27/12/2014
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Massive oil spill in Bangladesh

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An oil- and mud- soaked Black-capped Kingfisher at Mrigamari canal, Sundarbans, Bangladesh, earlier this week. Photo: Tanim Ashraf (BirdLife International).
An oil- and mud- soaked Black-capped Kingfisher at Mrigamari canal, Sundarbans, Bangladesh, earlier this week. Photo: Tanim Ashraf (BirdLife International).
A tanker and another vessel collided last week, spilling more than 350,000 litres of oil into the waters of the Sundarban tidal mangrove forests in Bangladesh, a World Heritage Site.

The Sundarban region extends across southern Bangladesh and into India, and is home to around four million people, most of whom make their living directly from the great forest, its labyrinthine waterways and vast saline mud flats. The Sundarbans is the largest mangrove and mud-flat-covered delta. It contains large swathes of protected areas that host diverse wildlife, including Bengal Tiger and Ganges River Dolphins, as well as threatened birds such as Masked Finfoot.

The oil tanker Southern Star 7 was docked 2.5 miles from the confluence of the Sela and Passur rivers, near Mrigamari, in dense fog, when it was hit by a cargo ship, which has also shed an unknown quantity of oil. The tanker was loaded with 350,000 litres of heavy furnace oil, of which about 230,000 litres is believed to have entered the region's fragile ecosystem.

Local men, women and children are being reported as cleaning up the huge spill with their bare hands, many covered from head to toe with the oil. At low tide, three-metre high black 'tide marks' show over many square miles of mangrove forest. Apart from these local fishermen and their families, there appears to be no national or international help being mobilised in the region, and the Bangladesh government's official line seems to be "no harm came from the oil-spill and it is all under control".

Sayam Chowdhury is the Principal Investigator of the Sundarbans Finfoot Research Project and knows this amazing part of Bangladesh well. He said: "It is hard to separate emotions from the facts when a member of your family dies. A part of you dies with them. Dealing with the oil spill in the Sundarbans is no less than this, a wound that time may not heal."

“The oil is entering the narrow creeks and accumulating along the banks where Masked Finfoot and other waterbirds forage. If the crabs and small fish are dying then it is very likely that finfoot will be the next, as those are its main food items,” said Sayam Chowdhury.

“Also, if the birds are covered in oil and it gets into their eyes, they are less likely to escape predation, their body temperatures may drop, they may not be able to hunt and will likely starve to death. This is true for more than 100 species of waterbirds, including eight species of kingfisher and at least 10 species of birds of prey ... The long-term impact of this spill on the bird life of the Sundarbans is unimaginable.”

The oil spill clean-up is almost wholly dependent on locals in the area, who have no equipment, training or protection. A national outcry in the press may goad the government and aid agencies into action, but there are no reports of this so far.
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