These curious trees, with their uncanny ability to thrive in saline environments, are finally being recognised for the myriad benefits they offer and the protection they provide. Louise Molyneaux and Editor Chad Merchant paid separate visits to Langkawi’s mangrove forests and both learned that mangroves are more than just beneficial, they’re critical.

It’s a date that will not soon be erased from human memory. On December 26, 2004, a massive undersea earthquake set into motion one of the most devastating natural disasters in recorded history. The Indian Ocean Tsunami, born from a 9.1-magnitude quake off the northwest coast of Sumatra, swept through the region with catastrophic power. Malaysia, largely shielded by the enormous land mass of Sumatra, escaped the sheer destruction suffered by Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. Still, though, the damage was significant.

Penang and Langkawi absorbed the brunt of the tsunami’s effect on Malaysia. In Langkawi, the mangrove populated coastline of Kuala Teriang prevented the wave from wreaking far more damage than it did. But there was a cost: the mangroves were all but obliterated, some in the initial disaster, others succumbing in the months that followed. Years later, the coast is nothing but barren mudflats, and if another tsunami were to strike, with nothing to protect the coastal villages, the destruction would almost certainly be far worse. Efforts sprang up long after the tsunami to replant mangrove saplings on these mudflats; time will tell if the dozens of mini mangroves will ultimately spread to once again provide a protective barrier.


A COASTLINE’S BEST FRIEND

This coastal protection is just one of the benefits mangroves provide, certainly the most easily apparent and obvious one. The mangroves serve as a buffer zone, a transition from the sea to the land, and act as a coastal barrier. As a result of their through the root barrier, particularly the destructive force of tidal waves and tsunamis. Additionally, mangroves protect intertidal sediment along coastlines from eroding away in periods of stormy weather and strong waves. The protection offered is not insignificant. According to a study conducted by The World Conservation Union, healthy mangroves incontrovertibly serve as a natural barrier against massive waves. The study compared the death toll from two villages in Sri Lanka that were hit by the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Two people died in the settlement with dense mangrove and scrub forest, while as many as 6,000 people died in the village without such vegetation.

In addition to coastal defence, mangroves provide an important sanctuary for a wide array of life. Mangroves serve as spawning and nursery habitats for many wildlife species, including commercial fish and crustaceans, and thus contribute to sustaining the local abundance of fish and shellfish populations. In fact, here in Malaysia, nearly 120 species have been recorded as being directly associated with mangrove ecosystems. And it’s not just the obvious sea-faring critters who benefit: apart from aquatic species, numerous bird species also utilise mangroves as rookeries or nesting areas, and many migratory species depend on mangroves for part of their annual migrations.

Another benefit mangroves offer is an economically tangible one: the wood from mangroves is also used for building houses, furniture, and telephone poles, as well as certain household items. When these activities are managed sustainably, it is possible to derive timber products from mangrove forests without significant environmental impact, while still maintaining the mangrove forest’s ecological and biological value as a nursery and a source of food for commercial capture fisheries.


AN ANCIENT LAND, A HAVEN FOR LIFE

In Malaysia, mangroves play a crucial role in coastal life, as much so on parts of its mainland as on its islands. In Langkawi, a designated UNESCO Geopark since 2007, mangroves are a uniquely visible part of the scenery, though the 99-island Langkawi archipelago is a geopark for other reasons, too. The collection of islands here showcases the best-exposed and most complete Palaeozoic sedimentary sequence in Malaysia, from the Cambrian to the Permian period, with much of the rock initially formed some 550 million years ago. What can be seen in Langkawi today is the combined result of these ancient geological processes and the ongoing weathering and eroding process that has taken place since the land was brought to the surface around 220 million years ago. Geodiversity and biodiversity are protected in three areas which collectively comprise the UNESCO Langkawi Geopark: Machinchang Cambrian Geoforest Park, Kilim Karst Geoforest Park, and Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforest Park.

The Kilim Karst Geoforest alone covers an area of some 2,415 hectares and contains some of the most spectacular mangroves in Malaysia, set as they are against the sheer limestone cliffs. These massive, dark, rocky outcrops tower above the verdant forest, sculpted into magnificent shapes by the sea and tropical rain in the millennia since they were uplifted from the ocean floor. Karsts are fossilized coral reefs from another age, not dissimilar to those forming out in the sea today. The steep cliff faces exhibit the edges of the reef. The space in between was once occupied by more easily eroded mud, now long gone. It’s an incredible sight, especially when viewed on one of the many boat tours available, and this inspiring scenery extends northwards into Thailand’s waters, as well.


A PARK FOR THE EARTH

A Geopark is a defined area containing internationally significant, geologically important sites. Its purpose is to conserve the geological heritage and promote public awareness of it through environmentally friendly tourism. Langkawi’s status as a Geopark is often overlooked by tourists in favour of its beaches and duty-free shopping but these natural wonderlands are among the island’s most endearing qualities. These protected Geoforest parks also preserve biodiversity in a number of habitats including mangroves, tidal flats, beaches, estuaries, coral reefs, and limestone caves. The mangroves are a key element in the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park, and a number of local boaters operate tours that set out daily from the nearby jetty.

As the understanding of the contributions and importance of mangroves grows, not just in Malaysia but throughout the world, it is hoped that more actions aimed at education, conservation, and protection will flourish. Tsunamis, tidal erosion, overfishing, and the dire consequences of climate change are all serious threats mankind will continue to face in the future. The humble mangrove offers a helping hand to address them all.

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