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View from India: Biodiversity, as seen from an Indian perspective

Image credit: Aditya Siva | Unsplash

World Environment Day (WED) is celebrated annually on June 5. According to the United Nations, the theme for 2020 is biodiversity - a concern that is both urgent and existential.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has announced that Colombia will host World Environment Day 2020 in partnership with Germany.

Biodiversity provides sustenance for communities living on the coastline or fringe areas. Biodiversity also plays a significant role in agriculture. Bio-pesticides, fodder and fuel are some of the benefits that the farming communities can enjoy when there’s an ecological balance of biodiversity. It’s crucial to protect biodiversity in order to prevent mass extinction of several species of animals.

Like biodiversity, wetlands also need to be safeguarded. Bird species rely on wetlands for breeding, nesting, as well as a place of shelter. Wetland-dependent species face habitat loss when wetlands go unprotected.  

Here, View From India takes readers through a national programme conceptualised for the preservation of biodiversity and avian diversity in the country.

Several incidents relating to the bird community have recently made news in the media and gone viral. In February 2020, reports about an oriental darter struggling to free its beak from a piece of plastic touched many hearts. This echoed similar sentiments expressed when news broke of a black-necked stork’s beak being sealed with a plastic ring in June 2018. Both occurrences have happened in wetlands and resulted in an ecological imbalance. The wetlands require conservation. Being bird habitats, they need to be safeguarded from plastic trash.

All this and more has become a clarion call for the Government of India (GoI) to initiate a Visionary Perspective Plan (VPP). The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has come up with a Draft of the VPP (2020-2030) for the conservation of avian diversity, their ecosystems, habitats and landscapes in the country. The draft has been presented to stakeholders comprising various ministries and departments at the state and central level for their comments.

The 10-year plan has put together 15 programmes that will be implemented over the short-term 2020-2024 (four years); medium-term 2024-2027 (4-7 years), and long-term 2027-2030 (7-10 years). Depending on the review and evaluation, the timeline can even go beyond 2030.

Birds perform various ecosystem services and functions, such as rodent and insect pest control in agriculture and forestry; plant pollination; seed dispersal; forest regeneration, and scavenging services. They are indicators of environmental health and have socio-cultural-religious significance. Decline in bird population is due to the destruction of their natural habitat, environmental degradation, and changes in land-use such as urbanisation and environmental pollution. This leads to an ecological imbalance, causing vector-borne diseases and an increase in insect-rodent population.

Of the 1,317 bird species recorded in India, 72 are endemic to the country. According to an assessment of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 2018, a total of 100 species of Indian birds are classified as threatened. Of these, 17 are categorised as 'Critically Endangered', 20 as 'Endangered' and 63 as 'Vulnerable'. 

When we look at the bird community, raptors, pheasants, bustards, hornbills, cranes and storks are categorised as 'Rare', 'Endangered' and 'Threatened' (RET) bird species. They require immediate conservation action as they are prone to extinction. This can be attributed to poaching; habitat loss; fragmentation of ecosystems and habitats; epidemics, and other environmental changes. Urgent and innovative conservation measures are needed for RET species through identification of threats and protection of their critical habitats. Species Recovery Plans (SRPs) with implementation of conservation measures are required to restore their dwindling population.

There are total of 870 PAs or Protected Areas like National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, Community Reserves and Conservation Reserves, many with high avian diversity. A total of 554 sites in our country have also been designated as Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) of which 219 IBAs are outside the PA network and are under severe anthropogenic pressure.

Though a small proportion of such non-PA IBAs do enjoy community protection, most do not have any conservation action plan or management prescription for their sustenance. Consequently, the draft plan suggests the need to mobilise State Governments in habitat conservation and implementation of conservation plans. This can be achieved through partnerships with the local communities. Such initiatives can help identify new sites of significant avian diversity for inclusion in the IBA network.

The draft plan draws attention to the plight of wetlands. There are presently 2,01,503 wetlands (above 2.25 ha) in the country. Most of them are under stress due to the impact of urbanisation and agricultural runoffs, which require specific management plans for conservation.

According to the National Wetland Atlas (2011), India has 15.26 million ha area under wetlands, nearly 4.6 per cent of its land area. Degradation of wetlands owing to pressures from anthropogenic activities and non-anthropogenic drivers affects biodiversity and human well-being. India is also a signatory to the Ramsar Convention (1971), whereby 27 wetlands have been designated as Ramsar Sites for taking concerted action for conservation of those wetlands.

The Coimbatore-based Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History will be the nodal institution for implementing the plan.

Given the contribution of birds to the ecology, it’s essential to chalk out long-term measures for the conservation of avian biodiversity.

In 2019, View from India reported that the country is home to 75 per cent of the world's tiger population. National programmes such as Project Tiger and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) have implemented measures towards tiger conservation. Let’s hope that the draft plan for avian protection also achieves similar results.

While World Environment Day is specifically earmarked for environmental action, we need to protect our environment throughout the year.

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