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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Lush Mangrove Forests of Sao Tome and Principe

The mangrove forests of Sao Tome and Principe are among the world's carbon-richest ecosystems

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: The vast wildness of lush main rainforests, self-washing mangroves, wetlands, savannah grasslands, lowland and mountain forests are spread across the two unusual islands of Sao Tome and Principe. Their plantations shaded woods, and secondary forests are examples of their secondary ecosystems.

The boat trips through the mangrove woods of these virgin islands are one of the highlights of an excursion there. These two islands, which are part of the Gulf of Guinea, include lush secondary mangrove sanctuaries, one of their biological features.

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From the southernmost point of Sao Tome island’s estuary, where the Malanza river empties into it, I set off aboard a traditional canoe. 

This two-hour exciting adventure travels through dense mangrove ecosystems and untamed, plentiful vegetation. A strange view of limitless tree tops, dangling creepers, and untamed trees slanting teasing across the waters can be seen from a canoe’s seat. If you are interested in shooting and filming, it’s a terrific location.

Photo Credit: Pexels
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The canoe trip started in Porto Alegre, Sao Tome’s southern point. 

This estuary, which spans 250 hectares, is home to one of the archipelago’s major mangrove reserves. It is a true biological haven, home to numerous plant and animal species, some of which are unique to this particular forest habitat.

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I saw numerous species of monkeys playing in the trees as our canoe gently sailed across the mangrove paradise, and schools of vibrantly coloured fish passed us. But for the visitors, bird gazing was the main draw. As they focused their attention on the endemic and unusual bird nesting locations on each side of the river, groups of intrepid travellers gripped their binoculars.

Equally energising was the incessant singing and distinctive calls of the birds, the loud barks of the monkeys as they interacted, and the mellow slush of the water as the paddle oars propelled the canoe.

Parque Natural Obô: The home of mangrove forests

The Parque Natural Obô (Obo National Park) of Sao Tomé contains the majority of the mangrove habitats in the country, giving them some degree of protection.

All three mangrove forests of Principe Island, namely Praia Salgada, Praia Caixo, and Praia Grande (a significant marine turtle nesting site), are located close outside the Parque Natural Obô of Principe, which regrettably makes them vulnerable to human exploitation.

There are three different mangrove forests on the two islands: Red Mangrove, Black Mangrove, and White Mangrove. They can all be identified by the colour of the sands and the variety of their floral species. 

Tree shrubs with button-like flowers are the defining feature of the buttonwood mangrove.

Each of them is home to animal and plant species that are particular to that sub-environment. Some of the most prized plants include the uncommon Golden Leather Fern, the Porcelain Pink and Red-Orange roses, the Spurs, and the enormous begonia. Tourists and ornithologists search for exotic birds, including the Dwarf Olive Ibis, the S. Tomé fiscal, the S. Tomé, the Grosbeak, and the Principe Thrush.

Environmental threats to the mangroves

With an estimated 1400 tonnes of carbon dioxide deposited in these habitats, the mangrove forests of Sao Tome and Principe are among the world’s carbon-richest ecosystems. They serve various biological functions for these islands, including fisheries, coastal stabilisation, nutrient and sediment trapping, and high biodiversity.

These islands’ fragile ecosystems are continually in danger due to historical land conversion for agricultural purposes, overharvesting for firewood and charcoal, changing hydrology, and coastal erosion, which has exacerbated vulnerability to sea-level rise. The fragility of the mangrove habitats at Sao Tomé has been exacerbated by road construction there.

The advent of terrestrial introduced mammal species linked to human translocations, such as wild pigs, dogs, and mona monkeys, has destabilised habitat rehabilitation of these mangroves. The disturbance of endemic bird breeding and the decline in primary forest seedlings caused by these invasions make this a major conservation problem.

Despite being the second-smallest country in Africa, the Democratic Republic of S. Tomé and Principe has at least 27 endemic species in its avifauna, compared to the famous Galapagos Islands’ 21 in an eight times more enormous territory. However, it is becoming increasingly reliant on the blue economy industries for its growth.

Although complex, this presents a significant opportunity for the preservation of biodiversity. On the one hand, the forests offer the fishing communities customary goods and services. 

One such example is using pigments (tannins) derived from Red Mangrove tree leaves as a staining substance to colour natural fibre fishnets. Additionally, they serve crucial roles in producing timber, herbal remedies, and food (fishing and hunting).

On the other hand, the growth of ecotourism activities like birdwatching, hiking trails, turtle watching, whale sighting tours, etc., the restoration of the last remaining mangrove habitats, and capacity-building programmes have helped to create a sustainable model of community development, especially for women and young people in these regions.

Also Read: Porcelain Rose: The Flower That Symbolizes Sao Tome and Principe


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