Subjected to plunder and deforestation for years, people are finally waking up to the role mangrove forests play in containing erosion, de-polluting air and maintaining a healthy marine ecology

Just as the Olympics are conducted once in four years, environmentalists across the globe also hold their mega meeting once in four years. While the more dramatic Olympics grab headlines, the ‘green guys’ do not get any publicity on that scale, even though the proceedings on natural science directly impacts all living creatures, including mankind. This year, the World Conservation Congress was held in Korea in the quest to use nature for resolving the growing list of economic and social issues. Conducted by IUCN — International Union for Conservation of Nature, from September 1 to 15, its agenda was to find pragmatic solutions to environmental and developmental challenges in the world.

One of the major decisions taken in the congress was to prepare the Red List of Ecosystems that will harmonise the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and other IUCN knowledge products. When used together, ecosystem and species red lists will provide the most informative indicator of the status of biological diversity at national and global levels. Also in focus are the sensitive mangrove ecosystems which are unique but underrated and one of the least considered of all the ecologically niches until the world shattering tsunamis of 2004 and 2011 happened. Thankfully, mangroves are now credited for taming the tides against tempests and safeguarding valuable wildlife and sensitive shorelines.

Mangroves are unique jungles and one of the most productive wetlands on earth. Yet, these coastal tropical forests are among the most threatened habitats. They may be disappearing faster than tropical rainforests, and so far, with little public notice.

Lavishly growing in the inter-tidal areas and river mouths between land and sea, mangroves provide critical habitat for a diverse marine and terrestrial flora and fauna. Healthy mangrove forests are key to a healthy marine ecology and wildlife that thrives in this breathtaking wonderland. Endowed with 7517 km long coastline, the Indian subcontinent is rich in mangrove forests, but it is being ruthlessly plundered.

However, management of mangroves in India is also slowly picking up, especially in the west coast, on the east coast and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. According to the government in 1987, India lost 40 per cent of its mangrove area in the last century. Rapid industrialisation, pollution and increasing population has resulted in degradation of mangroves. Even though legal protection exists to protect this ecosystem under the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, are the people actually aware of this?

Very few citizens are responsive to mangrove forests and even fewer have ever seen them. Even those who have seen them will not appreciate their splendour at face value, until the nuances are explained.

On a visit to Andaman Islands, just before the 2004 tsunami, mangroves skirted the islands but nobody spoke of the greenery. We were only told of the beautiful beaches and blue lagoons. Nevertheless, on my more recent visit to Sundarbans in West Bengal, the forest that lies snugly in the vast delta on the Bay of Bengal, there seems to be more respect for this remarkable jungle of undergrowth. Formed by the confluence of many rivers, the Sundarbans is often flooded with a mixture of freshwater and seawater. The interplay of low tide and high tide is one of the miracles of mangroves where tiny islands are created everyday and vanish the next day. It is rated as the most dynamic and dramatic landscape on earth.

The Sundarbans mangrove covers 10,000 sq km of which about 6,000 sq km is in Bangladesh and rest in India. Due to its vital wealth and statistics, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

This exceptional water world is an amalgamation of creeks, canals and serpentine rivers of varying width from a few meters to several km.

Travelling in a watercraft for two full days from sun up to sundown and gazing at the amazing maze of jungles made me dizzy. The wealth of vegetation was so astounding, that even my two decades of nature watching did not help me recognise even a single species of plant. I was merrily shooting to capture flora and fauna specially adapted to this unique landscape as visual documentary.

Hemant Karkhanis of Godrej Marine Ecology Centre from Bombay says that mangroves not only act as buffer zones between the land and sea but also protect the golden sands from constant erosion.

They are perfect breeding and nursery grounds for a variety of marine animals, good source of timber, fuel and fodder. They also purify the water by absorbing impurities and help us to breathe cleaner air by absorbing the pollutants in the air. In the future, they are a potential source for recreation and tourism.