Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a mangrove with my fellow students and professors. The two-hour ride was slightly packed in the back of our transport van, making for some sore legs at the end of the ride. But after visiting the mangrove, I couldn’t be more pleased with the fieldtrip. From reading scientific papers about mangroves in while sitting in a mangrove to walking through the beautiful mazes of mangrove tree roots, the trip was an excellent introduction to this tropical ecosystem. Yet, something else has stuck with me about the mangroves, weeks after trudging through the malleable floor of soil.
You see, mangroves have always been a hard sell for conservationists. Full of tall trees, there is a plethora of natural resources in this ecosystem. Furthermore, they are found on the edge of shores, which are often targeted by human activity. Add in the fact that their soils can release methane, and you have yourself a perfect target for habitat destruction.
This poses a significant problem for those trying to protect these shoreline ecosystems. How do you convince individuals that mangroves are more than a pungent view disruptor? We discussed this as a class, and the most compelling argument for mangroves was that they protect inland areas from hurricanes. They are impressive buffer zones between estuaries and inland terrestrial ecosystems. Thus, removing these mangroves can severely endanger communities near shorelines.
This facet of mangrove conservation has stuck with me, days after we trudged our way outside of the saline-rich forest. Conservation has a human element, and this human element cannot be ignored while trying to protect ecosystems. It may be selfishness or a facet of the human condition, but we tend to invest energies in causes that provide direct benefits. Accepting this is key to successful conservation endeavors.
I will be the first to say that these mangroves are valuable and worth protecting in their own right; from the scurrying crabs to the towering mangrove trees, this ecosystem provokes respect and appreciation for natural beauty. But connecting this ecosystem to tangible human benefits is a valuable conservation strategy; spreading the word about its natural hurricane protection can be a really effective strategy! This could get local communities invested in conservation, which could extend to other ecological initiatives.
This is an important facet that all conservationists must consider. While protecting species and their homes is a noble cause, there will always be the element of human activity implicated in conservation. My visit to the mangrove is a reminder that conservation only works if you empower the communities that will be affected by conservation policies. Fail to do so, and you won’t have much success in protecting those scurrying crabs, nor those magnificent trees.
Bryce Pepin, Tufts University