Mangrove trees have specific characteristics such as tough root systems, special bark and leaf structures and other unique adaptations to enable them to survive in their habitat's harsh conditions. The habitat is soft, silty and shallow, coupled with the endless ebb and flow of water providing very little support for most mangrove plants which have aerial or prop roots (known as pneumatrophores, or respiratory roots) and buttressed trunks.
Despite its smelly reputation, a mangrove forest is a very dynamic and highly productive ecosystem. It not only plays multiple ecological functions essential to its surrounding habitats, but is also an important resource for coastal communities.
Mangrove forests are important because they:
- protect coastlines against erosive wave action and strong coastal winds, and serve as natural barriers against tsunamis and torrential storms.
- prevent salt water from intruding into rivers.
- retain, concentrate and recycle nutrients and remove toxicants through a natural filtering process.
- provide resources for coastal communities who depend on the plants for timber, fuel, food, medicinal herbs and other forest products.
- can be harvested sustainably for wood and other products,
- are an important breeding ground for many fishes, crabs, prawns and other marine animals, essential for sustaining a viable fishing industry. Malaysia's mangroves are more diverse than those in tropical Australia, the Red Sea, tropical Africa and the Americas. About 50% of fish landings on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia are associated with mangroves.
Conservation of mangroves can be enhanced by:
- Gazetting all remaining mangrove forests within forest reserves or protected areas. Some mangrove forests are already gazetted such as the Matang Forest Reserve in Perak, the Kuala Selangor Nature Park in Selangor, the Bako National Park in Sarawak, the Kota Kinabalu City Bird Sanctuary and Sepilok Forest Reserve in Sabah. But many other mangrove areas are still without any protection.
- Devising well-balanced coastal land-use plans, such as maintaining sustainable limits in logging and other harvesting activities of its resources.
- Retaining protective mangrove buffers along coastlines and rivers to prevent erosion.
- Managing mangrove forests as fishery reserves to encourage environmentally-sensitive commercial aquaculture activities. Raising public awareness and educating the community to discourage indiscriminate clearing.
- Introduction of social forestry schemes. Damaged forest areas can be planted and managed for small-scale village timber enterprises. Mangrove species like Rhizophora mucronata or R. apiculata are particularly ideal for mangrove plantations as they are both fast growing and lucrative.