Evergreen Mangroves of Kerala — Guardians of the West Coast

Binu is my friend from Kollam who is doing his research and I have been there on a fine afternoon. He had been telling me about the mangrove forests and the happiness we get by walking by on the riverbank in his area. I was very much eager to visit his place, fascinated by his vivid descriptions.

“Hey Anju, let us go quickly and spend some useful time over there. After coming back, let us have the tea”.

We briskly walked down the river bank and went along for half an hour towards the seashore. I was feeling sultry, but rejoiced at the same time, because of such a serene beauty all around. Bluewater bodies all along and lumps of green forests, it is felt as if something is floating on the sea. For me from the busy town at Kottayam, this is something amazing and quite unforgettable.

Binu started talking about the mangroves. He talks more, but mostly about real facts. So, it was very interesting for me.

“See Anju, Mangroves are the jungle of dreams where fishes swim among the trees, it will give you a unique experience that makes the destination unforgettable.

The “ecosystem engineers”, mangroves in Kerala are nature’s gift to God’s Own Country. Kerala has vivid biodiversity, with mountains of the Western Ghats on one side and the vast stretch of a rich coastal belt on the northern region especially Kannur and Kasaragod. These mangroves provide ample scope for eco-tourism in Kerala.

This also provides important ecosystem services and is therefore economically valuable.

Mangroves in Kerala are regarded as the most diverse composition of mangroves in India. Other major places of mangroves in India are Pichavaram in Tamil Nadu and Sundarbans in West Bengal. These mangroves are called “Guardians of the Coast”  due to their ability to grow in an incredibly harsh condition and a significant value as a habitat for other flora and fauna making them a crucial part of our ecosystem. They provide balance and stability to the environment, regulating salinity and carbon dioxide, and filtering out contaminants from the water.

Mangroves protect our seas and oceans from rising temperatures. Mangroves are even being used to protect and revive the world’s dwindling bee population. Mangroves provide a habitat for many different species of animals.

They are an important source of blue carbon. The cooperation among species as well as nature allows them to survive better than would as individuals. Here also a symbiotic relationship exists between the animals and the mangrove. The roots and branches of mangroves provide an ideal site for animals to feed, mate, and give birth. Mangroves are salt-tolerant trees, also called halophytes”.

Snake Island from Kollam in Kerala, India

 “Have you ever thought, why mangrove forests disappear in some outskirts of towns?” Binu continued.

“Mangrove forests are disappearing at a worrying rate and conservationists are fighting hard to protect it from deforestation and coastal development”.

According to Global surveys, only less than half the original acreage of the mangrove growth exists today. More than half of the major destructions of mangroves in Kerala happened in the last 50 years. The overpopulation in Kerala and hiking land prices in the mainland led the construction and real estate shift towards the marshy lands of mangrove forests.

One of the expeditious destruction of mangroves might be because of the inadequate law enforcement systems. The devastating tsunami of 2004 showed how mangrove forests could turn out to be a protective shield against such natural disasters. Scientists have also recognised that mangrove forests could resist calamities resulting from sea-level rise caused by global warming. Local government bodies and non-government organizations aimed at the conservation of mangroves in Kerala.

In Indonesia, Mangrove Action Project has implemented Community Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration, CBEMR, a sustainable approach for mangrove forest restoration by mimicking natural processes.

As more and more developments in the field of science and technology, there are methods for species identification of plants and remote sensing technologies to assess the weather conditions”.

I wanted to stop and go into the water in a shallow area. But Binu cautioned me, “your slippers may get stuck in the mud and if you wade barefooted, you may get hurt by the sharp-edged shells. Let us go some other day, by getting into a boat all around”.

It took me aback from getting into the river water.

“There is life everywhere, in the water in the mud and within the mangroves”.

This unique landscape is a God-given gift to mankind. Realising this, some of the selfless people started supporting the conservation of this mangrove ecosystem. Have you ever thought of the saviours of mangroves?” He was talking very much with concern and was proud in his expressions.

Kallen Pokkudan, (Kerala’s mangrove man) also known as Kandal Pokkudan, an Indian environmental activist and writer from Kerala, since 1989 devoted himself to spread the message of mangrove conservation and embarked on a mission to plant mangroves across the coastal waters of Kerala and is reported to have planted over 100,000 mangrove plants in the state. He founded the Mangrove school and conducted over 500 classes in various parts of the state in an attempt to educate the masses about the ecological importance of mangroves.

His last work, “Kandal Inangal” is a work giving the details of various species of mangroves found in Kerala.

Attila Bankovich, director of the Hungarian Institute of Ornithology after visiting mangroves in Kannur said that “This much biodiversity you cannot see anywhere else in the world. This should never be destroyed”.

Recognising the values of mangrove treasure, traditionally the indigenous tribes protected the unique ecosystem. “It is not only here in Kerala, but in other parts of the world also, we can get examples” Binu expressed his deep learning in the aspect of indigenous people and the mangrove forests.

“Indigenous people know their lands better than anyone, and nothing can replace their indigenous knowledge regarding forest conservation. Various reports show that indigenous and tribal people are the best guardians of forests.

Mangrove ecosystems that are preserved sustainably provide benefits to indigenous people. The benefits provided by the mangrove ecosystem are felt by indigenous people in social, economic and ecological aspects.

Here the story remains incomplete if we do not mention the Asmat group of indigenous people from New Guinea. Mr Paskalis Wakat through his wood carvings depicts the importance of mangrove ecosystems for the Asmat indigenous people. Mangrove forests are the mother to Asmat people”.

Achankovil River in Kollam, Kerala

“Oh Binu, it is really difficult to study when you go across to identify the location and understand the extent, directions, spot, etc., isn’t it?”

“No, nowadays it is not difficult”. Binu started explaining.

“Beginning in 2010, remote sensing technologies and global data have been used to assess areas, conditions and deforestation rates of mangroves around the world. Satellites are excellent for studying changes in forest health, area, and phenology. It helps to understand the state of mangrove forests from 30 years ago or more.

Satellite images of mangrove forests reveal that not all mangroves have the same life cycles. However, satellite monitoring is not enough on its own and cannot capture the information that is available on the ground. So it is important to recognise the work of researchers on the ground”.

“But, how can you recognise the different trees in this type of thicket. It is all looking the same for me”. I was doubtful about tree-wise identification.

“No, no. We have your biotechnology tools for this. You have studied molecular markers, isn’t it? That technology, along with a computerized database management system, makes it very easy for us to identify each tree among these. We have barcoded hundreds of these mashy halophytes”.

“Now we do DNA barcoding of mangroves as well”.

“Mangrove conservation is a challenge in the world of biological conservation. The influence of anthropogenic activity on mangrove ecosystems is increasing every year. There can be an effect of narrowing down the extent of mangroves in the future. In such cases, rapid and precise identification of mangroves will continue because researchers need them for other fields such as forestry, coastal management and exploration of wetland areas.

Many researchers have begun using DNA barcodes to explore mangroves in several countries, rbcL and matK markers provide preliminary assessment data that will be useful for broader application of DNA barcodes in the ecological studies of mangrove plants”.

 “Ok Binu, let me recollect the advantages of mangroves from your mind-blowing narrations so far”.

  • Mangrove forests could resist calamities resulting from sea-level rise caused by global warming.
  • It provides a habitat for many different species of animals.
  • It helps to prevent soil erosion along the coastal lines.
  • The structure of roots help to soften the blow of the waves, which protects any man-made or natural structures on the opposite side of the mangroves.
  • Mangroves also provide numerous ecosystem services, benefits and opportunities for recreation and tourism.

“But I see some disadvantages also, Binu” I apprehended.

  • The exotic mangroves becomes an invasive species and uptake the nutrients of other plants.
  • The stagnant saltwater in mangrove swamps are breeding sites for mosquitoes which causes vector-borne diseases.
  • Foul smell of marshy areas of mangroves due to accumulation of dirty materials.
  • The encroachment of mangrove roots prevent the development and construction activities of nearby residents.

I am full of joy and just tried to take home the understandings I got because of Binu.

Mangrove conservation is of great significance in India, large coastal cities are turning channels into disposal drains for large quantities of municipal and sewage wastes, much of which ends up in mangrove ecosystems. Without mangroves, we would all be diminished and many people would suffer and also loss of mangroves result in carbon dioxide rise in the atmosphere.

Mangrove ecosystems provide significant socio-economic benefits as well as environmental protection. Many people do not fully understand how important mangrove forests, and are not even aware of the many natural benefits they provide.

We must actively take a key role in the conservation and restoration of these forests by educating people.

Binu interrupted my thought process “It is great Anju, you have spent this evening along this riverbank. For now, you have got enriched with enough knowledge about the mangroves, onsite. Next time, when you visit us, let us go in-depth into the mangrove forests and their intricacies”.

“Thank you so much. I cannot forget every moment spent here today”. I thanked him from the bottom of my heart.

– Anju Alexander

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