Dhaka - Bangladeshi villagers using sponges, shovels and even spoons worked on Friday to clean up a huge oil spill in a protected area that is home to rare dolphins, after environmentalists warned of an ecological "catastrophe".
Thousands of litres of oil have spilt into the protected Sundarbans mangrove area, home to rare Irrawaddy and Ganges dolphins, after a tanker collided with another vessel on Tuesday.
The government has sent a ship carrying oil dispersants to the area, which is inside one of three sanctuaries set up for the dolphins.
But environmentalists say the chemicals could harm the delicate ecology of the Sundarbans, a Unesco world heritage site.
As authorities debated whether to deploy the dispersants, the company that owns the stricken oil tanker said it would buy up the oil that local villagers have collected.
"It has no commercial value as it can't be used, but we are using the offer to encourage people so that the cleaning up process speeds up," said Rafiqul Islam Babul of the Padma Oil Company.
"Villagers including children are going out onto the river in boats to collect the oil floating on the water using sponges, shovels and spoons," he said.
"Then they are putting it in small ditches on the river banks and our employees are buying it."
The head of the local port authority earlier told reporters that fishermen would use "sponges and sacks" to collect the spilt oil, which has already spread over an 80km area.
Amir Hosain, chief forest official of the Sundarbans, admitted that authorities were unsure about the best course of action.
"This catastrophe is unprecedented in the Sundarbans and we don't know how to tackle this," he told AFP.
"We're worried about its long-term impact, because it happened in a fragile and sensitive mangrove ecosystem."
Damage already done
Rescue vessels have now salvaged the tanker, which was carrying an estimated 357 000 of oil when it sank.
But officials say the damage the has already been done as the slick has spread to a second river and a network of canals in the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest, which straddles India and Bangladesh.
Rubayat Mansur, Bangladesh head of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, said most of the oil appeared to have already leaked out of the tanker before it was salvaged.
"I visited the sunken trawler this morning. Only few hundred litres of oil remain inside, so almost all the oil has spilled into the Sundarbans," he said.