Take a look at the long branching root in the photo above. This root belongs to a mangrove tree. Underwater it serves as an important habitat for juvenile fish and a substrate for algae, sponges and barnacles to grow on. Above water mangroves are a foundation for coastline protection.
Visiting the mangroves is a bit like entering a natural maze. Unfortunately, I chose the wrong way from the get go. The park guide smiled at me as he knowingly asked if it was my first visit to Bonaire’s Mangrove Center. After a quick reorientation I set off in my kayak and navigated the narrow, tranquil passages of this mangrove forest.
The mangrove forest was breathtaking above water, but below water there seemed to be a different story. Sedimentation, or the accumulation of small particles, was readily apparent. The water was murky and all nearby marine life was covered in a thin layer of fine sediment.
How did Bonaire’s beautiful mangrove habitat become this degraded? The root of the problem is donkeys and goats or so I was told. When Europeans first came to Bonaire they brought with them donkeys for transporting goods and goats for livestock production. However as vehicles replaced the donkeys, these animals were allowed to roam free. Today it is easy to spot a wild donkey on Bonaire. However donkeys and goats are both grazers. As these animals feed on plants and grasses more terrestrial soil becomes exposed. Then when it rains, this soil can be carried into the ocean, causing an increase in sedimentation, particularly in coastal areas like this mangrove habitat.
While donkeys and goats may be part of the problem, I’m not yet convinced that they are the only ones to blame. If I had to guess, I’d bet that my own species poses the greater threat. While we don’t graze the grasses, our tendency towards cutting down trees and building seawalls or waterfront houses seem like an equally likely cause of sediment production.
Local donkey enthusiasts have tried to solve this problem by creating a “Donkey Sanctuary,” a safe place for donkeys to live out their lives where their grazing patterns can be properly managed.
Fortunately, for us humans the donkeys have not yet retaliated with gated “Human Sanctuaries,” but we should still try to keep our actions in check so that the beautiful mangrove forests remain healthy.