Sundarban. Photo: Ihtisham Kabir
In January this year, I went on a guided tour of Sundarban and became so enchanted with the place that I returned in February. Bangladeshis are justifiably proud of this mangrove reserve forest. But as I learned more about Sundarban, I became curious about how this treasure compares to beautiful places elsewhere.
America's oldest national park came to mind. I have spent a few days in Yellowstone, which is a popular park in America's National Park system. Visitors come here for its scenic beauty, geological phenomena and plentiful wildlife.
Sundarban and Yellowstone are very different places. Nonetheless I found it interesting to compare them.
Both places were designated “protected area” by their respective governments within four years of each other: Yellowstone in 1872 and Sundarban in 1876. Yellowstone has an area of 9000 sq km, while Sundarban has about 10000, out of which 6000 falls in Bangladesh.
Today, commercial exploitation such as logging, fishing, or hunting is prohibited in Yellowstone, though that was not so in the early days. However, fishing and collection of forest products such as honey and nypa palm is allowed in Sundarban with government permission, and thousands make their living from this. Still, despite tremendous population pressure, Bangladesh has, by and large, managed to preserve Sundarban.
Neither park is safe from natural disasters. A large wildfire destroyed many of Yellowstone's trees in 1988 and Cyclone Sidr hit Sundarban hard in 2007. However, the resilience of nature has been extraordinary in both places.
About 2.5 million people visit Yellowstone annually. For Sundarban, the number of annual tourists is far, far lower, probably around ten thousand.
Much of this difference has to do with access and a middle-class with disposable income.
Yellowstone is crisscrossed by a network of roads and you can stay in hotels and campgrounds.
Sundarban was, for a long time, virtually inaccessible to the normal tourist because of its unfriendly terrain. Only in the last two decades has commercial tourism by boat become viable.
Incidentally, both places have wooden boardwalks to allow visitors to walk over inhospitable terrain.
How about biodiversity?
Sundarban has 42 species of mammals; Yellowstone has 67 species. Among birds, both preserves have approximately 300 species. Sundarban has 35 varieties of reptiles while Yellowstone has six. Of course, Sundarban boasts the Royal Bengal Tiger; Yellowstone has bears.
Since a third of Sundarban is covered with water, there are many more fish species – about 120 – than Yellowstone, which has 16.
Sundarban has far fewer plant species than Yellowstone (300 vs. 1700 approximately.) The saline water in Sundarban restricts the varieties of plants that can grow.
Yellowstone has historical associations, including President Teddy Roosevelt who fished and hunted here and once went on a solo 18-mile walk. Sundarban, on the other hand, has a rich culture of myths and legends, such as that of Banbibi.
But here is a glaring difference.
If you go to amazon.com and search for books on Yellowstone, over 6000 titles come up. But searching for Sundarban, there are less than one hundred titles (and many of them are arcane and academic.)