Ahmad Noor Khan*
With our present approach to development, we have caused the clearing of much of the original forests, drained half of the world’s wetlands, depleted three quarters of the fish stocks, and emitted enough heat-trapping gases to keep our planet warming for centuries to come.
As a result, we are increasingly risking the loss of the very foundation of our own survival. The variety of life on our planet – known as ‘biodiversity’ – gives us our food, clothes, fuel, medicines and much more. When even one species is taken out of this intricate web of life, the result can be catastrophic. For this reason, the United Nations has declared 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, and people all over the world are working to safeguard this irreplaceable natural wealth and reduce biodiversity loss.
Rwanda’s capital Kigil will be the global host for World Environment Day (WED) 2010 in conjunction with the celebration of the annual ‘Kwita Izina’ ceremony (which means giving names to Baby gorillas), under the theme, ‘Many Species, One Planet, One Future’, in an exciting event at the foot of the Virunga Mountains, shared by Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. Rwanda is home to about 1/3 of the 750 endangered mountain gorillas left in the wild. Since 2005, 103 baby gorillas have been named and this year 11 gorillas will be named on the eve of WED.
Biological diversity encompasses all species of plants, animals and microorganisms and the ecosystems and ecological processes of which they are part. It provides the basis for life on earth. The fundamental, social, ethical, cultural and economic values of these resources have been recognized in religion, art and literature from the earliest days of recorded history. Wild species and the genetic variations within them make substantial contribution to the development of agriculture, medicine and industry. Perhaps, even more important, many species have been fundamental to stabilization of climate, protection of watersheds, protection of soil and the protection of nurseries and breeding grounds. Only 13% species are supposed to be known of the world’s existing microbial resources covering algae, bacteria, fungi, lichens, viruses and protozoa. Diversity of microorganisms is preserved through culture collections, to be used beneficially in mining for metals, getting rid of methane from coal mines, cleaning up of oil spills, creating perfumes, monitoring air pollution, controlling insect pests, destroying pesticides in the soil, etc.
Yet, some 100 species, out of the earth’s 30-50 million species are being lost each day under agriculture schemes, cities, industrial developments and dams or through pollution and erosion. A total of 17,291 species are known to be threatened with extinction – from little known plants and insects to birds and mammals. Many species disappear before they are even discovered. Humans are among only a handful of species whose population is growing, while most animals and plants are becoming rarer and fewer.
Man has always been fascinated by the diversity of life. Hunter-gatherers celebrated it through paintings in their caves. Gautama Buddha was born in a sacred forest of Sal trees and attained enlightenment meditating under a Peepal tree. The Bishnois of Rajasthan project antelopes as their blood brothers and President Theodore Roosevelt spearheaded the drive to protect American wilderness through national parks. At the same time people have often ruthlessly wiped out life in all its diversity. Mammoths were exterminated by hunter-gatherers during the last ice-age, and the bison was wiped out from American prairies by white settlers.
People have used and abused life with all its diversity over the ages, but never had diversity been a focus of worldwide attention. The rich and powerful in the global community have just realized its enormous economic potential.
The ancient scriptures are full of saying, justifying the need of survival of all life forms. The environmental consciousness shown by king Ashoka, the traditions being followed by the Bishnoi cult of Rajasthan, and the commitments reflected in the Chipko Movement are all examples of heightened awareness of the common man. However, the environmental consciousness of the people is often marred by their poverty and basic needs of survival. Their day-to-day need of fuel has led to cutting of forests. Tigers, deers, crocodiles, rhinoceros and other wild life are diminishing. The trade in the carcasses of endangered animals continues only because of the need of certain people to adorn themselves.
The intense pressure on biological diversity is a direct reflection of increasing human numbers. These pressures are expected to increase until population stabilizes, as projected by the United Nations by about the year 2050 – 2070 at about 10 billions. Such stabilization will be achieved only if present efforts to curtail population growth are pursued vigorously.
The theme of WED 2010, ‘Many Species, One Planet, One Future’, echoes the urgent call to conserve the diversity of life on our planet. A world without biodiversity is a very bleak prospect. Millions of people and million of species all share the same planet, and only together we can enjoy a safer and more prosperous future.
Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views ofINVC
World Environment Day, 5 June 2010
**Author is Senior Scientist, Former Assistant Director, National Environmental Engineering Research