Covering approximately 10,000 km2
the Sundarbans in the Northern Bay of Bengal is the largest contiguous mangrove forest on earth. Mangroves forests are highly productive and diverse ecosystems, providing a wide range of direct ecosystem services for resident populations. In addition, mangroves function as a buffer against frequently occurring cyclones; helping to protect local settlements including the two most populous cities of the world, Kolkata and Dhaka, against their worst effects. While large tracts of the Indian Sundarbans were cleared, drained and reclaimed for cultivation during the British colonial era, the remaining parts have been under various protection regimes since the 1970s, primarily to protect the remaining population of Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris
). In view of the importance of such forests, now severely threatened worldwide, we trace the areal change that the Indian Sundarbans have undergone over the last two-and-a-half centuries. We apply a multi-temporal and multi-scale approach based on historical maps and remote sensing data to detect changes in mangrove cover. While the mangroves’ areal extent has not changed much in the recent past, forest health and structure have. These changes result from direct human interference, upstream development, extreme weather events and the slow onset of climate change effects. Moreover, we consider the role of different management strategies affecting mangrove conservation and their intersection with local livelihoods.
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