Forest and trees

The Amazing Mangroves of India

The Amazing Mangroves of India
-Usha Nair

‘If there are no mangroves, then the sea will have no meaning’ (Andaman fisherman)

        How many of us have ever visited a mangrove? Maybe a few nature lovers, but for the common public, it is not the top-of- the-mind/ preferred/ must-see destination. Mangroves are coastal rainforests, comprising of trees up to medium height and shrubs that grow in saline coastal sediment habitats in the tropics and subtropics.  Mangroves are covered with salt tolerant trees, also called halophytes, and are adapted to live in harsh coastal conditions. They contain a complex salt filtration and root system to cope with salt water immersion and wave action and are adapted to the low oxygen conditions of waterlogged mud. Globally, large stretches of the sub-tropical and tropical coastlines of Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Americas and the Caribbean are fringed by mangroves, once estimated to cover an area of over 32 million hectares – now, less than 15 million hectares– less than half the original area. Some 60 species of trees and shrubs are exclusive to the mangrove habitat.

 Mangroves have been around for centuries, but perhaps, never before have their value and worth been more appreciated than in the present century, against the backdrop of increasing concerns over climate change. Mangroves are today recognised as protectors of the shoreline, providing a buffer zone between land and sea, representing nature’s shield against cyclones, storm surges, and ecological disasters and protecting the land from erosion. It is the breeding and nursery grounds for a variety of marine life, like invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and even mammals like tigers. Like all forests, they purify the air by absorbing pollutants, and the waters of impurities, and are Nature’s answer to global warming. Mangrove ecosystems are also one of the best Carbon Sinks.
The coasts of India and Andaman and Nicobar islands are forested with extensive and diverse mangrove wetlands, which protect India‘s long coastline from the periodic tropical storms and hurricanes. The mangrove wetlands of the east coast of India are different from those of the west coast. The west coast , being narrow and steep in slope, due to the presence of the Western Ghats and with no major west-flowing river, has nurtured mangroves which are small in size, less in diversity and less complicated in terms of tidal creek network. On the other hand, the presence of larger brackish water-bodies and a complex network of tidal creeks and canals characterize the mangrove wetlands of the east coast. This is mainly due to the larger deltas created by east-flowing rivers and the gentle slope of the coast. According to the Forest Survey of India (1999), out of 487,100 ha of Indian mangroves, nearly 56.7%  is present along the east coast, 23.5% along the west coast, and the remaining 19.8%  is found in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. In his article, ‘Mangroves of India’, Kathiresan terms the Indian mangroves as ‘unique’ as they cover both the wet and arid coasts of the country with a record of 4011 biological species, including globally threatened species.

specialized root system

The most amazing of the Indian mangroves are the Sundarbans, which is the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world, covering approximately 10,000 square kilometres, most of which is in Bangladesh, with the remainder in India. The Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a National Park, Tiger Reserve which is the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, and a Biosphere Reserve, and has been enlisted among the finalists in the New Seven Wonders of Nature.  They have the distinction of being the first mangrove forest in the world to be brought under scientific management. Orissa,another Indian state, is often referred to as a biological paradise, as its Bhitarkanika mangrove wetlands is the breeding ground for the Olive Ridley Turtles, one of the few of its kind in the world. Today, there are 38 areas of mangrove forests in India, under implementation of management action plan, with total financial assistance from the Government of India. 

Despite their ecological and economic significance, mangrove wetlands are endangered ecosystems. Historical records indicate that the original extent of mangrove forests has declined considerably under pressure from human activity. Globally, mangrove areas are disappearing at the rate of approximately 1% per year.  A recent global assessment concludes that eleven of the 70 mangrove species (16%) are at elevated threats of extinction. Particular areas of geographical concern include the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Central America, where as many as 40% of mangroves species present are threatened with extinction. In India and Southeast Asia, 80% of the total mangrove area has been lost over the past 60 years.

breathing roots

The conservation of mangroves and associated ecosystems has been identified as a key natural adaptation strategy and mitigation measure to climate change. Protecting these vital ecosystems also safeguards and enhances the livelihoods of coastal communities. The criticality of mangroves has been recognised today by  Governments globally, after stakeholders like fishermen, farmers, local opinion groups,  persistently clamoured against unsustainable development and commercial projects like, shrimp aquaculture, charcoal production/logging, oil exploration/extraction, tourism, urbanisation, infrastructure expansions of ports /roads etc., resulting in, deforestation, decline in fisheries, threat to migratory bird species, degradation of clean water supplies,  increased salinization of coastal soils, erosion, pollution. 

Stellar roles have been played by individuals against corporates and governments seeking commercial exploitation of these vital coastal ecosystems. In India, in the early 1990’s , one Banka  Behary Das ,renowned freedom fighter and activist, took up the cause of thousands of fishermen and farmers, to oppose shrimp farm development by the powerful industry giant, Tata House in joint venture with the Government of Orissa, on Chilika Lagoon.The Chilika Bachao Andolan  was a movement by the people, and Das, played an important role in highlighting the environment hazards of the project, insisting that the Government of India honour the Ramsar Convention in which Chilika lake was declared as one of the endangered wetlands which needed to be protected. Later Sri Das battled to save the lush mangrove sanctuary of Bhitara Kanika along the Orissa coast, which was the site of the largest Olive Ridley sea turtle nesting in the world.

In recent times, Kallen Pokkudan,in Kannur, Kerala has earned the title of the ‘Mangrove Man of India’. Much ahead of the times, and against stiff resistance, he planted 300 odd- seedlings over marshy lands and river banks more than 20 years ago in Kannur  which have now grown into a forest, and over the years, he has planted over one lakh mangroves in the country. Kallen Pokkudan is the recipient of several accolades, including TOIs Amazing Indians.

Stilt roots


The preservation of coastal environs, the regulation of unsustainable development projects and illegal encroachments continue to be a challenge for all governments which are committed to sustainable management of their coastal ecosystems. Countries, like India, have devised strong policies, legal framework and governance to preserve their amazing mangroves for future generations. 
            
(  Usha Nair is a nature lover and can be reached at  ushaenvironment@gmail.com
Photographs-courtesy http://www.mangroves.godrej.com/   )

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