The first time I learned about wetlands, I vividly remember sitting in my second-grade classroom. My teacher was showing my class some of the species that got to call this boggy, marshland “home”. I distinctly remember all my classmates and me imitating the sounds of those animals—the frogs that ribbit, the snakes that slither, and the fish in which we didn’t know exactly what sound they made… so we sufficed for puckering our lips and laughing.

At that age, I don’t think I quite grasped the importance of wetlands despite my teacher taking us on a field trip to our local 50-acre wetland and nature center or the hands-on project where we illustrated a creative scene with as many species as we could think of that lived in a typical wetland habitat. However, I was always intrigued by this ecosystem, fondly remembering these class projects and the vast range of chirping birds that I saw on my class field trip many years ago.

What are wetlands

Wetlands are an area of land that is covered by water. This can be saltwater, freshwater, or somewhere in between. The land can also be covered by water permanently or seasonally. Marshes and ponds, the edge of a lake or ocean, the delta at the mouth of a river, low-lying areas that frequently flood—all of these are wetlands.

Why wetlands are so important

Wetlands are some of the most productive and valuable habitats on the planet—to people, animals, and the cultivation of our food and water. The destruction of wetlands is particularly concerning because it has the potential of impacting nearly every layer of species. Wetlands often support high concentrations of animals—including mammals, birds, fish, and invertebrates—and serve as nurseries for many of these species. This habitat also supports the cultivation of rice, a staple in the diet of half the world’s population. They provide a range of ecosystem services that benefit humanity, including water filtration, storm protection, flood control, and recreation.

Wetlands are the world’s largest water filters. Any pollutant that goes through these natural filters gets trapped, such as phosphorus and heavy metals. They remove harmful bacteria and can dissolve nitrogen into nitrogen gas. New York City found that it could save $3-8 billion in new wastewater treatment plants by purchasing and preserving $1.5 billion in the land around its upstate reservoirs.

Without wetlands, cities have to spend more money to treat water for their citizens, floods are more devastating to nearby communities, storm surges from hurricanes can penetrate farther inland, animals are displaced or die out, and food supplies are disrupted, along with livelihoods.

Wetlands help to minimize impacts from flooding by providing an area for water to move and slow down during storm events. Coastal wetlands can reduce the power of natural disasters, like hurricanes, destruction by creating a barrier for wind and waves.

Each wetland habitat is different across the world and varies by what kind of species it supports. In addition to terrestrial and aquatic life, birds also find wetlands to be welcoming places for pit stops during long migrations because they provide protection and food on their long journeys, such as on their migration path.

Kobus leche leche Red lechwe Females in typical flood plain habitat. Most common and characteristic antelope of Okovango delta, Botswana

A group of red lechwe antelope in a Botswana wetland. © Martin Harvey / WWF

To say wetlands are important is truly an understatement. They represent the remarkable powers of nature that directly impact species of all kinds.

Many land developers often get frustrated by regions that contain wetlands due to its difficulty to build on these marsh-like areas. Wetlands, unfortunately, are often drained to make room for agriculture or human settlements. Any wetlands nearby left untouched may lose their water to this shift in their ecosystem, caused by an unexpected development.

What WWF is doing to support wetlands

It is no surprise that wetlands are threatened by some of the same things that many other habitats and species are facing. As mentioned previously, some threats include the development of land, pollution, and climate change.

WWF, governments, and other organizations have pursued efforts to conserve and protect wetlands for more than 40 years through the Ramsar Convention, the only international treaty devoted to a single ecosystem type. Today, there are more than 2,000 wetlands, covering 476,000 acres, designated as Wetlands of International Importance. This means that the country where the wetland is located has committed itself to protecting the site from development, pollution, and drainage. About 75 percent of the sites added to the list since 1999 were included as a result of WWF’s work.

WWF works to integrate climate change considerations into wetlands and river basin management. They also prioritize working with local communities to assess their vulnerabilities to climate change and to develop strategies for climate adaptation.

In January 2022, WWF introduced a new initiative, Mangroves for Communities and Climate, that aims to protect, restore, and strengthen the management of 2.47 million acres of mangroves in four countries: Mexico, Madagascar, Fiji, and Colombia. One of the mangroves’ biggest strengths is their ability to capture and store carbon. The soil that mangroves live in is carbon-rich and over time the mangroves help to not only add to this 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. This project will protect an estimated 2 billion tons of carbon and 300,000 people living alongside these coastal forests. WWF is taking action on this nature-based solution that has the power to protect not just the wetland areas they’re currently working with, but the future of all wetlands and coastal forest areas across the globe.

Landscape view of mangrove fields from Antsatrana in Ambaro Bay, Ambilobe, Madagascar.

A mangrove field in Madagascar. © Nick Riley / WWF-Madagascar

Where you can experience wetlands

If you aren’t as lucky as me to have a wetland in your community that you can conveniently visit at your leisure, I have the perfect solution! Natural Habitat Adventures has many trips where you can see a variety of wetlands firsthand and all the creatures that inhabit them.

Experience the rich wildlife habitat of these 1.5-million-acre wetlands, the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S on the Florida Nature Safari trip. Everglades National Park provides you with an unforgettable experience, allowing you to see scores of the 300 bird species, plus up-close views of gators, crocodiles, otters, and other wildlife—all from the safety of a private airboat.

Delve into Brazil’s Pantanal, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve which is the world’s largest wetland, sprawling over 75,000 square miles in the heart of the continent and containing its densest concentration of wildlife. On the Jaguars & Wildlife of Brazil’s Pantanal trip, you will see some of the region’s threatened species including the giant armadillo and capybara, plus spectacular birdlife.

Pantanal landscape. Paraguay River, Cáceres, Mato Grosso, Brazil. Rio Paraguai. wetland

A wetland surrounding the Paraguay River in the Pantanal, Brazil. © Lindomar de Oliveira Gaia / WWF-Brazil

On the Costa Rica Wilderness Explorer trip, you’ll experience two different wetlands. The first is the Terraba Sierpe National Wetlands, a network of channels through Costa Rica’s largest untouched mangrove estuary, protecting prolific birds and wildlife within the 67,000-acre reserve. Here, you may see American crocodiles, rainbow boas, green iguanas, white-face capuchins, long-nosed bats, roseate spoonbills, ospreys, kingfishers, frigatebirds, and a variety of egrets. Just a couple of days later, you’ll experience the second wetland in the Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge. This is an 800-acre wildlife refuge housing lowland rain forests, mangroves, and wetlands. Not only that, but it is also home to species like the woolly opossum, anteater, sloth, armadillo, and ghost bat, plus white-faced, spider, and howler monkeys.