What can I say about my trip to Indonesia? For four weeks, I was working with Operation Wallacea on the islands of Buton and Hoga, and during those four weeks I dived with turtles and sea snakes, learnt how to survey bats, birds and reptiles, got wet, got muddy, met some fantastic people and overall had a truly memorable time. But if I had to pick just one highlight of the trip, it would be the mangroves.
Twice during my stay in Indonesia, I went snorkelling in the mangroves on the island of Kaledupa. On entering the water, one thing was immediately noticeable: in contrast to the breakers and underwater noise of the coral reefs, the mangroves were calm and tranquil. And while at first the brackish, sediment-laden water can appear lifeless at first, a search along the bed or the tree roots can reveal sea cucumbers, mangrove corals, sea sponges, juvenile barracuda, clownfish, mudskippers, sea snakes and a plethora of birds.
In fact, Indonesia has the largest area of mangrove forest of any country, with a total of over 2.9 million hectares. Globally, however, there are over 13 million hectares of mangrove forest across 105 countries. While their importance is often unrecognised, they provide a nursery ground for 75% of reef fish, reduce wave height in storms by 65%, and most importantly, store 5 times more carbon per hectare than a similar area of rainforest. The overall value of the ecosystem services these mangroves provide is estimated at $6.1 billion.
Unfortunately, mangroves are under threat in many parts of the world. Southeast Asia alone has lost 80% of its natural mangrove cover, with one species, Bruguiera hainesii, estimated to have less than 250 mature trees remaining. There are numerous reasons for this, including rising sea levels, coastal development, shrimp farming and unregulated logging. The last factor in particular has had a major impact in Indonesia, exacerbated by a total ban on logging in many areas, and the distinctive red timber of mangroves are one of the most durable hardwoods.
The good news, however, is that across the world, there’s a growing movement to conserve and restore mangrove forest. These range from the Mangroves and Markets project that has trained over 500 shrimp farmers in Vietnam in organic shrimp farming and mangrove planting, to recreating over 1000 hectares of mangroves on Madagascar’s Tsiribihina Delta, where that habitat had been completely cleared for 40 years. Evidently, in many developing countries there is a growing interest in this habitat and a will to sustainably manage them over the long term, but this can only be the case if there is awareness of the importance of mangroves and the plight they face, and this aspect I feel is sorely lacking. So having fallen in love with mangrove forest in Indonesia, I hope this piece can do that.