Environmentalists have been objecting to the government’s plans to build up a tourist resort on Sonadia, at the cost of the island’s environmental balance. This environmentally threatened island is being pitched into further risk by the government’s fresh plans for a safari park there. Environmentalists say that despite the government’s assurances of eco-tourism, such a park will draw in huge crowds, pushing the island’s biodiversity into further danger.
The planning division of the government on 19 August issued a letter to the ministry of environment, forests and climate change, about setting up the safari park on Sonadia island. The letter said the park should be set up without harming the environment. Prior to that, the safari park project was approved at the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) meeting chaired by the prime minister on 8 August.
Chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), Syed Rizwana Hasan, told Prothom Alo that whether it was eco-tourism or a safari park, this would pose as a problem to the threatened animal life there. She said a limited number of tourists could be allowed to parts of the island where there was no forest or biodiversity.
Sonadia island is located in the Bay of Bengal, under the Kutubzom union of Maheshkhali upazila in Cox’s Bazar. With a population of around 2000, this island has an area of 9420 acres. The government has declared this island as an environmentally critical area (ECA) as well has having reserved forests.
The department of forests was basically in charge of this island’s management. However, last year the government placed this under the Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (BEZA) to build up Sonadia as an exclusive tourist resort.
Incidentally, Sonadia has the world’s second largest mangrove forest and is also the home of several rare bird species and turtles which are on the verge of extinction.
Acting executive chairman and member of the BEZA board Harun-ur-Rashid, speaking to Prothom Alo, said that they had drawn up a master plan for the Sonadia eco-park. But if the government wanted to set up a safari park there, they would not be able to do so singlehandedly. If necessary, they would implement the project along with the forest department.
Sonadia’s sandy shores are perfect breeding grounds for turtles to lay their eggs as the population on the island is sparse. Thousands of birds migrate here too during the winter months. Experts say these animals will flee the area if hordes of tourists arrive and bright lights illuminate the island at night.
The Centre for Environmental and Geographical Information Services (CEGIS), under the water resources ministry, carried out a survey in May on the impact of tourism on Sonadia. The survey report stated that 47 per cent of the island was still covered by forests of aerial root trees. However, over the past two decades, 26 per cent of the forests were destroyed. Three bird species on the verge of global extinction live on this island, including the spoon-billed sandpiper.
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* This report appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir