local communities and plant life; however, sustainable tourism practices can help a destination’s travel industry become a source of positive change. One example of this regenerative tourism, which implements nature-based solutions that are unique to each destination’s geography and ecology.

A regenerative tourism solution that is already practiced in the Sundarbans is the forest’s annual closure period. From the beginning of June to the end of August, visitors are not allowed to enter the park, giving the forest time to replenish itself and recover from the previous tourism season. This solution works around the natural ecology of the Sundarbans, and is vital for protecting the park and its plant life during its most ecologically vulnerable period.

However, private tourism industries are pushing to remove this closure period in order to create new opportunities for guests, despite the potential harm this could do to the forest itself. This makes it all the more important to create new, sustainable opportunities for travelers that balance fun and sustainability.

To learn more about regenerative tourism and what to look out for as a conscious traveler, click here. You can also visit Solimar’s official website to learn more about what they do to make sustainable tourism possible around the world.

About the Author

Kristina Algas

Kristina Algas is a 2023 graduate of UC Santa Barbara with a BA in Communications. She participated in the Summer 2023 internship at Solimar International, assisting the USAID Ecotourism Activity project team develop website and social media content, blog articles, and other technical writing to support Sustainable Tourism Development in the Greater Sundarbans region of Bangladesh.