President's Letter: Going big on mangroves

Carter Roberts headshot

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF

They don’t tower overhead or sport gaudy flowers. They offer little shade from the midday sun, and it is nigh on impossible to stroll underneath them. But mangroves are truly marvels of nature. These tree and shrub species, which grow along tropical and subtropical coastlines, are habitat for a glittering array of wildlife and provide a wealth of benefits for people and ecosystems alike.

I’ll never forget the first time I approached mangroves from the ocean. It was in Central America, at least 20 years ago, before I worked for WWF. My personal point of entry in nature is always birds, so the first thing I noticed was a yellow-billed cotinga, an impossibly white bird, nestled in the green branches. Then I slipped over the side of the boat, pulled on a mask, and snorkeled through the mangrove forest.

At first the experience was somewhat suffocating. The tangled roots of mangroves create a dark, murky world, with a myriad of plants and animals growing on and living among them. I thought about the astonishing way mangroves survive in such brackish waters—by filtering out up to 90% of the salt in the seawater entering their roots—and about the root system being a sheltering place where marine organisms lay eggs and raise their young. I left my inaugural experience appreciating these seemingly impenetrable coastal forests and all they do for the planet.

Mangroves are good for the climate: They store 3–5 times more carbon per acre than tropical forests. Over 6 gigatons of carbon are held by mangroves worldwide, 87% of which is in the soil beneath their roots.

Mangroves protect people, too. They shield communities from extreme weather events coming off the ocean, protecting lives and property from storm surges and flooding. They prevent erosion that destabilizes coastlines. They also provide livelihoods through fishing, honey harvesting, and more.

“Mangroves ... provide a wealth of benefits for people and ecosystems alike.”

Carter Roberts

However, being on the coast also makes these vital ecosystems vulnerable to development. Fifty percent of the world’s mangroves have been wiped out in the past half-century, and human activity has been the primary driver of that damage.

So, WWF is going big on mangroves. We’ve created the Global Mangrove Alliance with partners including Conservation International, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, The Nature Conservancy, and Wetlands International. The alliance’s goal is to halt all further loss of existing mangroves and, by 2030, restore half of recently lost mangrove area and double the current area of protected mangroves.

We’re also scaling up WWF’s efforts in four countries—Colombia, Madagascar, Fiji, and Mexico— where hundreds of thousands of people benefit from mangroves. In these regions, communities and Indigenous groups, as well as local and national governments, are putting the mechanisms in place to increase and strengthen climate-smart mangrove protection and management while improving the resilience of communities and livelihoods. Learn more about that work. This issue also carries a story about our work in the Sundarbans, the world’s only coastal mangrove tiger habitat.

My oldest son and I traveled recently to Colombia, where we had the privilege of spending time with the Arhuaco and Kogi peoples, who believe in the study and understanding of nature as the basis of humanity’s survival. We ended our trip marveling at a spectacular expanse of mangroves in the mouth of the Magdalena River in northern Colombia.

I am still reflecting on the wisdom of the Arhuaco and the Kogi. If we take the time to understand these trees, where sea meets land, where life begins, and where protection against disruption is provided, we cannot help but make them a priority in our global efforts to build resilience in the face of climate change.

Carter Roberts

President & CEO

Explore More

World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

View all issues