Location and Values: The Sundarbans is part of the largest mangrove forest in the world, located across the outer delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers where they flow into the Bay of Bengal. The delta, extending over 10,000 km2, straddles the border between India and Bangladesh, where two adjacent world heritage sites protect a quarter of the delta’s total area. The Sundarbans forest occupies a multitude of small islands and mudflats intersected by an intricate network of tidal waterways, with about 15 major rivers running North-South through the delta from their source in the three major inflowing rivers at the head of the delta. The delta is in a constant state of ecological change in response to monsoon flooding, siltation, erosion, tidal influence, plant colonization and the impact of severe weather events such as cyclones.
The Sundarbans is the only remaining habitat in the lower Bengal Basin with a wide variety of fauna, including rare and endangered species such as the Bengal tiger and estuarine crocodile as well as 315 species of birds, 53 reptiles and an estimated 400 species of fish. Protection of the site is all the more important given that 40% of the natural habitat that existed in the delta 200 years ago has been converted to agriculture, with the loss of most of the area’s large mammals. Species that have become locally extinct as a result of agricultural reclamation and increases in soil salinity include Javan and Indian rhinoceros, Indian water buffalo, muntjac, swamp and hog deer, gaur, gharial, mugger crocodile and narrow-headed softshell turtle.
Conservation Status and Prospects. According to IUCN’s Conservation Outlook Assessment (2017) the conservation status of The Sundarbans is of ‘significant concern’, as the site’s world heritage values are showing signs of deterioration. The IUCN report notes that, while some of the threats originate beyond the site boundaries, they are many and severe. These include (1) unsustainable levels of resource use and extraction affecting vegetation communities and loss of endangered species within the mangrove forests, (2) spread of plant diseases affecting mangrove species, (3) harmful fishing practices, (4) extraction of freshwater in upstream areas leading to altered hydrology and increased salinity, (5) pollution from shipping and upstream industrial development (including a proposed power plant at Rampal), (6) impacts of shrimp aquaculture, (7) poaching of high value species (including Bengal tiger) for the illegal wildlife trade, (8) insufficient funding and management capacity and (9) climate change resulting in rapid sea level rise, inundation and erosion, as well as anticipated increases in the frequency and severity of storms, tidal surges and other catastrophic weather events.
Official UNESCO Site Details
IUCN Conservation Outlook
UNEP-WCMC Site Description