ENVIRONMENT: WHY MANGROVES MATTER EVEN MORE NOW

Published November 21, 2021
Karachi’s mangroves | Taimur Mirza
Karachi’s mangroves | Taimur Mirza

The cool breeze complemented the generosity of our avid environmentalist hosts, Tariq Alexander Qaiser and Taimur Mirza, who had invited us for a tour of the mangrove forest. Or what remains of it. Sadly, the rate of mangrove trees being chopped off is far more rapid than their regrowth.

A boat can easily be rented from fishermen at Korangi Creek to access Bundal Island, which is more like a local version of Treasure Island where, instead of Benjamin Gunn being marooned, you see quite a number of stranded dogs and camels, fed by the local fishermen. As you approach the island, you can see a caravan of camels standing against the silhouette of the high rises of Karachi.

“We’ve been abundantly blessed with so much that nature has to offer,” says Mirza, “if only we learn how to preserve it. The time to save the mangroves was yesterday, tomorrow is still too late!”

Dolphin sighted after six years | Heba Moeen
Dolphin sighted after six years | Heba Moeen

While nearing the island, we suddenly chanced upon a grey mass. “Look! I think I just saw something,” exclaims Qaiser. “It’s either some rubbish or possibly a dolphin!”

Much to our excitement, it was a dolphin with a calf. We were extremely fortunate to have had such a close encounter with these marine mammals that we were told had been sighted after at least six years. They put on a great show before bidding us farewell.

Mangrove forests are not only a hedge against climate change disasters and nurture a diversity of flora and fauna, but are also a source of livelihood for coastal communities. The impressive drive to save the mangrove forests of Karachi needs not only to be sustained but expanded

After channelling amidst the mangrove trees on a motor boat, we stopped for a while and were mesmerised by a distant humming and the subtle but refreshing smell of mangrove flowers. The mangrove flowers are a crucial part of the ecosystem, as they produce honey and regenerate the forest, while camels enjoy eating the seedpods. “That faint humming you can hear,” points out Qaiser, “is the sound of the city at this distance.”

Further down, one is greeted by an abundance of cormorants, egrets, herons, Brahminy kites, gulls, plovers, flamingoes and, sometimes, even a common kingfisher, if you are lucky — which we were, as one solitary one flew in front us in a flash.

Tiny black and orange crabs, with their beady black eyes, rest on mangrove tree branches, adding warm hues to the green backdrop. These brachyuran crabs form a major part of the crustacean fauna in Karachi’s mangroves, and are the basis of the coprophagous food chain, contributing to the secondary mangrove production.

Some 16 species of these crabs, which have the ability to climb up trees in case of hazards, have been reported in Sindh’s mangroves. The crabs help recycle the leaves and release the trapped energy before the tides and current sweep them away as they fall.

Straited heron | Taimur Mirza
Straited heron | Taimur Mirza

“Since 2010, the Sindh Forest Department has been managing an annual mangrove plantation cycle to protect 8,000 to 10,000 hectares of mangrove area alongside planting new saplings,” says Riaz Wagan, chief conservator, Sindh Forests, Mangrove and Rangelands.

“In the last eight years alone, we have been able to manage to increase 90,000 hectares of mangrove cover. But we need to preserve our mature mangroves, as it takes about 25 years for a mangrove tree to mature and reach its full growth.”

The annual plantation concluded last month and, according to Wagan, it has been providing livelihood for the local community since 1994. The 107,000 hectares of mangroves in 2009/10 has increased to 220,000 hectares in 2021 along the area extending from Korangi Creek to Kajar Creek.

“By 2023, we plan to plant 30,000 more saplings and target 260,000 hectares, the mangrove numbers in the 1980s,” says Wagan.

Among the mangroves, four species — rhizopora mucronata, aegiceras corniculatum, ceriops tagal and avicennia marina — are ample in comparison to others and constitute about 90 percent of all mangrove population.

Qaiser points how Karachi could potentially face catastrophic outcomes should these forests disappear, with the climate emergency already threatening Pakistan.

Brachyuran crab | Taimur Mirza
Brachyuran crab | Taimur Mirza

“Reclamation works and cutting mature mangroves would silt up the Port Qasim channel and adversely re-adjust the Keamari harbour,” he says. “These trees have a sturdy root system which traps river and land sediment and serves as a natural barrier against storms and floods, hence slowing erosion and protecting coastline areas.”

With storms and monsoon variability imperiling Karachi because of climate change, mangrove forests are more important than ever now, to withstand potential tsunamis and prevent the city from being flooded. In August 2020 alone, for example, Karachi received 484 mm of rain, whereas data collected from 1985 to 2014 by the Pakistan Meteorological Department reveals that the average annual rainfall was between 10 mm to 150 mm only.

“They also absorb 18 percent more carbon dioxide than other trees and almost all the seafood caught in Sindh thrives on the mangrove forest,” adds Qaiser.

While much has been written about illegal logging, urbanisation and industrialisation being some of the reasons for the destruction of our mangroves, environmentalists are also concerned about the development of concrete projects around Bundal Island, which would further harm the natural habitat and put an end to the livelihood of fishermen.

Instead of dumping untreated effluent into the sea and polluting the marine ecosystem, Karachi could perhaps follow the example of tropical countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the first country in the world to completely protect its mangroves. They have not only preserved these wonders but have also derived a revenue stream through sustainable eco-tourism.

Meanwhile in Karachi, the chopping of mangroves, which is illegal, is done by people who are often reported in the news as the ‘timber mafia.’ However, the ‘timber mafia’ usually caters only to the poor. The trees are cut when the tides are low, the wood is carried away by boat and sold near the coastal towns/ villages, to be used as fuel.

They sometimes get caught and are fined but they return because law enforcement is weak.

Upon our return, we see some of the evidence of this ongoing problem. Axed mangrove trees, some of which were already left to rot, appeared like helpless carcasses, staring at us and imploring for mercy.

The writer is a communications professional, an artist and a wildlife photographer. She can be reached at moeen.hiba@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 21st, 2021

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