The Sunderbans Tiger Reserve has started fining tourists and even banning entry to those caught with plastic or Styrofoam, considered severee threats to the fragile ecology of the world’s biggest mangrove forest.
First-time offenders, caught inside the forest with the biohazards, are being let off after a strong warning or a fine starting from Rs 500, depending on the magnitude of the breach of rules. But repeat-offenders, caught with the banned products even after being warned once, will be barred from entering the forests for the next three days, said a senior STR official, adding that even if it meant the violators would have to cut short their trips.
The step had to be taken to check tourists from leaving a trail of plastic bottles, plates and thermocol products during their visit to the riverine delta, which is home to several rare and endangered species, including the Bengal tiger, aquatic mammals, birds and reptiles. Close to 2 lakh tourists visit the Sunderbans every year, most of whom go there for picnic or trips on hired launches.
These groups cook food on board the ferries and the waste is dumped on the banks of the creeks. “Such callous tourists are causing immense harm to the environment of the Sunderbans forests, a Unesco heritage site, “said an official.
“Non-biodegradable material, such as plastic and thermocol, are becoming a big threat to the bio-diversity of the Sunderbans. Of late, the problem had peaked, prompting us to initiate the campaign,” said Kishore S Mankar, deputy field director of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. Unlike anti-plastic drives in the past, which were short lived, this would be a sustained campaign, which was launched in the third week of December, claimed officials.
Every night, members of the task force, comprising volunteers and officials of STR, board a mechanized boat to collect litter along the banks, picking the mangroves clean of abandoned slippers, plastic bottles, plastic bags and thermocol plates and glasses.
“If we find that any of the tourist parties has dumped plastic bags and thermocol plates outside their launch, the officials of the STR can immediately haul them up,” said Anil Krishna Mistry, general-secretary of Sunderban Shathi Multipurpose Co-operative, an NGO working at the grassroots level towards the conservation of the area.
According to Mistry, during the initial days of the drive, when the awareness was not too high, the clean-up volunteers collected more than 100kg hazardous waste on the patrolling trips. The volume has come down ever since.
“The restriction on plastic bags and Styrofoam is being enforced on areas adjacent to the forest as well. The high tide often washes up the hazardous material into the forest, increasing the chances of animals consuming them,” said deputy field director Mankar. Citing a case in point, an official said they had recently found a plastic bag inside the stomach of a carcass.
The archipelago of 54 islands , where almost five million people reside, is already reeling from the assault of global warming and pollution. In the recent past, the Sunderbans was hit hard by several natural calamities, with cyclones and catastrophic floods being constant occurrences. The authorities tried several methods to stop tourists from littering in the Sunderbans, but none of the drives seemed to yield results.as tourists show little or no interest in the forest or wild life.