Thomas Lovejoy in 1980 coined the term ‘Biological Diversity’ which was later modified by E. O. Wilson in 1986 who coined the term ‘Biodiversity’ in his report for the first American Forum on Biological Diversity. As a term intimately related to environmental and wildlife conservation, although the popularity of the term has increased dramatically since then in the West, especially in the scientific community in the West as well as globally, biodiversity as conservation is still not an everyday term in India, like words like pollution and evolution are.
Geography and You took a random sample of people in Delhi and asked them whether they were familiar with the term biodiversity. An overwhelming majority of the respondents unfortunately were largely blank over the meaning of the term. There was a lack of a clear conceptual framework that they could place biodiversity in. Although environmental conservation is a popular ideology, there seems to be lack of understanding of a rudimentary term used in environmental conservation. The stark reality stares us in the face that biodiversity as conservation still faces the major and basic hurdle of perceptibility in India.
Dr. C. R. Babu, a senior Environmental Scientist at Delhi University, defines biodiversity as, “All kinds of living organisms and their environments and together with their interactions constitute biodiversity. In other words, all kinds of plants, animals and microbes found in the biosphere and their environment, together with their interactions are collectively referred to as biodiversity”.
Babu extrapolates that there are four categories of biodiversity. The first category of biodiversity is what is known as genetic biodiversity. It refers to the differences among the living organisms in terms of genes, genetic material or DNA or genomes. The second kind of biodiversity is what is known as species biodiversity. It refers to the kinds of species found in the biosphere. The third category is what is known as ecosystem biodiversity. It refers to the different kinds of ecosystems that are found in the biosphere. The fourth category of biodiversity is what is known as human cultural biodiversity. This refers to diversity in languages, religions, food habits and other lifestyles among human populations.
Theories on biodiversity can broadly come under the theories formulated under the science of ecology. One major point of departure is the difference between the niche-based as against the neutral models of interaction in community ecology. The Ecological Niche had long dominated community ecology in explaining species interaction in ecosystems in terms of species occupying ecological niches and performing certain ecological roles on the basis on functionalist co-operation as well as competition.
This was challenged by Stephen Hubbell (2001) who introduced a Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity. While ecological niches were useful in explaining species co-existence on the basis of specialized and differentiated niches, Hubbell argued that competitive exclusion occurred over such long periods of time in the total evolutionary process that other processes such as random ecological drift, speciation, etc come to dominate in concurrence (G.M. Mikkelson, 2005). He argued that the differences between species placed at similar trophic levels in an ecological community are neutral, or not necessary for their success (Science Daily, 2017).
By rejecting role-based competitive exclusion as a rare event in ecosystems, Hubbell partially contradicts the Darwinian hypothesis of the Survival of the Fittest in community ecology as well as the theoretical formulations of Ecological Niches. Ecological systems according to this theory thus exist in long-term existential balance unless some sort of intervention leads to otherwise. To understand this more closely, we must look at the theory of ecological succession, most notably known for the contributions of Eugene Odum.
Ecological succession looks into ecosystem development as in how energy and materials follow cyclical paths within ecosystems. This aspect is what Odum (1969) explored in his paper ‘The Strategy of Ecosystem Development’. A key part of Odum’s analysis is that the strategies of man and nature are diametrically opposed. While the focus for man has primarily been high production out of nature, for example in terms of harvesting certain agricultural crops, reducing the total productive biomass, nature in its succession process goes for the reverse efficiency, thus favouring biomass production rather than production that largely wastes biomass, as in man’s approach. Nature thus manages to maintain a balance in its production process in sustainably producing biomass for procedural use while man’s production processes are not as sustainable. A major environmental aspect of our time is indeed in moving towards an environmentally sustainable future.
Tropical rainforests in total provide habitats for about 90 per cent of the world’s species (A. Young, 2003) while marine biodiversity similarly increases in warmer seas. Biodiversity however tends to cluster globally in dense hotspots that occurs in the form of clusters. About 90 per cent of the world’s species are threatened by human-induced changes to the environment and biodiversity according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Biodiversity as conservation becomes even more important when you consider that India is one of the 12 mega biodiversity countries in the world and about 7 to 8 per cent of species in the world are found in India, in which about 70 per cent of the world’s flowering plants are found in India (C.R. Babu, 2017). A lack of understanding of biodiversity in India thus should alarm us over how well are actually addressing biodiversity as conservation in public life.
Although biodiversity historically in India had been a public good in the sense of an existential balance, the current age is one when more widespread awareness of the devastating effects of the human-influenced Anthropocene epoch is being known. Although protecting the environment has now become a core issue, the lack of an awareness of biodiversity as conservation speaks of the lack of a deeper understanding of environmental sustainability among the Indian public.
Given the total and web-like effects of certain deficiencies in the environment, largely institutional efforts at biodiversity as conservation will not yield the total benefits that an understanding of nature’s balance at the public level could provide. Any good attained by institutional intervention thus could be offset by another instance of human-induced environmental degradation, whether organized or not, at the other end. At a time when humanity is grappling with natural laws that it does not fully understand, a better understanding of the nature of how one should interact and co-exist in one’s life-world would push civilization towards an era of greater maturity.
Threats to Biodiversity
The threats to biodiversity can indeed be immense, given the complexity of biodiversity and the millions of chance possibilities that can introduce changes to ecosystems. The challenges are immense when you consider that biodiversity is being constantly and rapidly destroyed throughout the world, and greater still when the need arises for co-ordinating all activities in line with international policies and events. Approaches in biodiversity as conservation may also vary across countries, regions and in local settings.
A uniform scientific approach is difficult when one would need to tackle myriad policies and intricacies. Although legal documents on biodiversity as conservation are available, which we shall discuss later, a sense of order is required at all levels if we are to think seriously about biodiversity as conservation. In this light, although uncountable causes could impact biodiversity, certain categorizations listed by Mandal & Nandi (2009) can be made over the threats to biodiversity. These are –
- Habitat Destruction / Habitat Fragmentation
Habitat destruction or habitat fragmentation is a broad category that can pose the most significant threat to biodiversity as conservation. Habitat fragmentation, which is the lessening of habitats into scattered patches also brings about immense changes to the composition of biodiversity, as apart from habitat destruction, which can have more total effects.
The age of the Anthropocene has seen massive habitat loss all over the world. The world has for example witnessed a massive loss of about 129 million ha of area under forest cover between 1990 and 2015. This represents an annual net loss rate of 0.13 per cent. The largest loss of forest cover has occurred in the tropics and subtropics, in particular in South America and Africa (FAO, 2015). It is also known for example that about half of the total wetlands globally have been destroyed. California alone has lost about 91 per cent of its wetlands in the last 200 years (Mandal & Nandi, 2009).
Even if a conscious effort is made in limiting habitat destruction due to anthropogenic interventions, habitat fragmentation can still occur due to developmental activity such as building roads, canals, etc and their succeeding effects. Development projects by humans have led to immeasurable habitat losses, severely destabilizing ecosystems world over such that the present geological epoch is being called by many as the Anthropocene, as one whose geography has been influenced primarily by human beings.
- Alien-Invasive Species
Another threat to biodiversity is the introduction of a non-native alien-invasive species into an ecosystem. Humans have introduced more than 330 non-native species into ecosystems worldwide. One only needs to remember how kiwi birds are endangered in New Zealand due to the introduction of animals such as cats for example by settlers. Alien-invasive species need not only be predators to destroy native ecosystems. They can also degrade ecosystems by competing for resources like water, and inviting other predators into the food web for example with mice, etc. Like with habitat destruction, the introduction of alien-invasive species has also exponentially increased with the progress of anthropogenic development.
- Over-harvesting / Over-Exploitation
We are living in an era of high mass consumption, and as such there is incredible strain on the harvesting and exploitation of biological resources. Billions of people depend on biological resources for not only food but also for other economic and daily needs. As such billions of biological units are harvested for human use. One particular area where over-harvesting and over-exploitation have become a flag-point issue is commercial fishing. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations (UN), about 18 per cent of global fishing stocks are reported to be over-exploited and about 10 per cent of global fishing stocks have become significantly depleted. Figures such as these have serious implications for species extinction.
Pollution can severely impact ecosystems by causing diseases and other health problems among organisms in an ecosystem. Sometimes, pollution can affect a particular species, such as how an oil spill can severely impact aquatic life forming habitats near the ocean’s surface. The dangers can be particularly stark if an endangered species is exposed to persistent organic pollutants (POPs), leading to severe health issues such as dysfunction in the endocrine systems and other effects and can severely impact their populations, including changes if any in their reproductive abilities.
- Knock-on Effects
With the addition or withdrawal of species into or out of food webs, there can be certain cascading knock-on effects. One example is that of insect pollinators that are specialized, whose extinction would affect the reproductive abilities of plants dependent on the insect pollinators, thus having cascading effects on the food web in the ecosystem. The great problem with knock-on effects is that often these kind of effects can be greatly unpredictable, making their mitigation even more difficult, if not required to be avoided altogether.
- Climate Change
The possible effects of Climate Change on biodiversity as conservation have been greatly discussed, with the major problem being that its ongoing effects such as the melting of sea ice habitats in the Polar Regions have not been as greatly perceptible in the larger public life.
There can be no doubt however that the heating of the planet and the incredible amount of cascading changes in the Earth’s climate and topography will bring about incredibly massive changes to biodiversity. The scale of the changes, depending on how severely Climate Change progresses in the future, could rival the loss in biodiversity brought about due to habitat destruction. The difference being that habitat destruction had been occurring over a period of time along the development of human civilization while Climate Change can have drastic and quick effects on biodiversity. Another difference is that Climate Change can be mitigated by human intervention in a realistic manner, although presently that is not the case.
- Other Threats
While these are the chief anthropogenic threats to biodiversity as conservation in terms of scale, there are innumerable other threats that can impact biodiversity at different levels of scale depending upon circumstance. Some such threats include the challenges posed by the economic system, wherein organisms are increasingly being over-exploited not just for food, but as products. The spread of diseases, parasites, pathogens and predators can also severely impact biodiversity as conservation.
Another factor impacting biodiversity as conservation can be translocation, wherein certain species are reintroduced into another habitat for a certain constructive purpose such as to save a species from extinction. While this might help in saving a certain species, these same species could act as an alien-invasive species in some way in another ecosystem.
Another threat is the event of an extremely small population of a certain species remaining in their habitats. This condition does not portend very well for the future of that species. Finally, the demographic changes brought about by an ever-increasing human population has and will have in the future an increasingly detrimental effect on biodiversity as conservation given that the chief threats to biodiversity as conservation are largely anthropogenic.
Efforts towards Biodiversity as Conservation
Official concern for biodiversity loss is a relatively recent phenomenon, with the term itself being relatively new. Many species have been endangered and some species had gone extinct before the term came into parlance. Thus in the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was initiated and was then enforced in 1993 as in international legal document with biodiversity as conservation in view. A 196 countries are signatory to the convention, with the United States being a notable exception. In India the primary legal document for biodiversity as conservation is the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 (BDA) (B. Meenakumari, 2016). Although legal policies exist, biodiversity as conservation is a vast challenge both for policy-makers and conservationists, especially with many steep sustainable development targets yet to be realized worldwide.
Legal documents for biodiversity as conservation usually act as umbrella policies for many micro-level activities to take place. The most prominent of these activities can include demarcating certain areas as protected areas, which can be a method to conserve habitats, although not all habitats. Also other methods like mapping of sites, identifying gap species being certain species not covered by habitats within protected areas, listing of certain species by the IUCN in the Red List such that renewed efforts are made for the conservation of these species, alternately making Red List Indices that look at the projected extinction risk of certain sets of species in terms of temporal variability, etc (Mandal & Nandi, 2009) can facilitate biodiversity as conservation apart from demarcating certain areas as protected areas. Alternately resource allocation policies can also assist in biodiversity as conservation along with policies for the restoration of natural habitats.
Many other legislations also exist to interlope with the CBD for protecting biodiversity. For example the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has the objective of protecting marine organisms from over-fishing and over-harvesting. Similarly many other regulations exist for combating pollution. The great challenge however, will be rapidly advancing Climate Change and its unpredictable knock-on effects on biodiversity as conservation. Given how Climate Change can be partially mitigated through human intervention with global concern for the same, although the Paris Climate Agreement brings hope in this regard, it shall take a huge amount of struggle for any decisive good to occur.
Institutional safeguards alone however, should not wage a lone fight in a cause that requires the co-operation of most of humanity. In what the future may portend, the case of one effort being offset by another necessitates that a total fight for biodiversity as conservation requires some understanding of the existential balance of biodiversity, which can begin with the protection of habitats and ecosystems. This should begin with an understanding of biodiversity as a term known to all, like Climate Change is quickly becoming one. This would represent among the first baby-steps for humanity in moving towards an environmentally sustainable future.