By Mukhtar Ahmad Farooqi
Unregulated urbanization, industrialization and increased human activities have led to rapid deterioration of the environment. This has severely affected the life supporting systems. The past decade or so has seen a serious concern from people of all walks of life towards various environmental issues concerning humans directly or indirectly which include global warming, biodiversity loss, depletion of ozone layer, acid rain, dumping of hazardous wastes and so on. The world is a beautiful place to live in because of a wide variety of living organisms including plants, animals and micro-organisms with whom we share this planet. The remarkable diversity of living organisms form an inseparable and significant parts of our planet however, the ever increasing human population is posing serious threats to bio-diversity. Plants and animals of a region constitute biodiversity or sum total of all the variety of living organisms on earth constitute biodiversity. Biodiversity is a natural wealth essential for human survival. At the global level, an estimated 1.7 million species of living organisms have been described to date and many more are yet to be discovered. It has been currently estimated that the total number of species may vary from 5 – 50 millions. Both flora and fauna, all over the world are under an assault from a variety of indiscriminate human activities.
CAUSES OF BIODIVERSITY DEPLETION
Loss of species is a serious cause of concern for human survival. It has been observed that 79 species of mammals, 44 of birds, 15 of reptiles and 3 of amphibians are threatened. The threat to survival or loss may be caused in three ways: Direct ways (which include deforestation, hunting, poaching, commercial exploitation), indirect ways (which include loss or modification of the natural habitats, introduction of exotic species, pollution, etc.) and Natural causes(which include Climate change.)
Among these causes, habitat destruction and over-exploitation are the main ones.
Habitat (natural home) destruction: may result from clearing and burning forests, draining and filling of wetlands, converting natural areas for agricultural or industrial uses, human settlements, mines, building of roads and other developmental projects. This way the natural habitats of organisms are changed or destroyed. These change either kill or force out many species from the area causing disruption of interactions among the species. Over exploitation reduces the size of the population of a species and may push it towards extinction;
Introduction of exotic species: Exotic species are new species entering geographical region. Seeds catch on people’s clothes. Mice, rats and birds hitch-hike on ships. When such species land in new places, they breed extra fast due to absence of any enemy and often wipe out the native species already present there. Exotic species may wipe out the native ones. A few examples are- Water hyacinth which clogs lakes and riversides and threatens the survival of many aquatic species. This is common in Indian plains. Similarly Lantana camara (an American weed) has invaded many forest lands in various parts of India and wiped out the native grass species. Apart from these examples there are several others that have caused disruption of natural ecosystems.
Pollution: Air pollution, acid rain destroy forests. Water pollution kills fishes and other aquatic plants and animals. Toxic and hazardous substances drained into waterways kill aquatic life. Oil spills kill coastal birds, plants and other marine animals. Plastic trash entangles wildlife. It is easy to see how pollution is a big threat to biodiversity;
Population growth and poverty: Over six billion people live on the earth. Each year, 90 million more people are added. All these people use natural resources for food, water, medicine, clothes, shelter and fuel. Need of the poor and often greed of the rich generate continuous pressure resulting in over-exploitation and loss of biodiversity.
The World Conservation Union (IUCN) (formerly known as International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) has recognized eight Red List categories according to the conservation status of species. These categories are defined as Extinct, Extinct in the wild, Critically endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Lower risk, Data deficient, Not evaluated.
WHY IS BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY IMPORTANT
Humans depend for their sustenance, health, wellbeing and cultural growth on nature. Biotic resources provide food, fruit, seed, fodder, medicines and a host of other goods and services. The enormous diversity of life is of immense value, imparting resilience to ecosystems and natural processes. Biodiversity also has enormous social and cultural importance. It is the key indicator of the health of an ecosystem. The various benefits of biological diversity are as:
Protection of water resources: Natural vegetation cover helps in maintaining hydrological cycles, regulating and stabilizing water run-off and acting as a buffer against extreme events such as floods and droughts. Vegetation removal results in siltation of dams and waterways. Wetlands and forests act as water purifying systems, while mangroves trap silt thereby reducing impacts on marine ecosystems;
Soil protection: Biological diversity helps in the conservation of soil and retention of moisture and nutrients. Clearing large areas of vegetation cover has been often seen to accelerate soil erosion, reduce its productivity and often result in flash floods;
Pollution reduction: Some ecosystems, especially wetlands have the ability to breaking down and absorb pollutants. Natural and artificial wetlands are being used to filter effluents to remove nutrients, heavy metals, suspended solids; reduce the BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) and destroy harmful micro-organisms. Excessive quantities of pollutants, however, can be detrimental to the integrity of ecosystems and their biota;
Climate stability: Vegetation influences climate at macro as well as micro levels. Growing evidence suggests that undisturbed forests help to maintain the rainfall in the vicinity by recycling water vapour at a steady rate back into the atmosphere;
Maintenance of ecological processes: Different species of birds and predators help to control insect pests, thus reducing the need and cost of artificial control measures. Birds and nectar–loving insects which roost and breed in natural habitats are important pollinating agents of crop and wild plants. Some habitats protect crucial life stages of wildlife populations such as spawning areas in mangroves and wetlands. Without ecological services provided by biodiversity it would not be possible to get food, pure air to breathe and would be submerged in the waste produced;
Food, fibre, medicines, and fuel wood and ornamental plants: Five thousand plant species are known to have been used as food by humans. Presently about 20 species feed the majority of the world’s population and just 3 or 4 only are the major staple crops to majority of population in the world. A large number of plants and animals materials are used for the treatment of various ailments. The therapeutic values of herbal medicines led to evolution of Ayurveda which means “science of life”. It is estimated that at least 70 % of the population rely on herbal medicines and over 7000 species of plants are used for medicinal purposes. Wood is a basic commodity used worldwide for making furniture and for building purposes. Fire wood is the primary source of fuel widely used in third world countries. Wood and bamboo are used for making paper. Plants are the traditional source of fibre such as coir, hemp, flax, cotton, jute;
Future resources: There is a clear relationship between the conservation of biological diversity and the discovery of new biological resources. The relatively few developed plant species currently cultivated have had a large amount of research and selective breeding applied to them. Many presently under-utilised food crops have the potential to become important crops in the future. Knowledge of the uses of wild plants by the local people is often a source for ideas on developing new plant products;
Cultural values: Plants and animals are important part of the cultural life of humans. Human cultures have co-evolved with their environment and biological diversity can be impart a distinct cultural identity to different communities. The natural environment serves the inspirational, aesthetic, spiritual and educational needs of the people, of all cultures. In a majority of Indian villages and towns, plants like Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum), Peepal (Ficus religiosa), and Khejri (Prosopis cineraria) are planted and considered sacred and worshipped.
HOW CAN WE CONSERVE BIODIVERSITY
Conservation is the planned management of natural resources, to retain the balance in nature and retain the diversity. It also includes wise use of natural resources in such a way that the needs of present generation are met and at the same time leaving enough for the future generations. Conservation of biodiversity is important in order to prevent the loss of genetic diversity of a species, save species from becoming extinct, and protect ecosystems damage and degradation.
Conservation efforts or strategies can be grouped into the following two categories: In-situ (on-site) conservation includes the protection of plants and animals within their natural habitats or in protected areas. Protected areas are land or sea dedicated to protect and maintain biodiversity. It includes National parks and sanctuaries, Biosphere reserves, sacrization of forests and lakes. Ex-situ (off-site) conservation of plants and animals outside their natural habitats. Ex-situ conservation is being undertaken through setting up botanic gardens, zoos, medicinal plant parks, etc. by various agencies. The Indian Botanical Garden in Howrah (West Bengal) is over 200 years old. These include botanical gardens, zoo, and gene banks, seek bank, tissue culture and cryopreservation (“freeze preservation”).
Apart from the above strategies following legal measures have been already taken but lackadaisical approach in their implementation have allowed room for lacunae. The Wildlife Protection Act (1972) contain provisions for penalties or punishment to prevent poaching and illegal trade. India is also a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).The Convention entered into force on 1st July, 1975. In addition to this, India is also a signatory to Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which it signed on 29th December, 1993 at Rio de Janeiro during the Earth Summit. The Convention has three key objectives: Conservation of biological diversity, Sustainable use of biodiversity and Fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.
The Biological Diversity Act, 2002 provides for setting up of a National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), State Biodiversity Boards (SBB) and Biodiversity Management Committees (BMC) in local bodies. As per these initiatives :All foreign national organizations require prior approval of NBA for obtaining biological resources and/or associated knowledge for any use; Indian nationals or organizations will require to give prior intimation to the concerned SBB about any biological resources being imported for commercial use; however, local people and communities of the area, including Vaids and Hakims will have free access to use biological resources within the country for their own use, medicinal purposes and research.
Conservation of biodiversity is like an insurance policy for future as it will ensure continuity of food chains , sustainable utilization of life support systems on earth , among other things.
Odum E.P (1971) Fundamentals of Ecology. W.b. Saunders Company,Philadelphia, London, Toronto.
George, Martin and Turner, Environmental Studies U.K. Blond Education
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