Cyclone Yaas that barreled through coastal Odisha with hostile winds and torrential downpour could have unleashed a destruction of unimaginable proportions if not for the hundreds of mile-long luxuriant mangrove canopy that etches along the State's coastline as a protective barrier against nature's fury.
However, rampant deforestation by prawn mafia operating within Bhitarkanika National Park is not only decimating the forest but has also made the country’s second largest mangrove cover prone to the very cyclones and other natural calamities that it itself protects others from.
According to researchers and local people, the mangrove forest, covering over 251 square kilometres in the coastal area of the State, has once again helped the State withstand a powerful and extremely severe cyclonic storm with wind speed up to 150 kmph. Even the country's premier weather forecasting agency, the IMD recently agreed that the mangroves also played a vital part in reducing the intensity of the cyclone.
The region of Bhitarkanika has witnessed seven major cyclones in the past two decades including Yaas. But every time, the cyclone leaves the National Park and the nearby human habitations without any major damage.
The villages on the periphery of the national park are saved as the mangrove cover acted as a buffer zone in protecting the human settlements. Because of the thick density of mangrove forest in Bhitarkanika, the flora and fauna of the park were unharmed due to the cyclone this time around too.
"Mangrove trees with their intricate root system stabilise the coastline, reducing erosion from storm surges, currents, waves, and tides. Mangrove forests shelter the seaside villages from the impact of storms. But, over the years, green cover in these areas has decreased significantly," rued researcher Debi Priyadarshini adding that the government should carry out re-plantation work in the area to save it from the natural disasters.
“Prawn mafia in nexus with forest officials have been clearing the forest as a result of which many trees were uprooted in the storm and our villages are becoming vulnerable to storms and high sea tide," said a villager Arjun Mandal.
Now the ecological treasure house is witnessing a systematic destruction thanks to denudation of mangrove forest in these areas by prawn mafia.
Meanwhile, according to the State forest department, a long term plan has been prepared to recreate mangrove forest in the area.
"We have set a target to plant around 1000 hectare of lands in the area within next three years. The work in this regard has already been started. We have planned to finish plantation in around 280 hectares of land this year," said Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) Shashi Paul.
(Edited by Suryakant Jena)