Mangroves are among the most misunderstood ecosystems. The coastal forests are sometimes perceived as “dirty” or “dead areas”, wasted land that could be cleared in favour of sandy beaches or other developments.
These myths about mangroves could not be farther from the truth. They are the only trees that thrive in salty waters and improve water quality by filtering out nutrients and sediments.
They are also teeming with life: more than 1,500 plant and animal species depend on mangroves. This includes fish and birds who use the shallow waters beneath mangrove trees as nurseries. Research now indicates that mangroves are also critical for larger mammals, such as monkeys, sloths, tigers, hyenas and African wild dogs.
But mangroves are threatened. Worldwide, a fifth of them have already disappeared. In some places around the world, such as the Irrawaddy Delta, over 80 per cent of mangrove forest has been lost since the 1970s! The main driver of mangrove loss is coastal development, when mangrove forests are cleared to make way for buildings and fish or shrimp farms.
The plight of these vital ecosystems will be in the spotlight on 26 July, World Mangrove Day. Below are five key benefits of mangrove ecosystems paired with winning entries from the Mangrove Photography Awards, an annual competition partnering with the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and the UN Decade of Ocean Science.
1. Mangroves are climate heroes
To keep climate change at bay, the world urgently needs to reduce emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Mangroves are critical in this second task. They extract up to five times more carbon than forests on land, incorporating it in their leaves, branches, roots and the sediments beneath them – therefore building ground level and keeping pace with sea level rise. The salty and oxygen-poor conditions beneath mangrove forests mean that decomposition of organic material happens very slowly. In the right environmental conditions, mangroves can store the carbon they took from the atmosphere for decades, centuries, or even millennia.