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A Bengal tiger in the Sundarbans (Image: Creative Commons)

A Bengal tiger in the Sundarbans (Image: Creative Commons)

After being rammed by a cargo vessel in the Chandpai dolphin sanctuary, an oil tanker has spilled thousands of gallons of oil into the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Sundarbans is so-called for the native Sundari trees, the mangrove species Heritiera fomes, that make up the largest deltaic mangrove forest in the world. The entire area is situated in a massive river delta, with tiny islands held together by the mangroves and divided by creeks and channels. About 3,850 square miles total, the Sundarbans is divided by the India-Bangladesh border, with some 60 percent of it on the Bangladeshi side and the remainder belonging to India.

Source: UNEP-WCMC; ProtectedPlanet.net via National Geographic

Source: UNEP-WCMC; ProtectedPlanet.net via National Geographic

The Sundarbans is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site and, according to the organization,

“[it] provides sustainable livelihoods for millions of people in the vicinity of the site and acts as a shelter belt to protect the people from storms, cyclones, tidal surges, sea water seepage and intrusion. The area provides livelihood in certain seasons for large numbers of people living in small villages surrounding the property, working variously as wood-cutters, fisherman, honey gatherers, leaves and grass gatherers.”

This is why an oil spill in the area could be catastrophic to the ecosystem.

National Geographic reports that some 52,000 gallons of fuel leaked into the Sundarbans after the Southern Star 7 tanker was struck by another ship on December 9. The tanker was left leaking in the Sela River for two days before it was towed to shore.

In addition to the environmental hazard the area faces, its richly diverse wildlife may now be in jeopardy. The Sundarbans is home to scores of animal species, including crocodiles, wild boars, monkeys, otters and about 260 species of birds. It also provides shelter for marine life and insects that need the mangroves to survive. The same goes for the animals on land, for without the vast root system of the mangroves its islands would break apart and the water would gradually erode the land, just as it is doing in southern Louisiana. If its mangroves suffocate from the oil then the trees will die.

The Sundarbans in Bangladesh (Image: Creative Commons)

The Sundarbans in Bangladesh (Image: Creative Commons)

The area is also home to protected Irrawaddy and Gangetic dolphins, as well as the endangered Bengal tiger.

One of the biggest concerns Bangladeshi environmental authorities face is how to clean the marshy area, which is difficult to access.

“This catastrophe is unprecedented in the Sundarbans, and we don’t know how to tackle this,” Amir Hossain, chief forest official of the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, told reporters.

No official numbers for the spill have been reported yet. More importantly, however, is how this accident was permitted to happen in the first place.

“How a shipping route of any kind was allowed to pass through all three of the dolphin sanctuaries is one of the many uncomfortable questions officials will likely be asked in the days ahead,” writes National Geographic’s Caroline Alexander.

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