email a friend iconprinter friendly iconMangroves
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Despite their strategic importance, mangroves are under threat worldwide. They are sacrificed for salt pans, aquaculture ponds, housing developments, roads, port facilities, hotels, golf courses, and farms. And they die from a thousand indirect cuts: oil spills, chemical pollution, sediment overload, and disruption of their sensitive water and salinity balance. Calls for mangrove conservation gained a brief but significant hearing following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Where mangrove forests were intact, they served as natural breakwaters, dissipating the energy of the waves, mitigating property damage, perhaps saving lives. Post-tsunami, the logic of allowing a country's mangrove "bioshields" to be bulldozed looked not just flawed but reprehensible.

Bangladesh has not lost sight of that logic, putting a great premium on the ability of mangroves to stabilize shores and trap sediments. A low-lying country with a long, vulnerable coastline, Bangladesh is also land starved, with a crushing population density of 2,500 persons per square mile (2.6 square kilometers). By planting mangroves on delta sediments washed down from the Himalaya, it has gained over 300,000 acres (120,000 hectares) of new land on the Bay of Bengal. The plantings are relatively new, but there have been mangroves here for as long as the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers have been draining into the bay. The vast tidal woodland they form is known as the Sundarbans—literally "beautiful forest." Today, it's the largest surviving single tract of mangroves in the world.

Bangladesh has not lost sight of that logic, putting a great premium on the ability of mangroves to stabilize shores and trap sediments. A low-lying country with a long, vulnerable coastline, Bangladesh is also land starved, with a crushing population density of 2,500 persons per square mile (2.6 square kilometers). By planting mangroves on delta sediments washed down from the Himalaya, it has gained over 300,000 acres (120,000 hectares) of new land on the Bay of Bengal. The plantings are relatively new, but there have been mangroves here for as long as the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers have been draining into the bay. The vast tidal woodland they form is known as the Sundarbans—literally "beautiful forest." Today, it's the largest surviving single tract of mangroves in the world.

In the forest's most luxuriant sections a dozen mangrove species, from feathery golpata palms to the towering sundri tree, form labyrinthine stands up to 60 feet (18 meters) tall. Beneath the sundri, the glutinous mud bristles with the tree's breathing roots. Twelve inches high (30 centimeters) and as thick as deer antlers, they grow so tightly together there's barely room to squeeze a foot between them. In drier areas, groves of semi-deciduous mangroves blaze red in the months before the monsoon. Spotted deer glide through the filtered shade, stopping abruptly when a troop of macaques shriek an alarm call. Woodpeckers hammer in the high branches, while on the forest floor dry leaves rustle with the scuttling of mud crabs. A butterfly called the Sundarban crow—charcoal with splashes of white—rests on a twig, opening and closing its wings like a prayer book.

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