Aneesa Alphonsus October 11, 2011
Once considered repulsive to the senses, these smelly and tangled plants have finally received the admiration they deserve.
With all the respect that they command these days, it is easy to forget that mangroves were once the target of bum raps. For instance, in 1667, an anonymous traveller wrote: “’Wild boars and other savage beasts live in them… The roots gave off a clicking sound and the odour was disgusting. We felt we were watching something horrible. No one likes mangroves.”
Mangroves are a salt-tolerant group of plants that dominate tropical and subtropical coastlines. It has only been within the last decade that scientists have widely accepted their importance to the marine environment. Some of these same scientists had, earlier, even gone so far so as to describe them as freaks of nature and a form of wasteland.
Today, however, mangroves are recognised as contributing to the health of the natural environment in four ways: in soil formation and the stabilisation of coastlines, as filters for upland runoff, as habitats for many marine organisms, and as highly productive ecosystems.
In their leaves, mangroves store the energy of the sun and the nutrients in the silt carried by upland rivers. Mangroves shed and grow new leaves on a continual basis. The fallen leaves provide the foundation for nearby marine and terrestrial food chains.
With this huge supply of food, mangrove swamps are a nursery ground for most sport and commercial fish species. As a result, mangrove-based energy and nutrients are exported to surrounding coral reefs and grass beds.
Zoher Mustan, senior resident naturalist at Tanjung Rhu Resort in Langkawi, says that mangroves are sources of highly valued commercial products and fishery resources. The ecosystem provides a source of food, since they are breeding grounds and nurseries for many food fishes and shellfishes. They also attract wildlife of various kinds.
Much of the ecological service of mangroves lies in protecting the coast from the fury of tsunamis, floods, sea level rises, wave action and coastal erosion.
“The 2004 tsunami helped spark appreciation for mangroves as coasts naked of mangroves were ravaged,” Zoher said.
“Mangrove swamps act as traps for the sediments and sink for the nutrients. Mangroves preserve water quality and reduce pollution by filtering suspended material and assimilating dissolved nutrients. The root systems of the plants keep the substrate firm and thus contribute to a lasting stability of the coast.”
However, despite the mounting evidence of their ecological importance, many people still see mangrove forests as muddy swamps that are better off filled for economic development.
“For one, you lose tourism dollar,” he said. “Currently our mangroves are one of the tourism highlights. A visit to the mangroves is a must when visiting Langkawi.
“Also, imagine the effect on the fisheries industry. On average, between 50 percent and 70 percent of fish and prawns caught depend on the mangroves to get them through their juvenile stages.
“When the mangroves go, so, too, will our fishes.
“Furthermore, many bird species make mangroves their home and migratory birds from as far as Siberia stop here for resting annually.”
The programme to conserve the Ayer Hangat mangroves around Tanjung Rhu started more than a decade ago. They cover an area larger than 1,3000 hectares.
Many mangrove areas in Malaysia have suffered from deforestation, but according to Zoher not much has changed in Langkawi, thanks to the locals’ understanding of the importance of conservation and thanks also to holiday resorts in the area for highlighting that importance.
Continuing with his explanation of the role that mangroves play in keeping eco-systems stable, Zoher described the tangled root systems as a nursery for shrimp and many species of fish that go on to live their adult lives in the open ocean.
Mangroves also help ensure the survival of coral reefs and seagrass beds.
“Mangroves stabilise the land to help prevent coastal erosion, provide fodder for domestic as well as migratory animals and are a very good source of firewood, as in charcoal,” Zoher said.
“It’s a unique system, the only species of tree in the world that can grow in swampy ground.
“A tour in the mangrove forest will give you an unforgettable experience. Stop over for sightings of birds of prey such as white-bellied eagles and brahminy kites, take a look at local fishes that make mangroves their home and walk through a cave to see the bats.”
So do not dismiss them as just a smelly mess of tangled branches and roots. At first sight, they may not seem pretty in the conventional sense. But try to understand the vital role they play in our lives, and you will soon see their beauty shining forth, as if from within.