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World Environment Day: Alternative livelihoods interfering in Sunderbans?

Kolkata: Are alternative livelihood sources, such as bee-keeping, interfering with the ongoing natural processes in the world's largest continuous mangrove forests - the fragile Sunderbans?

Scientists of the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) have recently discovered something unusual in the activity of insects that flit around the mangrove plants collecting pollen grains and nectar from flowers and unknowingly spread the pollen around, helping these plant species reproduce (a process called pollination).

"In the Bali Island of the Indian Sunderbans in West Bengal, domestic bees from the bee boxes are not allowing wild insect pollinators to sit on the flowers of some species because of their aggression and large numbers. But in other islands, in the same species, we can see the wild pollinators visiting," Bulganin Mitra, an entomologist with ZSI, told IANS.

This could indicate that means of local livelihoods, such as bee-keeping, may be "restricting" the natural work of these pollinators that have a role in the proliferation of the mangrove species in the Sunderbans, Mitra added.

Sunderbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is known for its exceptional biodiversity in flora and fauna with a staggering 334 plant species and 693 species of wildlife, which include 49 mammals, 59 reptiles, eight amphibians, 210 white fishe, 24 shrimps, 14 crabs and 43 mollusks.

It is also home to the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger and reports of the endangered species attacking humans while fishing and hunting are common.

The livelihood issues in the Sunderbans are also linked to climate change with increasing sea-levels and salinity depriving locals of means of sustaining themselves.

At the core of sustainability are the declining mangrove species (such as the Sundari trees) which are crucial to support livelihoods, provide carbon sinks and act as a buffer against climate change.

To shed light on protection strategies with a holistic approach, Mitra and a team of ZSI scientists are investigating the role of insect pollinators on the conservation of the major mangrove species of the Sunderbans, a project of the union ministry of environment, forests and climate change.

Through observations carried out during the day as well as night on eight mangrove species (of the total 24) across five islands in the Indian Sunderbans, experts "unexpectedly" found that overall, more species of flies were visiting the plants instead of bees, which are known to be one of the most common insect pollinators.

"In Bali Island, however, where bee boxes are placed as a source of alternative livelihood, the wild insect pollinators are kept at bay. But one can't simply ask the locals to remove the bee boxes because that would put them in harm's way (tiger attacks and the like) as they would have to resort to other means of livelihood in another part of the island," Mitra explained.

This intricate relationship between man and animal in the Sunderbans calls for discussions with all stakeholders, according to ZSI director K. Venkataraman.

"There should be awareness initiated among the public and there should be co-management by the public and the government. There is a lot of research which is needed to conserve the Sunderbans and studies have to be taken up by various departments. Research institutions should give priority to other groups of animals and not just the tiger alone," Venkataraman told IANS.

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