Surely they must be amongst the most remarkable and valuable plants in the world. Mangroves thrive in a hostile environment, and like a very good counsellor, sooth the seething temper of a vengeful sea when it roars ashore, seeking what we have robbed from it. They usually consist of small, shrubby, highly specialised plants, of which there are over a 100 species. They stick it out at the muddy edges of the coast, absorbing the corrosive action of salt water (which can peel the skin off your body if you’re immersed for too long), filtering mud and sediment, and putting away more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into “long term storage” than any of the world’s forests. NASA has called them “the best carbon scrubbers”.
And what do we do with them? We diss them: mangrove forests are difficult places to explore, what with their glutinous mud, spiky foliage and root systems and the ever-changing water levels (depending on the tides). Ask any hardboiled “survival expert”, who will say that it’s virtually impossible to traverse them. We generally react as if they are stinking swamps, filled with unhealthy vapours, which will make us ill and even kill us. Yet, they are technical marvels: their roots grow upwards, sticking out into the air from the mud, which enables them to breathe and deal with the low oxygen levels in the cloying mud. They have sophisticated salt-filtering systems that can remove excess salt from the water and which we could potentially adapt for desalinisation plants. They filter out heavy metals from the mud and deposit rich sediments. Their extensive root system slows down the tumult of the sea, preventing the sort of erosion that we recently saw in Kerala. Their greatest recent accomplishment was the taming of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 which killed so many people on unprotected coastlines. The mangroves on our eastern shores behaved rather like a car’s impact-absorbing bumpers and crumple zones, swallowing the massive energy and impact of the waves.
For us, mangrove swamps and mangrove forests may seem inhospitable, but for around 174 species of marine mega fauna, they’re home. They provide a secure dwelling for oysters, algae, barnacles, sponges, shrimps and mud oysters. They’re where those quirky odd land-loving fish, the mudskippers, emerge from with every ebb and flow of the tides.
Mangrove forests grow in warm tropical and subtropical tidal areas like estuaries and marine coastlines. According to one report, the total area in India under mangroves is 4,921 sq. km, a little over three per cent of the world total. Our largest and most famous mangrove forest is, of course, the Sundarbans (literally meaning beautiful forest), spanning both India and Bangladesh, and which has been declared a World Heritage site and a Biosphere Reserve by Unesco. It is the largest delta clothed in mangrove forests and vast saline mudflats in the world. It is home to the fiercest and the largest number of Royal Bengal tigers in the world. The Sundarbans is also a haven for birds (over 250 species), reptiles, and fish (120 species) and its beehives have tempted honey gatherers to risk their lives. It serves as a flood barrier to Kolkata, protecting the city from the ravages of cyclonic activity which is all too common in this area.
Our second-largest mangrove habitat is Bhitarkanika on the Odisha coast, an important Ramsar wetland featuring saltwater crocodiles and the largest-known nesting area for Olive Ridley sea turtles. Over 220 species of birds have been recorded here, including 57 winter migrants and over 80 nesting species.
On our western coast, even maddening Mumbai has its mangroves, protecting it from tidal surges and some of these have been put on death row. According to one report, between 1972 and 1975 over 200 km of the Maharashtra coast was covered with mangroves, and by 2001, there was just 118 km left. Now, the Government wants to destroy 13.36 ha of mangroves in the Thane creek for the bullet train project, which we need like we need a bullet in our heads. Some 30,000 mangrove trees are to be cut, though the government says that five times that number will be planted, forgetting that mangroves cannot simply be planted and then ignored. The area, 13.36 ha, may not seem much, but it’s the attitude that’s troubling. Be it mangroves, rainforests, protected areas, river systems, they’re all up for pillaging. Meanwhile, mangroves, in their quiet introverted way, continue their work, soothing the angry seas, cleaning up the muck we deposit in them, providing a home and nursery for a myriad of creatures and hoping to give even the most hard-bitten “survival expert” a very muddy, glutinous and frustrating time indeed.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Against the rising tide’