Asuper cyclone named Amphan struck Sundarbans on Wednesday, May 20, and continued north causing widespread destruction. A transnational nursery of universal importance, Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest on Earth and is situated on a delta formed by the confluence of three rivers—the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and the Meghna—on the Bay of Bengal spanning across south Bangladesh and coastal West Bengal.
Amphan is the first major cyclone to make a landfall in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic in a densely populated region, which raises many questions about impacts. At the same time, the responses we have seen so far from the people of Sundarbans and the governments of Bangladesh and India can serve as a guide for other nations that may encounter similar ecological and social challenges in the coming months as we have now entered the hurricane season for both the Atlantic and the Pacific that will not end until November 30.
What impacts did Cyclone Amphan have on trees, wildlife and the people of Sundarbans?
Soon I’ll get to that question, focusing largely on three aspects: the unknowability of wildlife casualties, social impacts on people, and connecting tropical cyclones to the escalating crisis of biological annihilation that includes human-caused species extinctions, die-offs and massacres. But first, let us begin our journey in Kolkata, the city of my youth, which is about 100 km northwest of Sundarbans.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this before in my life,” my 81-year old ailing mother said over the phone from her residence in Kolkata. She recounted the harrowing experience of living through heavy rain and strong wind which came into the flat after breaking the glass protection on windows. Access to medical care and securing food had become somewhat challenging for her due to the coronavirus restrictions that were in place at the time the cyclone struck. On April 16, the central government had identified Kolkata as “a coronavirus or COVID-19 hotspot.” The following day, dozens of neighborhoods in Kolkata “were barricaded and sealed by the city,” the NDTV reported. Amphan made everything worse.
My mother survived and is doing okay. Millions of others are not. The poor, children, and the marginalized continue to endure severe physical, emotional, and material suffering.
“We are facing three crises,” Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal said: “the coronavirus, the thousands of migrants who are returning home, and now the cyclone.” Banerjee called the cyclone “another virus from the sky,” which “completely devastated” two districts in Kolkata and caused an estimated $13.2 billion in damage in West Bengal alone.
On May 21, I spent all morning on the phone with loved ones in Kolkata.
“The trees gave up their lives to protect us,” my nephew Tathagata Chatterjee reflected. The downed trees he saw in his neighborhood reminded Tathagata who teaches English literature, of a 1966 poem “On Killing a Tree” by Mumbai-based Parsi poet Gieve Patel. The poet reminds us of nature’s resilience—that it is not easy to kill a tree. You have to apply a lot of force to uproot one, which will eventually kill the tree.
“The root is to be pulled out –
Out of the anchoring earth;
Out from the earth-cave,
And the strength of the tree exposed,
The source, white and wet,
The most sensitive, hidden
For years inside the earth.”
The poem resonates for our time as human-caused destruction of nature has taken on such a massive scale and intensity that we can no longer accept narratives of nature’s resilience at face value.
On Monday, May 18, still offshore, Cyclone Amphan had reached a 3-minute maximum sustained wind speed of 230 km/h becoming the strongest cyclone over the Bay of Bengal for the 21st century and so far the strongest on Earth this year. The sheer force of the gale after landfall uprooted over 5,000 trees in Kolkata alone.
Amphan has not only caused widespread destruction in Kolkata but also across much of south Bangladesh and West Bengal. The Sundarbans, being situated on the coast, had to take the first and the most severe brunt of the cyclone with major storm surges and high wind.
I spent the rest of Thursday and Friday reading news about the cyclone’s trail of destruction. As of this writing, more than 100 people have died and that number will likely increase as assessments expand beyond the city to reach rural and remote areas. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes. And there has been extensive physical damage to homes and infrastructures causing disruption of electricity, telephone and other essential services.
Amphan & COVID-19
The Guardian reported that Amphan was “the worst cyclone” Kolkata has seen in 100 years, although the newspaper did not provide any source for that claim. Indian NDTV, on the other hand, reported that Amphan was “the worst cyclone in Bengal in 283 years”—comparing it to the Great Bengal Cyclone of 1737 that had killed an estimated 300,000 people.
Back in 1737, it was one Bengal, not like today—a partitioned Bangladesh and West Bengal. If we think beyond Kolkata and consider the greater Bengal—the deadliest of all cyclones in recorded history was the 1970 Great Bhola Cyclone, which killed an estimated 300,000-500,000 people in Bangladesh.
The human casualties from Amphan will likely be in the hundreds or maybe a few thousand after thorough assessments are completed in both countries—not hundreds of thousands. And this is because of the commendable evacuation efforts by governments of Bangladesh and India. “The Bangladesh government evacuated around two million people before the storm hit,” and about “one million people had also been evacuated in India,” according to the United Nations.
The Bay of Bengal is considered to be the world’s “hotbed of tropical cyclones,” which has been a key subject of science and literature alike. In Amitav Ghosh’ internationally acclaimed novel The Hungry Tide, narratives of cyclones provide a foundation for the book. In one place, Ghosh writes about the significance of Bay of Bengal when we speak of cyclones: “In the violence of its storms the Bay of Bengal, let it be said, is second to none—not to the Caribbean, not to the South China Sea. Wasn’t it our tufaan, after all, that gave birth to the word ‘typhoon’?”
As it turns out, 26 out of the 36 deadliest tropical cyclones in recorded history happened over the Bay of Bengal, according to Weather Underground.
In the novel, one of the characters, a white colonial man named Henry Piddington came to India from the Caribbean, where a strong storm is called hurricane, Ghosh reminds us. He writes an intriguing passage on Piddington’s obsession and love affair with cyclones:
“He loved them not in the way you might love the mountains or the stars: for him they were like books or music, and he felt for them the same affection a devotee might feel for his favorite authors or musicians. He read them, listened to them, studied them and tried to understand them. He loved them so much that he invented a new word to describe them: ‘cyclone’.”
If we place Amphan in the larger history of tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal—it would simply be considered another deadly one. Not that special. But Cyclone Amphan is special. It has already secured a unique place in the history of tropical cyclones being the first major transnational super cyclone that made a landfall in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The pre-cyclone movement of millions of people from the coastal areas to densely packed shelters when social distancing was necessary to avoid the spread of COVID-19, and also the post-cyclone recovery efforts to repair and rebuild, which also would require mass mobilization of people in the midst of the pandemic—makes Amphan one of the most challenging cyclones ever.
“At least 19 million children in parts of Bangladesh and India are at imminent risk from flash flooding, storm surges and heavy rain,” UNCEF warned shortly before Amphan made landfall. The UN agency was also “very concerned that COVID-19 could deepen the humanitarian consequences of Cyclone Amphan in both countries. Evacuees who have moved to crowded temporary shelters would be especially vulnerable to the spread of respiratory diseases like COVID-19, as well as other infections.”
It will take a long time to assess the specifics of how Cyclone Amphan amplified the coronavirus pandemic for the residents of Bangladesh and West Bengal. We may never find out the truth. But have no doubt that the cyclone has made the suffering of millions of vulnerable children, the poor, and the marginalized—only worse.
As I was starting to write this article, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a forecast for the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. “The NOAA outlook calls for a 60 percent likelihood of an above-average season, with a 70 percent chance of 13 to 19 named storms, six to 10 of which will become hurricanes,” The Washington Post reported on May 21. Three to six of those hurricanes could become Category 3 intensity or higher, bringing to mind the horrors of Harvey, Irma, and Maria of 2017. The Post also alerted about the challenges of an “extremely active” hurricane season for the United States: “With the hurricane season falling in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, FEMA, which is the main federal disaster response agency, is likely to face a challenge that is unparalleled in its history.”
The efforts expended by the governments of Bangladesh and India and the relief and recovery efforts that people of Sundarbans are now engaged in—in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic—could serve as a guide not only for the United States but also for the smaller nations in the Caribbean.
Amphan & Climate Breakdown
While narratives of cyclones in the Sundarbans, including preparedness, feature prominently in The Hungry Tide—climate change does not. The novel was published in 2004, prior to when we started to connect the dots between tropical cyclones in the Bay Bengal and the escalating climate crisis. That conversation started after Cyclone Sidr of 2007 and Cyclone Aila of 2009, both of which had caused widespread destruction in the Sundarbans.
Last August, I visited Sundarbans with my sister Sudakshina Sen, to learn about the mangrove forest ecology and about the work of Anil Mistry, who was a poacher in his youth but became a mangrove conservationist. In 1990, he founded the Bali Nature & Wildlife Conservation Society in Bali Island, his ancestral village in the Sundarbans. Even though Anil Mistry and I were born in the same year, we affectionately call each other “da” (or elder brother)—placed after first name. Over the past three decades, Anil da has worked tirelessly to save the mangrove forest and its majestic inhabitant, the tiger—by building an unlikely alliance between two adversaries: the federal and state authorities responsible for the protection of the Sundarbans and its tiger, and the villagers who call the Sundarbans home and have built a complex relationship with the place and the tiger. In Sundarbans, Muslims, Hindus, and Indigenous peoples all worship the same forest deity, bonbibi. The hierarchies of class, profession, race and religion dissolve inside the forest, Annu Jalais writes in Forest of Tigers: People, Politics & Environment in the Sundarbans, a book of extraordinary ethnographic scholarship.
I spent ten days on Anil da’s boat M. B. Sundari with his cohorts while he stayed back in Bali Island, recovering from a cancer. As the boat slowly moved through the maze of waterways, Subhendu Bikash Poddar, who works closely with Anil da and is an approved guide of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve told me stories of how in 2009, Cyclone Aila had devastated people’s homes, agricultural fields and crops from saltwater inundation, and brought widespread suffering in a region where financial resources are already limited.
In recent years, making the connection between cyclones and climate change has become an important subject for science, literature and scholarship in humanities.
On May 18, 2020, a new study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States that highlights with very high confidence (95%) that global warming is increasing both the intensity and frequency of severe tropical cyclones. Based on data gathered over a 39-year period, from 1979 through 2017—the probability of major tropical storms forming increased by 8% per decade while the intensity increased by about 15% from 2010 to 2017. The science is rather straightforward: oceans heated by warming create more energy while the atmosphere heated by warming holds more moisture. The combination of the two create perfect storms, or to put in another way—are brewing up stronger storms more often.
The social and economic impacts of these cyclones on the people of the region are nothing less than devastating. The “tyranny and the vagaries of nature…have taken a dangerous turn” with climate change and has ushered “an unpredictable new phase” in which “more than 18 million people have been affected directly by tropical cyclones in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand alone,” historian Sunil Amrith, author of Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, wrote in an op-ed shortly after Cyclone Phailin made a landfall in Odisha in 2013.
The trail of devastation Cyclone Amphan has left in its wake is painful for the people of Sundarbans.
“The Sundarbans is finished. Amphan has killed it. All our crops, even our trees have been destroyed. What will we do?” Chandan Das, a resident of Sundarbans told Scroll.in. “The storm bought so much saltwater spray from the sea that it even killed the trees it couldn’t knock down.”
Reading Amphan, with Ecology in Mind
Above and beyond the devastating human casualty and displacement—
+ What impacts did Cyclone Amphan have on wild animals and trees of the Sundarbans?
+ How might those ecological impacts compound the social impacts in ways that have yet been unmeasured?
+ What place might Amphan occupy among the deadliest tropical cyclones, if we also consider ecology?
On Wikipedia, I found a list of tropical cyclone records. The list has three main categories:
+ financial (“costliest tropical cyclone”);
+ human casualty (“deadliest tropical cyclone”);
+ various physical attributes and impacts (“highest overall rainfall”; “highest storm surge”; “highest wind gusts” etc.).
There is no category yet that assesses the impacts of a cyclone through the lens of ecology.
This brings to mind Amitav Ghosh’s description of Henry Piddington’s love affair with cyclones: “He read them, listened to them, studied them and tried to understand them.” So far, however, close reading and studies of cyclones have mostly (with a few exceptions) been an anthropocentric exercise focused on humans and physical geography—and not on trees and wildlife.
With Amphan as a spark, which struck a transnational nursery of global significance, we can now make the case and initiate a concerted effort to expand the study of cyclones to also include ecology—and always ask: How many trees and wild animals die during and over time for each deadly cyclone?
For that to happen, however, we need to set aside a widely held half-truth that animals possess a sixth sense and flee to higher ground prior to a storm surge strikes. This idea circulated widely after the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami. Eyewitness accounts from that disaster revealed that elephants screamed and ran for higher ground and flamingos abandoned their low-lying breeding areas, National Geographic reported. Research also shows that some birds can sense an impending hurricane and leave the area.
It is true that some animals do indeed possess ability to sense an impending storm and will attempt to flee to a safer place. But for most animals “surviving a hurricane or tropical storm is a crapshoot,” according to Pegasus Foundation that provides support to protect wildlife. The immediate and long-term impacts on trees and wildlife from a deadly cyclone is so expansive that media (including social media) must start reporting on the complexities, severity and subtleties of ecological violence associated with tropical cyclones.
There are some key examples from which we can build future stories.
Three months before Hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast in 2005, the USA Today published an article on the impacts on wildlife from hurricanes built with knowledge gained from assessments of previous hurricanes, including Hurricane Hugo of 1989 and Hurricane Andrew of 1992. Trees are not the only species that are unable to move out of harm’s way before a hurricane makes landfall. “Immobile species such as mussels and oysters may be locally wiped out in the impact zone,” the article mentions. The “bottom-dwelling organisms—which provide an important food source for wading birds on Louisiana’s Barrier Islands—suffered mass mortalities during the passage of Hurricane Andrew.” The article highlighted overlooked species and interspecies dependency.
Six years later, in 2011, when Hurricane Irene made a landfall in the east coast of the United States, the National Wildlife Federation released an informative fact sheet “Seven Things to Know About How Hurricanes Affect Wildlife”: Wind Dislocation; Tree Loss; Dune and Beach Loss; Saltwater Intrusion; Freshwater Flooding; Turbidity; and Marine and Aquatic Species.
Six years after that, during the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, which became the costliest hurricane season in history and included three very devastating hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—the Pegasus Foundation posted a helpful fact sheet “Effects of Hurricanes on Coastal Animals.” During that same season, the UK Telegraph published an article “Wildlife that does badly after a hurricane,” which also brought attention to impacts of hurricanes on endangered species. “Any animal that is on the brink of extinction due to human causes can go over the brink when a hurricane strikes their habitat.”
Those two fact sheets and the two news articles I mention above together highlight that—in addition to the direct-killing that happens on impact with high wind, drowning from inundation, salt water intrusion, and crushed by tree fall—powerful cyclones more importantly destroy homes (or what we call habitat) for many wild animals and limit or cut-off their access to food and freshwater for drinking. The aftermath can continue for years.
With all that in mind, I searched media’s reporting of Cyclone Amphan and found a paragraph buried within a New York Times article: “The storm passed over the ecologically fragile Sundarbans region, between the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh’s Hatiya Islands. The region is home to many rare animals, including Bengal tigers.” Nothing more.
For years, the mainstream media in the United States had failed its responsibility to inform the public of the link between extreme weather events and climate change. Finally, last year, more than 250 media outlets from around the world came together under the banner Covering Climate Now, a major new project founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review, with the hope of improving global coverage of the climate crisis.
The coverage of Cyclone Amphan in the New York Times makes clear how the mainstream media in the United States is now failing to inform the public of the link between deadly tropical cyclones and biological annihilation.
Disappointed by superficial journalism that is devoid of any meaningful or consequential ecological information or analysis—I turned my attention to local media and found an article in Dhaka Tribune written by journalists Sohel Mamun and Mehedi Al Amin: “Cyclone Amphan: What will happen to the wild animals of Sundarbans?” The headline framed with an intriguing question foregrounds the fate of wild animals and acknowledges that we do not yet know what may happen—but signals the need to find answers.
“Since we have no way to evacuate the wild animals, they will suffer the most,” Amir Hossain Chowdhury, the Chief Forest Conservator of Sundarbans Reserve Forest in Bangladesh said. It is a rare form of empathetic acknowledgement for wildlife. Chowdhury said that deer, pigs and reptiles “die when a cyclone hits.” Tigers “are also affected.” And if the cyclone “hits with speedy wind bursts,” birds die.
Mamun and Amin shifts the focus from the urban to the transnational nursery by “centering the Sundarbans.” The reason for such “centering” is to bring attention to both the fate of “wild animals” and also to Sundarbans’ significance to the people of Bangladesh.
“The Sundarbans has been a safeguard for Bangladesh by shielding the country several times from massive storms and cyclones,” the journalists write as they list three such cyclones: Sidr of 2007, Aila of 2009, and finally, Bulbul of 2019.
The situation is no different for Kolkata. The great mangrove forest has long been a bioshield for the city.
“Mangrove forests, common along tropical coasts, can provide a protective shield against destructive cyclones and reduce deaths,” the Guardian reported in 2009 highlighting a study that had cleared “all doubts” about the effectiveness of mangroves as a bioshield against cyclones. The science is straightforward: cyclones create storm surge with waves up to 8 meters high that are carried inland by strong winds and high energy of the cyclone. But mangroves “can reduce the wind energy and [wave] velocity,” Saudamini Das, pointed out, coauthor of the study.
In Amphan’s wake, echoing the message of Sundarbans’ significance as a bioshield to Bangladesh, environmental activists and biodiversity experts are now urging the government “to halt all kinds of economic and commercial activities in and around the Sundarbans,” Pinaki Roy reports in The Daily Star.
But what are those economic and commercial activities?
“Despite objections from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Bangladesh has approved more than 320 industrial projects in the area, including the massive Rampal coal-fired power plant, bypassing requirements for public participation and environmental impact assessment,” a press release from the United Nations stated two years ago. The press release also includes an important statement from John Knox, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment: “The accelerating industrialisation of the Sundarbans threatens not only this unique ecosystem—which hosts Bengal tigers, Ganges river dolphins and other endangered species—but also poses serious risks to the human rights of the 6.5 million people whose lives, health, housing, food and cultural activities depend directly on a safe, healthy and sustainable Sundarbans forest.”
The worst of all such industrial projects being pursued by the government of Bangladesh, with support from the Indian government, is a major 1320-megawatt cross-border coal-fired power plant in Rampal, 14 kilometres from the boundary of the Sundarbans Reserve Forest, or within “kissing distance” of the forest, as Mongabay puts it. Work on the project is underway and the plant is expected to start operation in March 2021. Broad public opposition to this reckless project that will certainly contribute to further escalation of the climate crisis and biological annihilation—is gathering momentum. May Cyclone Amphan amplify their voices of resistance.
Amphan & Biological Annihilation
“Amader Sundarbans holo macher antur-ghar,” Sujit Raptan reflects as M. B. Sundari continues to move slowly on a khal, or narrow waterway in the Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR). When translated to English the statement would read: Our Sundarbans is a nursery for fish.
Sujit is Anil da’s nephew, a licensed guide of the STR, and an avid birdwatcher with deep knowledge about Sundarbans’ birds.
I was surprised by the statement as almost everyone else brings up Royal Bengal Tiger as the icon of Subdarbans, the only species worth talking about, not fish. Tourist flock here to see the tiger. Most however, go back home disappointed, without a sighting. Photographers are more persistent. Some spend large amounts of money to visit again and again. If they are lucky and finally see a tiger, they snap photos to share on social media. Sujit pointed out that the revenue from tourism helps employ a number of local guides and contributes to the Joint Forest Management program which supports much-needed infrastructure development in the villages. But he also lamented and reflected on the negative impacts from increased boat traffic on Sundarbans’ fragile ecology.
Sundarbans is home to the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger. The species is listed as “endangered” under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. “Of all the big cats, the tiger is the largest—and the closest to extinction,” the conservation organization Panthera warns. The tiger has lost 96% of its historic range and gone extinct in 10 countries. Today, it lives in 11 countries, with an estimated population of 3,900 in the wild, which is a 96% loss in population from just over a century ago.
But for Sujit, fish occupies a very significant ecological role that we must not overlook. He told me that many animals in Sundarbans survive by eating fish, including the tiger and the elusive “fishing cat” that lives on trees and is the state animal of West Bengal.
As our boat slowly continued its way with no specific destination in mind, I was mesmerized by the diversity of mangrove trees we were seeing on both sides of the khals. Their incredible web of above-ground roots would come into view as tides receded, which was not only visually striking but also ecologically significant. It provides “a unique and complex habitat for all sorts of marine life,” according to IUCN. I was also learning the local names of some of these trees and their cultural uses: garjan, genwa, keora, khalsi, baen, hental, and sundari.
Mangrove forests sustain high biodiversity. Many species are attracted to “mangrove forests for the high food availability, cooler water with higher oxygen content and the refuge they provide.” For fish, this is particularly significant. According to IUCN: “An accumulation of bacteria and mangrove tree detritus provides plenty of food for growing youngsters and, hidden in the thickets of the mangrove roots, juveniles are more likely to avoid predation from larger animals. When the mangrove refuge is no longer required, these animals venture out into the adjoining reefs or the open ocean. In this manner, mangroves act as a critical source to replenish some of the ocean’s fish stock.”
The mangrove forests of Sundarbans are indeed a vast nursery for fish. There are also profound interspecies dependencies between fish and trees. To assess the destruction of one, we also need to assess the damage to the other.
“Most of our sundari trees are gone,” Sujit laments. During my ten days of journeying on rivers and khals in the Sundarban Tiger Reserve, I saw no more than a handful of sundari (translated as “the beautiful one”)—the namesake tree of the great mangrove forest (ban means forest). The species has been suffering a die-backsince 1980, likely due to increasing salinity caused by sea level rise from climate change. Cyclones also increase salinity in the soil by saltwater inundation. As the frequency and intensity of cyclones increase with warming it will further imperil sundari and other mangrove trees that are less tolerant to high levels of salinity. Sundari is listed as “endangered” under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
We can now ask the question: How did Amphan affect all the fish and trees of the Sundarbans?
It may be years before we can find some answers to that question, even if studies are initiated today. For now, we can look into past cyclones for which such assessments have been made. One such example is Hurricane Andrew that struck the Bahamas, Florida and Louisiana in 1992. “An estimated 184 million fish were killed in south Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin alone,” USA Today reported. And offshore, more than 9 million fish were killed, according to the Louisiana government. Hurricane Andrew had also knocked down “as many as 80% of the trees on several coastal Louisiana basins.”
There is also some knowledge of forest mortality from cyclones that struck Sundarbans in the past. “One fourth of the Sundarbans forest area has been damaged by the cyclone,” a forest official had told The Daily Star following Cyclone Sidr of 2007. “Eight to ten percent of the forest has been damaged completely, and those trees will not regrow, while fifteen percent has been partly damaged, a part of which will regrow.”
Amphan has likely caused a more widespread damage to the mangrove forest than Sidr did but it will take time to assess the extent and significance of that damage. For now, eyewitness accounts of uprooted trees and the stench of dead fish from Amphan are just starting to arrive. Residents of Sundarbans have begun to remove the downed trees but “they don’t know where to dump / bury the fish since it is flooded everywhere,” Mongabay reports.
Moving beyond individual or groups of species, like fish and trees, we can also ask questions about relational dependence.
Amphan surely has killed a lot of fish. But what impacts will that have on so many other species that feed on fish—say the fishing cat, which is listed as “vulnerable” under IUCN Red List of Threatened Species?
It would take a long time to answer such questions on relational dependency compared to direct impacts on a particular species. I’ll offer one such example from my own experience in New Mexico that maybe helpful here to appreciate the larger ecological loss.
Between 2001 and 2006 bark beetles killed more than 50 million piñon trees in northern New Mexico, the state tree. In some places about 90% of mature piñon perished. This was due to extreme warming combined with severe drought. I engaged with the epic loss at the time, which was presented as an exhibition, Where I Live I Hope to Know, at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in 2011. I was interested not merely in the loss that was visible before me, but more importantly the larger loss of nonhuman lives that depended on the piñon yet remained unquantified and therefore unseen. Back then I wrote reflecting on the larger tree die-off across the western North America: Hundreds of millions of trees have recently died and many more hundreds of millions will soon be dying. Now think of all the other lives, including birds and animals that depended on those trees. The number of these must be in the tens of billions. What happened to them and how do we talk about that which we can’t see and will never know?
Was the piñon die-off an unknowable tragedy?
As it turns out, we finally got some answers to the question I had raised in 2010. Two years ago, ornithologist Jeanne Fair and her team published a study, which shows that following the piñon die-off, between 2003 and 2013, in the northern New Mexico Pajarito Plateau, the diversity of birds dropped by 45% and their overall population by a staggering 73%.
On May 24, 2020, the New York Times published a front-page article “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss,” which included a list of 1,000 people (with names, age, place, and in some cases brief biographical information) representing 1 percent of the toll from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. It was an acknowledgement of the tragedy.
Imagine this now: we try to create an acknowledgement for the loss of nonhuman lives in the Sundarbans caused by Cyclone Amphan—animals and trees; individual and relational; immediate and over time. That would be a monumental task and take not days or months but years and possibly even decades. Even after all of that efforts get expended, the tragedy will likely remain not merely “incalculable” (a quantitative measure) but rather “unknowable” (a qualitative measure)–as our understanding of the intricate web of interspecies dependencies and its relationship to tropical cyclones is limited at best. Not to mention a thorough assessment of nonhuman casualties in Sundarbans is virtually impossible at the moment as the governments of Bangladesh and West Bengal continue to struggle with the coronavirus pandemic. However, we must not overlook the ecological tragedy.
More than ten years ago, cyclones Sidr and Aila started the conversation about connecting tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal to the escalating climate crisis. Our experiences of Cyclone Amphan provides an impetus to now connect cyclones in the Bay of Bengal (and by extension all tropical cyclones) to the escalating crisis of biological annihilation. According to the United Nations, 1 million animal and plant species are facing extinction, many within decades, and all due to human activities. Understanding tropical cyclones’ contribution to biological annihilation ought to be considered an important obligation of public scholarship. The mainstream media also must engage in making such scholarship accessible to the wider public.
On June 3, as I was finalizing the text for this article, another powerful cyclone named Nisarga struck the west coast of India, primarily the state of Maharashtra and created serious challenges for Mumbai, the most populous city in India that has been struggling with the coronavirus pandemic. “The region rarely experiences cyclones, and the last storm to threaten Mumbai with such intensity was more than 70 years ago,” the New York Times reported.
However, the Times article, and one in BBC, make no mention of the Western Ghats. It would be similar to say, if a powerful hurricane strikes southern Florida and the news articles only mention Miami but fails to mention the Everglades National Park.
Last August, I visited the Western Ghats with my sister Sudakshina Sen, who first told me about Cyclone Nisarga.
What is Western Ghats and why does Cyclone Nisarga matter?
The Western Ghats mountain range is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is recognized as one of the world’s eight “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity. It traverses six western states in India: Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. If you place side-by-side a map of the Western Ghats and Cyclone Nisarga’s path after landfall—you will see that there is significant overlap of the two in the northern third of the biodiversity hotspot.
The Hindustan Times in its reporting of Cyclone Nisarga mentions that “three districts” in the Western Ghats have “witnessed incessant rainfall since Tuesday evening,” which led to “trees being uprooted, and tin sheds of houses being blown away.” It may lead to flooding, which will likely have severe ecological consequences for the Western Ghats.
“The floods that devastated large parts of Kerala in 2018 were not an isolated, freak phenomenon; rather, they signaled something graver—the ecological devastation of the Western Ghats,” journalist Viju B. highlighted in his recent book Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats.
So, it would be wise for the media to now ask: what impacts did Cyclone Nisarga have on animals and trees in the Western Ghats?
Two days after Cyclone Amphan struck Sundarbans, on May 22, Anil da sent me a selection of photos from Bali Island, which show damage to the concrete embankment built to protect the island from storm surges but also the repair work that has started already. Anil da founded the Bali Nature and Wildlife Conservation Society in 1990, which now receives support from a national NGO, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). One of the pictures shows that the straw canopy above the “WPSI OFFICE” pillars miraculously has survived the cyclone’s wrath while the concrete embankment suffered severe damage. In the midst of all the devastation, that one photograph above all the others, for me, serves as a symbol of radical hope. The important work that Anil da and the people of Sundarbans are engaged in—to protect the great mangrove forest and its wildlife—goes on.
A week later, Anil da sent me another set of photos. “Our village was damaged but not flooded,” he wrote. “Mollakhali, Kalidaspur, and Rangabelia were more affected.” Anil da has been bringing and distributing cyclone relief materials among the fellow villagers of the more affected communities in the Sundarbans.
Anil Minstry’s three-decades-long work on protecting the Sundarbans is not only an exemplary case of long environmentalism but also makes visible that the practice of multispecies justice brings together the concerns and caring for our nonhuman relatives into alignment with caring for our fellow human beings.
This essay first appeared in Species in Peril.