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Jessica Aldred http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/feb/01/endangeredhabitats.conservation

Friday February 1 2008
The decline of vast areas of mangroves is an environmental problem that must be urgently addressed, environmental experts say
Mangrove ecosystems should be better protected, the UN's food agency has warned as it published new figures showing that 20% of the world's mangrove area has been destroyed since 1980

A study by the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that the environmental and economic damages caused by the "alarming" loss of mangroves in many countries should be urgently addressed.

Countries must engage in more effective conservation and sustainable management of the world's mangroves and other wetland ecosystems, it warned, ahead of World Wetlands day tomorrow.

The world has lost around 3.6m hectares (20%) of mangroves since 1980, the report showed.

The total mangrove area has declined from 18.8m ha (46.4m acres) in 1980 to 15.2m ha (37.5m acres) in 2005. However the report did show that there has been a slowdown in the rate of mangrove loss: from some 187,000 ha destroyed annually in the 1980s to 102,000 ha a year between 2000 and 2005. This reflected an increased awareness of the value of mangrove ecosystems, the report said.

Mangroves are salt-tolerant evergreen forests that are found along coastlines, lagoons, rivers or deltas in 124 tropical and subtropical countries and areas around the world, providing protection against erosion, cyclones and wind.

Around 50% of the world's total mangrove area is found in Indonesia, Australia, Brazil, Nigeria and Mexico.

Their important ecosystems provide wood, food, fodder, medicine and honey for humans, and habitats for many animals like crocodiles and snakes, tigers, deer, otters, dolphins and birds. A wide range of fish and shellfish also depend on mangroves as the swamps help to filter sediment and pollution from water upstream and stop it disturbing the delicate balance of ecosystems like coral reefs.

The main causes of the destruction of mangrove swampland include population pressure, conversion for shrimp and fish farming, agriculture, infrastructure and tourism, as well as pollution and natural disasters, the FAO said.

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The assessment of the world's mangroves from 1980-2005 was prepared in collaboration with mangrove specialists throughout the world and was co-funded by the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO).

The FAO and ITTO are currently working with the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems and other partner organisations to produce a World Atlas of Mangroves to be published later this year.