Have you ever seen trees sprouting out of saltwater? You may know them to be mangroves, a vibrant part of coastal wetlands that reside on five continents. Their roots are found above and below the water and soil, often hidden amongst the mud. But their most magnificent feature of all is being able to sustain life for humans and an array of animals and plants that live in oceans and rivers.

Why Are Mangroves Important?

Mangrove forests cover roughly between 33 million and 49 million acres of the globe and are one of the most complex and productive ecosystems on the planet. There are more than 60 different species of mangrove tree, all specialized to grow along waterlogged coastlines in tropical and sub-tropical regions. Despite being relatively unknown, they are an incredible group of plants. Not only do they have a unique ability to thrive in saltwater environments, but their strong and complex root systems also protect coastal communities and landscapes from extreme weather events, like hurricanes.

A lone mangrove tree in San Felipe, Yucatan, Mexico. From a monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) trip focused on mangrove conservation in Yucatan, Mexico.

© Jason Houston / WWF-US

Mangroves are referred to as a nature-based solution, meaning that these naturally occurring trees leverage the strengths that already exist in nature to mitigate or adapt to the impacts of change. In this case, mangroves’ superpower is their ability to capture and store carbon.

“The muddy soil that mangroves live in is extremely carbon-rich and over time the mangroves help to not only add to this store of soil by capturing sediment but hold it—and the carbon—in place. The amount of carbon stored beneath these trees is estimated to be up to four times greater than that stored by other tropical forests, making these coastal forests extremely valuable in the fight against climate change.” – Mangroves as a Solution to the Climate Crisis, World Wildlife Fund

These unique plants are also home to many species, providing them with shelter and nourishment. Some of these species include the proboscis monkey, mangrove tree crab, dugong, mangrove finch, key deer, and Continental tiger. Learn more about each of these species and how they utilize their mangrove environment to survive and thrive.

Mangrove crab in the mangroves in Laguna Chumbeño near Francisco Villa, Nayarit, Mexico. From a monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) trip focused on mangrove conservation in La Reserva de la Biosfera Marismas Nacionales in Nayarit, Mexico.

© Jason Houston / WWF-US

Beyond just communities of wildlife, mangroves are life-changing for local communities. Under sustainable management, mangroves provide many livelihood opportunities for local communities that can help to keep these valuable coastal ecosystems intact. Shellfish gathering, fishing, and beekeeping are some of these opportunities that communities living alongside mangroves can benefit from with a thriving mangrove forest.

Mangroves also generate indirect income for communities. These trees and their vast root systems serve as a protective shelter for vulnerable young marine life as they grow and mature, including juvenile sharks, grouper, and parrotfish that then swim out to coral reefs once they’ve grown large enough. This lifecycle supports both biodiversity and community livelihoods through sustainably conducted reef tourism and offshore fishing.

Mangroves provide other benefits to local communities too, the most vital being storm surge protection. The tight growth of interlocking mangrove roots and branches interrupts rising water and large waves, thereby protecting people, homes, and business infrastructure from powerful storm surges—a benefit that will only grow in importance as extreme weather events continue to worsen as a result of climate change.

But mangroves face several threats, from pollution to clearing for shrimp farming to palm oil production or other food production. An estimated 54% of mangrove loss in several Southeast Asian countries is due to shrimp farming.

What Is WWF Doing To Conserve Mangroves?

WWF is actively working around the world on mangrove restoration and conservation. With support from the Bezos Earth Fund, we are implementing a “Mangroves for Communities and Climate” initiative, working with communities, governments, and other partners in four countries: Mexico, Madagascar, Fiji, and Colombia. The five-year grant aims to protect, restore, and strengthen the management of 2.47 million acres of mangroves, thereby safeguarding an estimated 2 billion tons of carbon and protecting 300,000 people living alongside these coastal forests.

WWF staff walking to a long boat after visiting a small area of mangrove resforestation on Mali Island. Macuata Province, Vanua Levu, Fiji.

© Tom Vierus / WWF-US

This initiative builds off our experience working with partners to protect, conserve, and restore mangroves in more than 20 countries around the world. This includes recent efforts working alongside the Belizean government, other NGOs, research groups, and community stakeholders to incorporate mangroves as a nature-based solution into the country’s commitments under the UN Paris Climate Agreement. An important component of the project is building in-country capacity to monitor progress towards the commitments—vital to ensure that the solution is long-lasting.

WWF is also a founder of the Global Mangrove Alliance; a collaborative network of more than two dozen NGOs, research groups, and philanthropic organizations all committed to increasing the global area of mangrove habitat and protecting existing forests through global policy change and scientific advancement over the next ten years.

Where Can You See Mangroves?

Mangroves are found on five continents, primarily in coastal wetland environments. If you have ever seen a mangrove tree in nature, you might recognize them for their tangled root systems, reaching branches, and fluttering leaves features. If you haven’t had the opportunity to spot a mangrove yourself, you have plenty of options.

Florida Nature Safari

A mosaic of habitats in southwest Florida holds myriad discoveries for nature seekers. From the largest untouched mangrove ecosystem in the U.S. to the 7,800-square-mile River of Grass that is the Everglades, a vast subtropical wilderness awaits your exploration.

Madagascar Wildlife Adventure

Madagascar is truly a world apart. Its rain forests are home to diademed sifakas, indris, fossas, and tenrecs, while baobabs and pachypodia dot its sandstone deserts. Hop aboard a sunset cruise through the mangroves reveals more birds, and, if we’re lucky, Madagascar flying foxes leaving their roosts at dusk.

Australia North: Kakadu, Daintree & the Great Barrier Reef

In northern Australia’s underwater wilderness, an orange clownfish flits between anemone tentacles as a loggerhead sea turtle glides by. You’ll have the incredible opportunity to rise early for a private boat trip on the Daintree River, flanked by dense rain forest and mangroves, to enjoy birdwatching and nature photography in the golden light of dawn.

Classic Galapagos: The Natural Habitat Experience

The Galapagos Islands, forged of black lava and named for the giant tortoises that are among their most noted inhabitants, are like no other place on Earth. Home to a profuse array of unique wildlife, the islands offer an immersion in nature that feels primeval. Explore a sprinkling of islets, a lagoon frequented by sea turtles, and surrounding red and black mangroves.

Galápagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki) sitting in the mangroves on Baronesa Bay, Floreana Island, Galapagos, Ecuador

© Antonio Busiello / WWF-US

Information adapted from the following World Wildlife Fund stories: “Mighty Mangroves,” “Mangroves as a Solution to the Climate Crisis,” and “Life Among the Mangroves.”