Mangrove forests- sentinels of our coasts

By Nirmal kulkarni

The word mangrove, in fact does not apply to a single species of plant, but to complete ecosystem. It is unique ecosystems found on the periphery of land and the sea and are habitats that are restricted only to the tropical and sub tropical regions of the world and are often termed as tropical rainforests of the sea.Growing on clay like soil on mud flats, mangrove forests are found largely in the estuarine region where a river meets a sea or the intertidal regions of shallow bays and creeks. Hardy in nature mangrove forests face several challenging factors like strong water currents, winds, high levels of water and soil salinity, etc. These factors however have resulted in various species of mangroves adapting to their environment as part of their evolutionary process to survive. Some of these adaptations include salt glands to reduce excess intake of salts, pneumatophores or air breathing roots as they are more commonly known that enable the plants to breathe, and stilt roots amongst other adaptations that help these plants garner mechanical support and spread out for firm anchorage in hostile wind and intertidal current conditions.

As I sit across the Nerul River watching the mangroves that fill the horizon, I am saddened by the apathy shown by our people towards these unique coastal forest ecosystems. In over an hour I have seen a dozen plus individuals, harm this ecosystem in the most horrendous ways- dumping garbage and contaminating them being the most dreadful of them all.

The Goa Government on its part has played a significant role in the state in conserving some areas and salient amongst them is the Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary at Chorao, a unique mangrove forest in itself and a great example of conservation of a habitat for posterity. In fact the mangroves in Canacona and Pernem talukas too, and some small patches in Bardez and Tiswadi talukas are worth their weight in gold- they are repositories of an array of biodiversity and nurseries for fishes. Yes, mangroves not only serve as breeding and nursing grounds for an array of fish including shrimp, crabs and shell fish, they also provide habitat for a diversity of life forms ranging from flying foxes, a large number of birds including Darters, teals, herons, curlews and plovers, etc. Amongst reptiles, the Dog faced water snake; the Indian monitor lizard as well as the marsh crocodile besides other species has been documented in Goa’s mangroves.  Amongst the plant species some of the mangrove species found in Goa include the Mangrove apple (Sonneratia alba), Sea Holly (Acanthus ilicifolius) River mangrove, the Red mangrove (Rhizophora mucronata), Grey mangrove (Avicennia officinalis) etc.

Besides which Mangroves play the role of buffers between the land and the sea and prevent soil erosion thus stabilizing shorelines to a large extent in areas where the habitat is healthy. There have been studies that indicate that mangrove ecosystems are effective in reducing threats even during natural calamities like Tsunamis and flash floods.

In 1996, the Hon Supreme Court ruled that mangroves are to be included amongst forests. This was a historic ruling and helped in conservation of these unique habitats.  The Research and Utilization Division of the Goa Forest Department has silently been involved in plantation of important species as part of their afforestation program for a decade and results are now being seen in many parts of the state. However a lacuna exists in the awareness levels of the importance of these ecosystems amongst the general public and it is our duty to understand and conserve them and their diversity. The role of environment education NGO’s like the WWF India and Center for Environment is crucial is spreading this awareness as is that of schools and other educational institutions that have access to mangrove ecosystems. Take students for a walk along the mangroves along with a guide and unravel the multiplicity of species of plant and animal life. It is the need of the hour.

Eco-tourism is another turf that can be explored for creating appreciation and awareness about this distinctive ecosystem and this aspect is slowly gathering steam in some areas with boat and canoe trips, walks along the banks and birding trips being conducted by local operators. And while this genre of low impact sustainable eco tourism is welcome, it is essential to monitor issues like garbage disposal by tourists and operators, impacts of diesel engines of boats on avian fauna etc.
With areas like the Ourem creek, the Nerul River belt, the Bardez river mangroves and many such locations in need of protection, it is our sacred duty to create awareness and conserve these unique ecosystems for posterity by our deeds and actions. Keep the faith.


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