Friday, 30 November 2007

Mangroves: A safety belt under siege


Published in The Indian Express on October 25, 1998
By Syed Akbar
A totally rusted notice board outside the village of Nagayalanka, which
lies 80 km from Vijayawada, says it all. ``Welcome to Krishna Wildlife
Sanctuary, the habitat of lovely mangrove forests,'' it says.
The decrepit signboard typifies all that is wrong with this wildlife
sanctuary perched picturesquely on the estuary of the Krishna river. The
sanctuary harbours unique mangrove vegetation besides salt water
crocodiles, fishing cats and otters, besides endangered animal species
like dolphins and dugongs (sea cows).
But now most of this mangrove sanctuary is degraded, with vast stretches
of forest land having been converted into fish or prawn ponds. Cattle can
be spotted all over, freely grazing in the area and denuding the sanctuary
further. Hardly 10 per cent of the 200 sq km sanctuary now has any
greenery worth the name. The rest has been rendered into barren, sandy
patches.
Rues a senior forest official, ``The mangrove vegetation was so thick a
couple of decades ago that we used to auction the woodevery alternate
year. But today we do not even find enough seedlings to take up the
regeneration programme.''
Besides, though it is a notified wildlife sanctuary, it has no security
worth the name and poaching is known to be quite rampant in the area. The
Andhra Pradesh Government and the local people are both to blame for the
slow death of these unique forests.
The degradation started soon after a major portion of the vegetation was
washed away in the tidal wave that swept the south Andhra coast in
November 1977. What certainly added to the problem was the unchecked
poaching that went on. All the hue and cry by environmentalists to save
mangroves from extinction fell on deaf ears. One can still find people
carrying away logs of wood for firewood after having felled the mangrove
shrubs.
By the time the Government did start listening to ecologists, much of the
damage had been done. Finally, in 1992, the entire estuary of Krishna was
declared a wildlife sanctuary to protect the mangroves. Six years
later,the notification doesn't seem to have made a difference. Even the
nursery set up by the Government in Nali hamlet to take up artificial
afforestation of mangroves failed this year.
However, even as the sanctuary continues to suffer for want of protection,
plans are afoot to denotify as much as three hectares of the mangrove
forest in Machilipatnam to set up a fishing harbour. The Central
Government had earlier denotified thousands of hectares of mangrove-rich
reserve forest lands near Machilipatnam and Nizampatnam.
If these mangroves go, so will the thousands of life forms which thrive in
these forests known to have high salinity fluctuations. The wildlife here
include insects, molluscs, fish, some mammals, amphibians, reptiles and
even microscopic plankton. Birds like pond herons, reef herons, sand
pipers, flamingoes, sea gulls, little egrets, pied kingfisher and about a
hundred other species as well nest in these mangroves. They also contain
about two dozen families and 70 species of plants. Felling themangroves
will deprive the birds and animals that have lived here over the centuries
of their habitation and might even lead to their extinction.
Environment activists have suggested that as most of the villagers who
violate the Wildlife Act are from the poorer sections of society, the
Government should introduce welfare measures to reduce the dependence of
people living in and around the mangrove sanctuaries on the forests.
Activists also believe that the setting up of education centres to teach
environmental issues and to create awareness among the local people about
the fragile ecosystem they inhabit and the need to conserve it, would go a
long way in checking poaching. They have also called for
village-protection forces to look after the mangroves, suggesting that the
volunteers employed in such initiatives should be paid by the Government.
Environmental education can go a long way because if mangrove trees are
felled recklessly, it is the people living along the seacoast who will
suffer the most.The mangroves protect the coastline from erosion and help
reclaim land from the sea. They also act as shelter belts and protect
inland coastal villages from tidal waves, besides acting as a guard
against cyclones.
The mangroves also cycle their own vegetation and transport nutrients from
land to sea, which is very important for the survival of economically
important fish like shrimps and prawns. They provide timber for boat
building, bark for tanning and seedlings for food. They also accumulate
and stabilise sediments and build up and extend coastal soils.
What's more, with their unique flora and fauna spread out against the
backdrop of a vast expanse of azure blue seawater, the mangroves are a
nature lover's paradise. Such forests survive only in marshy soils found
mostly in the mouth of rivers, sheltered shores, tidal creeks, backwaters,
lagoons and mud flats. Since these are scattered, poachers encroach upon
them regularly.
In Andhra Pradesh, mangroves occur in the estuaries of the Krishna
andGodavari rivers and cover an area of about 580 sq km, or an estimated
nine per cent of the local forest area. Besides the Krishna sanctuary,
mangroves are available at the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary in East Godavari
district.
The Chandrababu Naidu Government, given its dwindling mangrove forest
reserves, must now shake itself from slumber to save this important
resource. Otherwise it may just be too late.

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