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To examine the natural colonization of native mangrove species into remediated exotic mangrove stands in Leizhou Bay, South China, we compared soil physical–chemical properties, community structure and recruitments of barren mangrove areas, native mangrove species plantations, and exotic mangrove species—Sonneratia apetala Buch.Ham—between plantations and natural forest. We found that severely degraded mangrove stands could not regenerate naturally without human intervention due to severely altered local environments, whereas some native species had been recruited into the 4–10 year S. apetala plantations. In the first 10 years, the exotic species S. apetala grew better than native species such as Rhizophora stylosa Griff and Kandelia candel (Linn.) Druce. The mangrove plantation gradually affected soil physical and chemical properties during its recovery. The exotic S. apetala was more competitive than native species and its plantation was able to restore soil organic matter in about 14 years. Thus, S. apetala can be considered as a pioneer species to improve degraded habitats to facilitate recolonization by native mangrove species. However, removal to control proliferation may be needed at late stages to facilitate growth of native species. To ensure sustainability of mangroves in South China, the existing mangrove wetlands must be managed as an ecosystem, with long-term scientific monitoring program in place.