Written & Illustrated by Shreya Mehra
I travelled through Tamil Nadu in June 2022, and after having seen the most beautiful coasts of South India including Dhanushkodi and Gulf of Mannar, I was convinced that nothing could possibly be more beautiful. But after a boat ride through the dense mangrove forest of Pichavaram, my mind completely changed. It was an absolutely mesmerising experience to wade through the floating mangrove trees.
I was on my way to Chennai from Rameswaram and decided to add Pichavaram to my itinerary since I had never seen a mangrove forest before. Pichavaram is near Chidambaram in Cuddalore District, Tamil Nadu, in South India. It is the world’s second largest mangrove ecosystem after the Sundarbans in West Bengal. It is located between two estuaries, the Vellar estuary in the north and Coleroon estuary in the south. There was a small information board indicating the species name found in the forest: the main species are Rhizophora annamalayana, which is derived from two species of Rhizophora – R. apiculata and another natural hybrid R. mucronata.
A motorboat service run by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department took us through the floating forest. I had never experienced such a boat ride before and was keen to finally observe this unique ecosystem up close. The trees had such dense ‘canopies’ that it seemed like I had entered a dark cave. The journey felt all the more thrilling as the boat gently rocked through the water in this ‘cave;’ it felt as though I had entered a video game or a movie. I also spotted many species of water birds such as cormorants, herons, and egrets. I did not spot any animals during my visit to Pichavaram. This trip made me revisit my school lessons on the importance of these trees as I was extremely fascinated by this unusual ecosystem and the way it was thriving.
But why are mangroves so important?
I am sure like me, many others who live away from the coast have little knowledge on how these excellent ecosystem regulators affect our lives so closely from miles away. Mangroves are extremely crucial for the regulation of the air and water within this coastal ecosystem, help prevent soil erosion, act as critical habitat of a plethora of species and are also essential for the sustenance of livelihoods of the local communities who are dependent on them for firewood, fodder, boat-building and tannin extraction. Furthermore, mangroves are halophytes, which means that they can survive in saline (salty) conditions. Most plants do not have the ability to thrive in saline ecosystems which makes mangrove important regulators of the wetland ecosystems in coastal regions. The roots of these trees are submerged into the water; these dense root systems help in flood control, binding the soil and minimising coastal erosion. Moreover, these root systems act as natural filters by filtering pollutants such as phosphates that flow into the estuary. These forests also absorb a significant amount of carbon dioxide from the environment, acting as carbon sinks and helping to combat climate change. The carbon absorbed in mangrove forests is known as ‘blue carbon.’
Threats to Pichavaram mangrove forest
Rising sea levels due to unpredictable weather phenomena such as frequent cyclones and tsunamis is emerging as a threat to the survival of mangrove trees. Increased industrial activity around the area and release of effluents into the mangrove region from industries, households, and agricultural lands directly increase the concentration of pollutants in these waters. As the salinity rises, these waters also become unsuitable for fishing, which is an important livelihood activity in the region.
My visit to the Pichavaram mangroves was an enriching experience. I had the chance of closely observing a unique ecosystem in all its glory, an ecosystem that I was otherwise not exposed to. As responsible individuals, we should educate ourselves and others around us and minimise the use of products harmful to the environment such as single use plastics. We can also help raise awareness about lesser-known ecosystems such as mangroves by visiting them and highlighting the uniqueness of such ecotourism experiences such as the one I just had. It is important for all of us to understand the importance of mangrove ecosystems and their regulatory role in battling climate change, protecting the coastline from storms, and sheltering rare biodiversity.
About the Author-Artist:
Shreya Mehra is interested in learning more about conservation and environmental issues. She has completed her masters in environment and development.