Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Life began in the sea and remained there for over 3 billion years. It's learned to thrive on land just as well, but occupying the intertidal zone, that strip between the two, continues to be a difficult trick, both ecologically and physiologically. Around a hundred species of tropical and subtropical trees have become specialized to exploit this zone, and diverse ecosystems have grown up around them. These trees are known as mangroves, and the systems they support are called mangrove swamps, mangrove forests, or mangals, and constitute one of earth's most critically threatened and under-appreciated ecosystems.

In an attempt to raise mangrove awareness (and hopefully a few $$ for mangrove conservation and research), I'm trying to get a traveling group show of mangrove art going. The initial response from museums has been overwhelmingly positive, and we're presently focussed on securing a lead venue. If you're a painter or sculptor who would be interested in submitting work for the jury, please comment on this post or drop me a line at carelbvk at gmail dot com, and get to work over the next year on some mangrove work. We want the show to represent the diversity of mangrove communities, so you're better off avoiding subjects like ibises (ibes?) and spoonbills, that have been done to death.Strictly speaking, around 45 species of trees in ten genera and five families constitute the true mangroves, but plants from over a dozen other families are usually lumped into the designation as well, including a palm, a screwpine and a sedge.

High salinity, fluctuating tides, silty soils that are low in oxygen and nutrients, and harsh sunlight combine to complicate living in the intertidal zone. Among the many adaptations evolved by mangrove trees to deal with these challenges include branching systems of stilt roots and pneumatophores or “breathing tubes” rising from under the ground. Roots and stems are highly impervious to salts, and some species have evolved special glands for excreting excess salts. Mangroves exhibit many different systems for storing gases and nutrients and many of them engage in photosensitive leaf movements to limit evaporation.

The greatest mangrove diversity is in Southeast Asia, but mangals are found in 114 countries, as far north as Japan, from Polynesia west through Asia to the Arabian Peninsula, and in coastal Africa as far north as Egypt and Mauritania. Mangroves are less diverse in the New World, but are well represented on both coasts of South and Central America. In the United States, mangroves occur only in Hawaii, where they were introduced and are considered pests, and in Florida and the southern Gulf Coast of Texas. Nearly half of the world's mangal area resides in five countries: Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico and Australia.

Mangroves' complex stilt root networks provide substrates for oysters, barnacles, bryozoans and other sessile animals, as well as shelter for many species of crustaceans and fishes, while above the surface, the forests provide habitat for birds, mammals and reptiles, including many species that are completely dependent on such habitats, like the endangered Proboscis Monkey (Nasalis larvatus – below). The roots strengthen and protect coastlines and act as sinks for heavy metals and other toxins. The direct relationship between mangrove removal and destruction from the 2004 tsunami was staggering. Humans have exploited mangals for thousands of years, harvesting oysters, crustaceans and fish for food, and wood for poles and fuel. With increased population, these uses have put greater pressure on the world's mangrove communities, but commercial activities are the biggest enemies of mangals, especially tourist and urban development, shrimp and rice farming, and salt mining, which have been responsible for most of the mangrove clearing of the past 50 years. Other threats include water and air pollution, rising sea levels, loss of coral reefs (corals interrupt wave action, creating quiet waters favored by mangroves), water redistribution, erosion and extreme weather.
Estimates for total global mangrove loss range from 35% to 55%, but good data are only available for the past 25 years. Between 1980 and 2000 total mangal area decreased by about 20%. Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Panama, Vietnam, Malaysia and Madagascar recorded the biggest losses, although Pakistan has curbed mangrove destruction dramatically in recent years, as have Singapore, Oman, Barbados, East Timor, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Liberia and Benin. Recent horticultural advancements have aided greatly in restoring mangals, and this promises to be an important area for future mangrove conservation.

illustrations: upper: Plein air pencil sketch (1996) Rio del Rey estuary (Ndian River) SWP, Cameroon 9" x 6"
lower: DUSKY-GILLED MUDSKIPPERS (2008) acrylic 6" x 12"
All Photographs by CPBvK


Blogger Patrick B. said...

Very cool idea Carel! I wish I was artistic enough to contribute. I'll never forget my ride through the Costa Rican mangroves.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks, Patrick. There's still time to pick up a pencil and start practicing.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Jeremy Pearse said...

Hi Carel,
Count me in! While living in Hong Kong, I often came across many mangrove areas while birding and hiking. Also helped with conservation and awareness programs that WWFHK were implementing in HK to raise awareness about the Mangrove plight - it is indeed a worthy cause.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Great to hear from you Jeremy, and I look forward to seeing what you do. I've passed your name on to the appropriate authorities.

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot here I didn't know - what a great essay! Thanks.

3:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful plein air sketch, Carel! You really showcase the muscularity of that tree. Doesn't it look like it could get up and walk away on those crazy roots?

2:30 PM  
Blogger mdmnm said...

Cool project, I hope it goes well! There are black mangroves down in the Laguna Madre of south Texas, but they don't grow very big. In recent years, they seem to be increasing, perhaps because there haven't been any bad freezes in the last decade or so.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Dave: Thanks!
Zeladoniac: Well, it's very flattering to have you say nice things about my drawing.
mdmnm: You're right. I wasn't aware that there were mangroves in Texas. I've amended my text. Thanks.

1:50 PM  
Blogger mdmnm said...

Not looking to correct, just mention a cool thing. CCA, the Nature Conservancy, and the state of Texas have a project going down there to re-flood land drained by the construction of the Brownsville Ship Channel back in the '40s and it is really encouraging how the mangroves are taking hold. Anecdotally, there seem to be more mangroves around the lower Laguna now than when I was younger.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent project, excellent cause. Mangroves have been dear to me since my first trip through the Everglades, then on to various mangroves in the Bahamas and Caribbean (thanks to my work, not my fat wallet!), and now here in Panama. The Panamanians are thankfully quite aware of the value of mangroves - nearly every month there's a feature article on them in the local paper. Unfortunately, money and corruption of officials often win out, and they're still seriously threatened.

5:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:01 PM  
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