When French settlers first arrived in the remote islands of the Seychelles, thick mangrove forests fringed the western shore of Mahe, the largest of the islands in the archipelago.
Inside the green coastal forests, giant crocodiles roamed through the tangled branches, as well as many species of fish, crab and birds. The woodlands were a paradise of diversity, and beyond the mangroves, a healthy and colourful coral reef ecosystem propagated.
But during french settlement in the late 17 and 18 00’s, much of the mangrove forest was cleared to make way for development; houses, harbours and aquaculture. Today, one of the few mangrove forests on Mahe Island is found in a thin valley in the north of the Island called Port Launay, a Ramsar Site of International Importance.
“This mangrove is one of the last and best-remaining mangrove in the Seychelles,” Markus Ultsch-Unrath tells me as we paddle in a kayak along the tidal river the bisects the Port Launay mangrove forest, floating beside the tangled branches and mangrove trees that plunge into the muddy banks.
Markus is a sustainability manager at Constance Ephelia, a five star resort that surrounds the Port Launay wetland. Part of the responsibility of operating a hotel here is to ensure this sensitive site is protected, and that it remains in a healthy condition.
After the paddle, Markus and I emerge in an open muddy clearing where a line of saplings grows under a wide shade cloth. This, he explains, is the lodges’ newly-constructed mangrove nursery. It’s here where the Ephila team grow mangrove trees to make up for some of the losses that have occurred over the years, particularly in one area where gaps in the forest have been occurring.
The mangrove trees grow to a certain size in the nursery, and then the lodge teams plant them in the mud, with the hope that in time these barren areas will be repopulated with trees.
Mangroves are one of the most underappreciated and important of the world’s forest ecosystems.
The coastal forests once occurred along the tropical and subtropical coasts of all the continents.
Over 80 species of mangrove trees have been described, and the trees are remarkably important to the functioning of the surrounding ecology. The forests are a home to numerous species of fish, bird and plant, and it is estimated that over 75 percent of commercially caught fish spend at least some time in the mangroves or depend on food webs that are associated with these coastal forests.
In addition, the roots filter fresh water that is washed down from the land and in doing so, they clean the silt has the potential to smother and kill coral reefs, trapping debris, rubbish, and pollution. This is why mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs are found together; because they are interconnected on an intricate level. The seagrass beds are the last line of defence against the harmful matter that is destined to smother the reefs.
In return, the reefs generally protect the shore against strong ocean waves, allowing the underwater and above-water worlds co-exist.
The Port Launay wetland in Seychelles is just as important in terms of the functioning of the valley and the ocean. “There are 7 species of Mangrove in Seychelles, and all seven species are found in this small wetland area,” Markus tells me.
“It is remarkable how the trees are able to grow in such slaty water,” he says. Salt water can kill plants, but mangroves have evolved a way to extract fresh water from the seawater by filtering out some 90 percent of the salt, and excreting the excess salt through glands in their leaves.
Markus points out a massive bird-size bat flying over the forest. “That’s a bat?” I gasp, as the creature soars over us like an eagle. There are many fruit bats that frequent the forests of Port Launay, not to mention the endangered Seychelles Sheath-tailed bat that sometimes arrives in the area.
As we look down, a strange fish with eyes on the top of its head is flopping between the roots. “This is a mudskipper,” Markus tells me. Found in most of the mangrove swamps around the world, this extraordinarily ambitious fish spends most of its time out of the water, using its pectoral fins to walk or “skip” on land, or climb the aerial roots of mangrove trees.
How do they do this?
They fill their cheek pouches with water, allowing their gills to function easily while they skip around the land, and between their funnel holes where they live.
As the afternoon descend over the island, the rising tide steadily covers the mangrove flats while crabs scuttle into their holes and the birds quieten down for the evening.
The mangroves of the Seychelles are a microcosm of some of the problems facing mangrove ecosystems globally.
Some estimates reckon that less than 50 percent of the world’s mangrove forests were intact by the end of the 20th century, covering three-quarters of the world’s tropical coastlines. Half of the remaining forests are in very poor condition. The coastal location of the forests has meant they have been cleared for farming and housing, as well as aquaculture in the form of shrimp farming.
As for the Seychelles, the crocodiles may be gone from the islands, but Port Launay remains one of the last pockets of mangrove forest left in the islands, and it’s a gentle and beautiful reminder of how fleeting wetlands can be, and how it’s important to leave at least a little space for these coastal forests to thrive.
This story is part of Paul Steyn’s #aroundtheworldin30days journey. During his stay in Port Launay, Paul was hosted by Constance Ephelia. Follow him as he travels the globe with Ramsar and Star Alliance, in quest to appreciate water and wetlands on our changing planet. More about the trip here.