Swamp forests around the world play a pivotal role in maintaining biodiversity, sustaining livelihood, and nourishing the ecosystem of wetlands. The Asia-Pacific region – particularly Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, and countries of Africa – are still endowed with swamp forests to a varying degree. These precious resources act as a harbor (spawning ground) of rich fresh water species of fish, and a repository of a number of non-timber forest products. Bangladesh too is blessed with both saltwater and freshwater swamp forests. Although the state of most of these forests is somewhat dismal, they still continue to remain a vital source of floral and faunal diversity and livelihood for local communities.
Bangladesh’s freshwater swamp forests demand special attention and significance due to their unique characteristics in maintaining wetland biodiversity. The Ratargul Swamp Forest – popularly dubbed as the Sundarban of the East – has, of late, received heightened public and media attention on the country’s paramount freshwater swamp forest. Notwithstanding the controversy amongst concerned scientists regarding whether Ratargul is a natural swamp forest or an artificially created one, the forest has moved to centre stage of our interest and attention in the recent months.
Located some 45 kilometer away from the Sylhet city centre, towards the north-west, the Ratargul Forest falls within the administrative jurisdiction of the Goainghat Upazila in Sylhet. The management of the forest is under purview of the North Sylhet Range of the Sylhet Forest Division. Inundated and nourished by the freshwater streams of the Goain River (locally called Chenger Khal) and its tributaries, Ratargul has created a unique wetland ecosystem.
Ratargul’s ecosystem is enriched with wetland plants, mammals, avifauna, and reptiles. A recent study enumerated 74 plants species, 9 amphibians, 20 reptiles, 26 mammals, and 175 birds (including migratory ones) in the locality. The forest ecosystem is also supporting the habitat of numerous freshwater fish species.
The proposed plan of the Forest Department for declaring Ratargul as a “wildlife sanctuary” has prompted some debate amongst environmental activists. One major concern is that the launch of such a governmental facility may pave the way for bringing in a host of actors and interventions (notably physical infrastructure construction, unregulated flow of tourists, a variety of commercial operators) into the locality, which may seriously jeopardise the biodiversity and ecosystem values of this forest.
Based on a recent study tour arranged by the Forestry and Environmental Science Department, Shahjalal Science and Technology University (SUST), and selected consultation with key stakeholders, we have attempted to contemplate on some remedial measures towards conservation and sustenance of the country’s only fresh water swamp forest.
To protect the biodiversity, and to give adequate room for sustaining the current status of Ratargul Swamp Forest, a combination of short, medium, and long-term ameliorative measures may be considered.
Immediate rationalisation and restrictions on tourist access to the forest until further notice; the recent uncontrolled flux of tourists seems to be seriously affecting the health of the forest.
More care, sensitivity and thoughts need to go in devising an appropriate policy for the media to report on Ratargul.
Mass awareness programs should be undertaken among the locals living in and around the forest to inform them about the current fragile status of the forest and the importance of conserving swamp forest biodiversity for their existence.
A comprehensive biodiversity status assessment survey should be carried out, which may help practitioners, managers and policy makers in developing management plans for Ratargul forest.
The Forest Department should stop leasing out patipata and cane to expedite the regeneration and conservation process since the amount of revenue generating through this leasing system is very nominal.
Tending operations (cleaning, de-branching assist regeneration) should be carried out on a regular basis to create room for natural regeneration particularly in monsoon.
Selection of species in planting that are suitable for the existing ecosystem and can also be a source of food for the animal, particularly monkeys.
There should be the development of a comprehensive management plan, which involves the Forest Department, academia, researchers, local community and other stakeholders.
Infrastructural development should be at its minimum in order to maintain the original and pristine characteristics of the forest.
The Forest Department should concentrate in improving the existing status of floral and faunal diversity through adopting biodiversity enrichment program.
Taking lessons on best practices from neighbouring countries could be helpful while devising our own management plan.
Sustainability of Ratargul forest will largely depend on appropriate policy, an inclusive decision-making process, and the effective mode of community engagement in the governance of the forest. We have to be judicious and selective in undertaking any development efforts in order to give top priority on biodiversity protection that, in the long run, may open up many vistas of opportunities for the local communities – including eco-tourism. Ratargul represents a part of our solemn heritage, and we must do our best to conserve this precious gift of nature.