Sri Lanka, with its diverse habitats and rich biodiversity, is hailed as one of the world’s most prominent hotspots for flora and fauna. This incredible diversity can be attributed to factors such as varying rainfall, altitude, and soil composition across the island. From evergreen rainforests to marine and coastal habitats, Sri Lanka’s unique geographical formation enhances its bio-diversity in extraordinary ways.
Among the numerous ecological wonders found in Sri Lanka, mangroves stand out as one of the most productive and invaluable resources. Sri Lanka is home to over 20 mangrove species, thriving primarily along the sheltered coastlines of estuaries and lagoons. Covering an area of 15,670 hectares, these mangroves represent only a fraction (0.2%) of the island’s total forest cover. Notable regions such as the Kala Oya basin, Puttlam Lagoon, and Trincomalee boast the largest expanses of mangrove habitats, while other areas like Kalpitiya, Negombo, Kalutara, and Bentota also nurture these vital ecosystems.
Mangroves are resilient plants that grow in harsh environments characterized by high salinity, low oxygen, intense light, strong winds, and periodic inundation. Sri Lanka hosts fourteen mangrove species and twelve associated species, each uniquely adapted to its surroundings. These forests, dominated by mangrove trees and shrubs, rely on their exposed roots to breathe by absorbing air from the water. Some mangrove trees even exhibit viviparity, germinating their seeds while attached to the mother plant, ensuring the survival of their species.
Mangrove ecosystems serve as critical habitats for a wide array of wildlife. The microclimate provided by mangrove trees and the nutrients derived from decomposing leaves create ideal nursery grounds for fish and prawns. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals find resting and feeding grounds within these unique ecosystems. Mangroves also facilitate the growth of corals and harbor a variety of coral species.
In addition to their ecological significance, mangroves play a major role in mitigating the adverse effects of climate change. These plants possess natural abilities to reduce the impacts of coastal erosion, storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis. During the devastating tsunami in 2004, mangroves acted as a protective barrier for some coastal areas in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, mangrove forests absorb up to four times more carbon per hectare than average tropical forests. They also minimize pollution in near-shore coastal waters by trapping pollutants.
Apart from their ecological and protective functions, mangroves provide various benefits to local communities. Some mangrove plants are used as vegetables and fruits, while others hold medicinal value in Ayurveda. These forests serve as a vital food source and are crucial for the livelihoods of coastal communities. Additionally, the growing eco-tourism industry allows both local and foreign tourists to experience the marvels of vibrant mangrove vegetation. Attractions such as the Madu River boat trip in Balapitiya, the boat tour at Muthurajawela, the Koggala river safari in Galle, and the Negombo lagoon showcase the enchanting beauty of mangrove forests.
Despite numerous awareness programs, mangroves in Sri Lanka face the threat of destruction at an alarming rate. Illegal clearing for settlements and fuelwood, agricultural expansion, shrimp farming, unregulated discharge of pollutants, and mass tourism are among the primary reasons behind their decline. Since 1990, one-third of mangrove plants have been uprooted to make way for urban expansion, coastal development, and shrimp farms. Additionally, some specific mangrove species are excessively harvested for ornamental and industrial purposes, leading to unsustainable practices.
Recognizing the significance of mangroves, Sri Lanka became the first country in the world to declare its commitment to protect all of its mangrove ecosystems in 2015. In line with this pledge, the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Forest Department, Central Environmental Authority, and Coast Conservation Department have implemented solid initiatives to preserve these invaluable resources. Establishing the Nature Resource Center at Pambala and the Mangrove Education Center at Maduganga, along with developing mangrove nurseries and restoring mangrove forests in lagoons and estuaries, are some of the initial actions taken to prevent further destruction. Sri Lanka’s National Adaptation Plan also emphasizes the crucial role of mangroves in the country’s climate actions.
Mangroves in Sri Lanka are not just a sight to behold; they are vital ecosystems that contribute to the country’s rich biodiversity and provide numerous benefits to both nature and communities. Preserving these hidden treasures is not an option but a necessity, ensuring a sustainable future for all.