9 Things Everyone Needs to Appreciate about Mangroves
A boy received a camera as a gift from his father on his birthday;
Boy: “Thank you so much, Dad! You know that I want to be a photographer like you but I don’t know if I can be as good in photo composition.”
Dad: “Oh, I’m sure you’ll do well. What sorts of subjects would you be photographing, son?”
Boy: “Nature! I love nature!”
Dad: “In that case, you don’t have to worry. Nature has already prepared the perfect compositions for you. All you need to do is to go out there and capture them with that camera.”
I thought of this story while leisurely inspecting a seaside place one sunny day. Aside from the sparkling seawater, there were some interesting rock formations by the beach and, yes, there was a line of mangrove trees that seemed determined to both fearlessly defy the waves and mischievously keep prospective swimmers away from the water. Seemingly challenged by the sort of organized chaos of trunks, roots, leaves and branches set upon the rocky shore before me; I chose to photograph the mangroves, carefully searching for the compositions they have prepared for me that day.
At the end of the trip, I went home and excitedly started processing the photos, picked out the best ones to be published, did a little research to provide a bit of context to the photos, and then, boom!, I realized that I was dealing with subject matter that has a lot more stories to tell! There was a lot more than meets the eye; things more primeval than what the ‘natural compositions’ were telling me; things that everyone should appreciate about the mangrove tree. Here are 9 of the mangrove’s most impressive characteristics.
1. A View Enhancer
This is probably the most common — even the sole role — that most people appreciate about mangroves: they make our seashores lovelier and livelier. Their main habitat is usually the intersection between land and sea and therefore mangroves provide a vital element in beach scenery, especially in photographic compositions. Without a tree in the picture, most seaside scenes will be less dramatic with only a few natural elements contributing to the imagery. And, because of the tree’s sea-defying nature, mangrove images often evoke certain positive emotions. I once saw a mangrove tree standing in the middle of a vast shoreline all by itself and the impact it contributed to the scene was tremendous. Beyond the hard photo I captured, it left in me a deep feeling of awe for the tree’s courage to face the incessant pounding of the treacherous sea; and respect for its being the sole survivor from among what once was most probably a full grove of trees.
2. A Wall of Stilts
Mangrove trees are eye-catching because of their unique structure, the most noticeable of which are trunk extensions that function as stilts to elevate the tree from inundated ground. The stilts often form a beautifully intricate tangle of cylindrical parts like a wall of interwoven branches only that they are roots. These aerial roots are not only for display nor are they intentionally produced by the trees to keep prospective swimmers away from the beach as other less informed beach goers would think. In fact, these extensions are also equipped with pores that help the plant breathe and allow mangroves to absorb gases directly from the atmosphere, as well as other nutrients such as iron, from the inhospitable soil. They are, in effect, structurally adapted for the tree’s very own survival.
3. A Maze of Spikes
An up-close shot of the mangrove spikes produces a scene reminiscent of the landscapes in adventure fantasies like “Lord of the Rings“ or “Maleficent”. Looking at the photo, one could also imagine a paranoid king building an array of dark spiky towers around his kingdom to ward off enemies. But these spikes are simply none of those. Single mangrove trees produce around its trunk thousands of spikes not so much as a defensive wall or as deterrent to beach goers but simply to also help it breathe. The complex upward root system serves as snorkels that allow it to survive in the inter-tidal zone. As breathing mechanisms, the spikes are also equipped with an ultra-filtration system that keep much of the salt out. As the tide flows in and out, the dense structures trap leaves, weeds and other sediments — raw materials that eventually decay and transform into natural fertilizers for the tree.
4. An All-Weather Food Factory
Aside from being components to the complex breathing mechanism, the mangrove’s network of stilts and snorkels also serve as vital departments of the tree’s food processing plant. Within these root structures are minute chambers that store gases and efficiently process food 24/7, even when the roots are submerged by high tide — a complex, high-performance, all-weather food factory rarely equalled in the human world.
5. A Generous Host
As a young boy, a fisherman uncle once taught me how to manually catch octopus that live under submerged logs and mangrove roots. I can vividly recall the tickling sensation in my arm created by octopus tentacles sticking into my skin as the creature tried to escape from my grasp. What I did not realize then was that, while trying to catch an octopus, I was dipping my hand into underwater communities, small worlds that the wandering Nemo would have loved to play in. The intricate network of mangrove roots creates a unique ecosystem where young organisms find sanctuary and fish find safe nursery grounds. When permanently submerged, the roots form special underwater environments that generously host algae, barnacles, oysters, sponges, and bryozoans, anchoring themselves on the hard surface of the roots as they quietly filter feed. Shrimps and mud lobsters vigilantly guard parts of the muddy surfaces, chambers and crevasses that they have claimed as their home below the mangrove roots . Mangrove crabs climb up the low branches and munch on the leaves, dropping small parts of the nutritious greens into the water, thus sharing food with the bottom feeders and adding nutrients to the mud. If I were an octopus, you would also find me using the jolly underwater neighborhood beneath the mangrove tree as my favorite hangout.
6. A Perfect Refuge
If left undisturbed, mangroves have the ability to rapidly propagate. Once they grow into forests, they form one of the most productive and biologically complex ecosystems on earth. Birds roost and nest in the canopy; monkeys, deer and even kangaroos use it as their food source; snakes and crocodiles come into the mangrove forest to hunt; bats and honeybees find an abundance of nectar in the foliage. Having learned more about mangrove forests, I have become deeply intrigued by the Sundarbans, the largest single block of tidal mangrove forest in the world, stretching from Southern Bangladesh to Eastern India. While the Sundarbans form the largest reserves for the majestic Bengal tiger, it is also home to a variety of wild animals including fishing cats, macaques, wild boars, common grey mongooses, foxes, jungle cats, flying foxes, pangolins, and spotted deer – proof that mangrove forests provide the perfect refuge for a wide variety of creatures. The Sundarbans has just risen to the top of my bucket list.
7. An Earth Cooler
Mangrove trees provide the perfect shade for beach goers, especially in the tropics. Their thick foliage release oxygen into the atmosphere and help cool down the warm temperatures along the coastlines. But, mangroves also have a potentially significant contribution to controlling global warming. Studies spanning over 25 years by Jin Eong Ong, a retired professor of marine and coastal studies in Malaysia, indicate that mangrove forests are highly effective carbon sinks. They absorb carbon dioxide, taking carbon out of circulation and thus reducing the amount of greenhouse gas. It warms my heart to think that the mangrove tree, under whose shade I rested after taking photos, was not only refreshing me but was helping cool down the whole world as well.
8. Land Builder Par Excellence
Equipped with the customized structure, it is easy to imagine how the mangrove can become an accomplished land builder. The plants’ interlocking roots stop river-borne sediments from coursing out to sea, and their trunks and branches serve as a palisade that diminishes the erosive power of waves. Where mangrove forests are intact, they serve as natural breakwaters, dissipating the energy of the waves, mitigating property damage, perhaps even saving lives. Some aborigines in northern Australia believe one mangrove species resembles their primal ancestor, Giyapara, who walked across the mudflats and brought the tree into existence. For people who understand and respect the vast benefits provided by the mangrove; it’s not hard to believe in the Giyapara.
9. A Frontier under Siege
Apparently, mangroves are among nature’s greatest gifts to mankind. Sadly, they are being attacked from all fronts. Throughout the tropical world, mangrove forests serve as the open supermarkets, lumberyards, fuel depots, and pharmacies of the coastal poor. Developers and other reckless investors convert mangrove forests into salt pans, aquaculture ponds, housing developments, roads, port facilities, hotels, golf courses, and farms. Even if not affected by these destructive advances, mangroves also die from a thousand indirect cuts: oil spills, chemical pollution, sediment overload, and disruption of their sensitive water and salinity balance.
Aggravating this already bleak situation is the fact that the best location for shrimp ponds happens to be the shore zone occupied by mangroves. The economics of shrimp production look very attractive, even perfect, at first glance. On the demand side, shrimp has overtaken tuna to become America’s favorite seafood while other rich countries have a similarly insatiable appetite for it. On the supply side, the developing world has the available land and right climate to farm shrimps. Countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Ecuador were the first to grab this export opportunity and thus have been uprooting their mangroves for decades. To make matters worse, shrimp farmers typically abandon their ponds after a few crop cycles to avoid disease outbreaks and declining productivity. They then move to new sites, destroying more and more mangroves as they go, making shrimp farming hugely responsible for the loss of over half of the world’s mangroves by the turn of the millennium.
And then this valiant tree has to face its ultimate threat: rising sea levels. The loss of the world’s mangrove forests contributes to global warming. Higher earth temperatures are melting glaciers and warming up oceans, pushing up sea water levels at an alarming rate, threatening to inundate coastal cities and even whole islands. The world’s remaining mangroves, like loyal sentinels standing boldly at the land’s frontiers, will be the first terrestrial forests to face the onslaught of encroaching tides.
It is apparent that a war has to be waged to save the world’s mangroves. The battle can still be won and a number of strategies can be employed in order to win the fight but it appears that there’s a single prerequisite for any strategy to succeed: the spirit of the Giyapara has to be imbibed by every human being.
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Looking back at where I started, I realize that I have lost my initial focus on composition, consumed by the things I learned and the new attitude I gained towards the mangrove tree. Context is everything.