Bio-diversity, a contraction of biological diversity, refers to the large variety of living species on earth that include plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi. Communities of plants and animals, called ecosystems, thrive on bio-diversity. Human life depends on these ecosystems.
For example, without plants, there would be no oxygen and without earthworms, there would be little to harvest. Having evolved over millions of years, all ecosystems are very finely balanced; the loss of even one plant or animal species can upset an entire ecosystem leading to loss of bio-diversity and consequent environmental and financial losses.
Mangrove trees, found in the intertidal zone of Tropical and Sub-Tropical Regions, are an important part of many tropical and subtropical coastal ecosystems. Mangroves provide a habitat for a variety of marine plants and animals and economic resources for humans.
Mangrove forests or mangals, rejuvenate the environment, and make fresh land, modifying and stabilising coastlines and seashores in the process. Dense mangrove root networks trap soil and add organic matter so that seeds can germinate.
Mangrove wetlands filter seawater, protecting underground freshwater reserves from salt intrusion. Mangrove roots precipitate and bury toxic heavy metals, thereby purifying water. Mangrove trees have a typical appearance for which they are called “walking trees” or “dancing trees of the sea.”
Certain species of mangroves, notably Rhizophora, shelter humans and animals from the depredation of cyclones. Professor K. Kathiresan, one of India’s leading mangrove experts, visited Odisha after the super cyclone of 1999.
The cyclone had taken a toll of 10,000 human lives and had destroyed 3.5 lakh houses, including that of the Chief Minister, but Professor Kathiresan found that a community of fishermen and tribals living in and around the Bhitarkanika protected mangrove forest, was practically unharmed. This prompted Professor Kathiresan to plant mangrove saplings in Ariyakuppam, Pondicherry and along the coast of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, which protected coastal inhabitants from the devastating effects of the 2004 tsunami. Mangroves bore the brunt of the 2004 tsunami, which destroyed 97 per cent of the mangroves of the Nicobar Islands. During Cyclone Amphan, mangroves protected humans and animals in the Sundarbans.
One of the largest mangrove forests in the world, Sundarbans, is spread over India and Bangladesh. Sundarbans encompasses an area of 10,000 sq. Km in the delta formed by the confluence of the Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers.
Four protected areas in the Sundarbans are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Sundarbans are home to 64 plant species, and 78 species of mangroves including the Sundari tree, from which Sundarban derives its name. Other than the famed Royal Bengal Tiger, Sundarbans have fishing cats, macaques, leopard cats, Indian grey mongoose, barking deer, chital deer, water monitor, king cobra, rock python, rhesus monkey, wild boar, flying fox, pangolin, and Indian grey mongoose. Sundarban is also famous for its marine life, like the saltwater crocodile, red fiddler crabs, hermit crabs and river turtles called Batagur Baska.
Sadly, the Sunderbans are under threat due to endemic cyclones, climate change, agricultural activities, and shrimp farms. Additionally, the supply of fresh water, essential for the mangrove ecosystem, is drastically reduced by the Farakka Barrage.
In the past few years, several industries, refineries, ports and jetties have come up in coastal areas the world over. Due to increased economic activity, the population of these areas has grown significantly.
Resultantly, most mangrove ecosystems are under threat from industrial effluents and domestic sewage discharged into the sea and coastal water bodies. Reclamation of land in coastal areas has affected the natural flow of water to mangroves which often results in their destruction.
Urbanisation, shrimp farms and tourism development lead to direct loss/destruction of mangrove habitat. According to UNESCO, due to economic activities in coastal areas, mangrove forests are disappearing three to five times faster than the overall loss of global forest cover. Mangrove cover is estimated to have shrunk by half in the last 40 years.
However, industrial development and mangrove conservation need not be mutually exclusive. Well, thought out policies can even reverse mangrove cover loss. For example, Gujarat had a mangrove cover of 427 sq. km in 1987, which has now increased to 1175 sq. Km i.e., an overall increase of two and a half times ~ in the period in which the world lost 40 per cent of its mangroves.
Successful mangrove conservation in Gujarat could be attributed to coordinated efforts by the Government and concerned citizens. In a nutshell:
* A State Level Committee having representation of experts, institutions, authorities and managers was constituted in 2005 as the Apex Body for conservation of mangroves in Gujarat.
* This Committee constantly reviewed progress in the implementation of the Mangrove Action Plan and advised the State Government on Mangrove Conservation Policies, after considering the input of stakeholders and agencies.
* Mangrove conservation was identified as one of the 50 Golden goals during the 50th Anniversary celebration of Gujarat State, which gave an impetus to the Government and public to redouble their efforts for mangrove conservation.
* The entire Gujarat coastline was surveyed in 2014-15 for identifying Potential Areas (coastal habitats) suitable for mangrove development. Approximately 145 mudflats having an area of 3.1 lakh hectares (over 3000 sq. km) area were found suitable for the development of a coastal Bio-Shield of mangrove habitats. After identification, Potential Areas were diligently mapped.
* All mangrove habitats were surveyed for floristic and faunal diversity. Inundation and existence of soil conditions preferred by important species of mangroves and availability and distribution of pollinator resources of important species were ascertained.
* Based on the details collected, the Gujarat government prepared a Habitat Development Plan for each Potential Area with the aim of developing them as coastal Bio-Shields.
* The State Government undertook schemes and programmes to reduce the dependence of coastal communities on mangroves for their needs of fodder and fuelwood by providing them with alternate sources, thus pre- venting unsustainable use of mangrove habitats.
Most importantly, Gujarat supported mangrove conservation through regular funding from the State Budget. Funds from Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS) of the Union government supplemented the budget of the state.
Local businesses also contributed their mite, through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds. The Government successfully motivated coastal communities for mangrove conservation by ensuring people’s participation in Joint Forest Management Committees, Ecosystem Development Committees and Self-Help Groups. Young people were sensitised to conservation efforts through Nature Education Camps.
Many young men and women work as frontline warriors for the conservation of mangroves. To develop a better understanding of the complex Coastal Eco-System, workshops, seminars, training programmes and exposure visits are regularly arranged for coastal communities and frontline staff. Exchange of ideas and learning through experience sharing is encouraged during such interactions.
Depletion of mangroves had threatened the existence of the “Kharai” camel, a rare breed of camels found only in the Kachchh district of Gujarat, that swim up to three kilometres in the sea, to forage on mangroves. Now, with the rejuvenation of mangrove forests, Kharai camels can graze to their heart’s content.
Globally, a number of initiatives have been undertaken for the conservation of mangroves. UNESCO celebrates 26 July as the International Day for the Conservation of Mangrove Eco-system, with the aim of raising awareness about the mangrove eco-system as “a unique, special and vulnerable ecosystem” and promoting its sustainable management, and conservation.
UNESCO has declared mangrove sites worldwide as Bio-Sphere Reserves, World Heritage Sites, and Geoparks with the objective of providing protection to mangrove habitats and disseminating information about mangroves.
IUCN and UNDP have created the Mangroves for Future (MFF) Initiative, to attract investment in coastal Eco-Systems. India is a partner country in this initiative. Particular mention may be made of the successful efforts of an NGO, International Society for Mangrove Eco-System (ISME) which was established in 1990 in Okinawa, Japan to promote the study of mangroves with a view to improving their conservation and sustainable utilization.
Over the years, mangrove cover has either declined or remained constant in all coastal states, except Gujarat, which is a cause of immense concern for environmentalists, scientists and economists. IUCN has already put Sunderbans in the Endangered Category in 2020. On the other hand, scientific mangrove conservation in Gujarat has yielded highly encouraging results which show that with persistent efforts, mangrove conservation is possible and the development of coastal areas need not be at the cost of mangrove habitats. Perhaps the time has come for all maritime states to implement mangrove conservation measures, so that future generations are not deprived of this majestic ecosystem.
(The writers are, respectively, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Government of Gujarat, and a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)