By Moinul Hoque Chowdhury
St Martin's Island, Bangladesh —The coral St Martin's Island is seeing a growing threat to its rich and unique biodiversity treasures, says Chittagong University marine science institute teacher Mohammad Zafar.
"It was a happy experience in 1972 to meet and talk to some of the 112 islanders then inhabiting this tiny three and a half square kilometre island, which was baptised as St Martin's Island in 1912 after the name of a Christian priest. Coming back to them in 2009 seemed a shock to me," Prof Zafar told bdnews24.com.
"The population has now swelled to a staggering seven thousand figure. On average, another 1,500 tourists happen to visit the island daily. The 'overly enthusiastic among the visitors again take back their collection of conches, shells and corals from the island."
Coupled with the pressure from tourists, the prospect of climate change has also worsened the state of vulnerability of St Martin's Island today, the marine scientist expressed his concerns over the fast depleting biodiversity resources of the island as well as the rising sea level.
It is a formidable challenge to preserve the local biodiversity before the island goes down, said the professor to bdnews24.com.
Reviewing the turn of the events since 1998, when infrastructures like hotels, motels and private cottages cropped up destroying the quiet and pristine beauty and overall environment of the place, Zafar said, "Rare marine turtle species such as Olive Ridley, the myriad coloured corals, patches of mangrove species, conches, shells, moluscs, silvery dune formations, innumerable marine life forms are all either gradually shrinking or facing total extinction."
Another small islet called Bholar Dweep situated in between Teknaf and St Martin's Island disappeared in 1861 which, the professor mentioned, might have been caused by an undersea quake or some sort of upheavals.
Shamim Hasan, a tourist who lives and works in Singapore, said in utter vexation, "I have come here with my friends. We found the trip absolutely meaningless. To me, it's another bothersome trip to a crowded bazaar. St Martin's has lost her fame for serenity."
Feelings of almost all vacationers arriving on the island to spend their Eid holidays spoke similar to what Hasan said.
Local minors were seen stealthily coaxing visitors everywhere into buying samples of corals priced at Tk 20-40, although coral harvesting has been prohibited by the government.
Dhaka University zoology professor Dr Anwarul Islam said, "St Martin's biodiversity destruction is a glaring example of how we have been damaging our environment and ecology. Paying a visit to the island will demonstrate how human interventions might plunder a green natural sanctuary before even climate change has its full effect."
Unless all concerned take appropriate management measures immediately to save the island, it may be too late to salvage what we have lost already because of our mindless hankering for development-at-any-cost, deplored Dr Islam.
Presence of tourists, arriving in bulk, has put tremendous pressure on the island's capacity for handling sewage and waste disposal, a government conducted environmental study on the island presented recently in parliament said.
The environmental study conducted jointly by environment experts and government audit personnel recommended the islanders to be relocated elsewhere, limiting the number of visitors to the place and controlling human mobility across the fragile ecological wonder.
Otherwise, the study findings warned apocalyptically, ever-increasing human habitation coupled with unabated natural resource harvesting should lead to massive deaths of its inhabitants through toxic water ingestion, and the island being abandoned as 'a haunted spot'.
Professor Zafar said, potable water is available on the island to anyone digging only 12 metres down; but the water level is going down very fast now because of unlimited extraction of the groundwater required to meet the needs of the tourists.
"The wells will be filled with saline water soon, which will surely put the islanders as well as the tourists in problem. The island will then lose its attraction as a tourist spot," he said.
Rafiqul Islam, responsible for management of environmentally critical areas (ECA) under the coastal wetlands and biodiversity manage project run by the environment directorate, told bdnews24.com, St Martin's Island is one of the 12 ECAs designated in Bangladesh and hence it needs special conservation efforts.
The island houses 65 biodiversity species including five species of turtles and myriad corals, he said, recommendations for bringing the island under an ecotourism project are being forwarded to the government.
Moulvi Firoz Ahmed Khan, chairman of the island union under Teknaf upazila of Cox's Bazar district, told bdnews24.com, "We, the islanders will save the environment and ecology of our land. The government should also extend support in conserving and preserving the island, including its inhabitants."
Not endorsing the view that too many tourists are endangering the island's existence, the people's representative alleged that the administration is not allowing the locals to build even tin-roof pucca houses any more.
He assured the government of the locals' cooperation in making the island environment friendly if they get the permission to build houses there.