Saving a Vanishing World

Royal Bengal tiger photographed by Tim Laman in the Sundarbans mangrove forest, Bangladesh, for National Geographic. See more mangrove photographs from the National Geographic coverage.

Mangroves stand at the intersection of land and sea, forming mystic wetlands of spidery roots, twisted trunks and salt-crusted leaves. They flourish in a hostile zone where terrestrial plants cannot survive. The soil where they grow is so waterlogged and airless that their roots often come equipped with thousands of “snorkels” to suck oxygen from the atmosphere.

Mangrove forests are among the most productive, biodiverse and economically important ecosystems on earth. As well as being nursery grounds for fish, they support creatures ranging from crabs to crocodiles, monkeys to mudskippers. Hundreds of bird species feed and roost in their canopies, and the world’s largest mangrove forest—the Sundarbans, at the mouth of the Ganges River—is roamed by the Bengal tiger.

Supermarkets of the coastal poor

Mangroves play a vital role in the lives of millions of coastal dwellers in the developing world. These communities rely on the mangroves’ sheltered waters to supply fish, mollusks and crabs, while using mangrove timber for construction and fuel. So many food and pharmaceutical products are harvested from mangrove forests that they have been called “supermarkets of the coastal poor.”

Mangroves are guardians, too. Their labyrinths of interconnecting trunks and roots provide a buffer between the sea and the land, quelling storm surges and reducing erosion. Wherever they occur, mangroves improve water quality, stabilize sediments and protect shorelines.

Yet despite their importance, half the world’s mangroves have been destroyed or degraded in the past 50 years, and they continue to disappear at a rate of 1–2 per cent per year. In Asia and the Pacific, in Africa and Latin America, they are being logged for pulp, bulldozed for agricultural land, reclaimed for urban development or, increasingly, turned into ponds for aquaculture.

Large areas of mangrove wetland are expected to experience total collapse, trapped in a vise between human settlement inland and a relentlessly surging sea.

As much as 50 percent of recent mangrove destruction has occurred to satisfy Western demand for shrimp. Like slash-and-burn agriculture in tropical rainforests, “crush and fill” shrimp farming in mangrove wetlands provides short-term economic gain but leaves long-term problems. Deprived of their nursery grounds, fish stocks decline. Shores erode. Storm surges wreak havoc. Precious sediments are swept out to sea.

Rising seas a threat to mangroves

Mangroves face a major threat from the rising sea levels that are the result of global warming. Because they stand at the edge of the land, they will be among the first ecosystems to suffer from rising seas. Large areas of mangrove wetland are expected to experience total collapse, trapped in a vise between human settlement inland and a relentlessly surging sea.

Can mangroves be saved?

In the face of these challenges, grassroots organizations and conservation groups are beginning to champion the maligned mangrove. In Brazil and Ecuador, community management of mangrove forests ensures long-term sustainable use. In Vietnam, millions of mangrove saplings have been planted in areas formerly devastated by Agent Orange. In Indonesia, people devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami are working to restore their mangrove coastal barricade. On the desert shores of the Red Sea, a mangrove-planting scheme in drought-stricken areas is providing timber resources, high-protein fodder for farm stock and revitalized fisheries.

But with mangroves being lost at a rate of thousands of acres a year in some areas, can conservation awareness and reforestation outflank the drive for development? The Last Stands project will profile these highly diverse, highly valuable and highly threatened habitats which stand in the battle zones between restless sea and crumbling land; between relentless human development and the fight against extinction.