Browsing through images of other species, you may begin to think that perhaps no other species is more ugly and useless than the human. Most birds can boast of their splendid plumage; that they facilitate seed propagation and soil enrichment and that they never foul their own nest. They are happy creatures, chirping away, eating what they can find, taking care of their young ones, and winging across oceans and mountains, dales and valleys.
Mammals range from the tiniest of them all, the Etruscan shrew and the bumblebee bat that each weigh around two grams, to the largest living species, the blue whale, that weighs at least 170 to 190 tons at a pinch. They are all intrinsic players in the cycle of life, forging symbiotic relationships with other species.
Insects are the most populous multicellular organisms of their kind on the planet, with over a million species that we have been able to identify so far.
The plant kingdom is part of the intricate web of life on Planet Earth. The earth’s biodiversity – with natural formations, flora and fauna — is beautiful, extensive, intricate and life-affirming. It is also a reminder that every living being is connected to every other, in more ways than one.
Every year, May 22, designated as World Biodiversity Day, draws attention to all that we need to do (or not do) to allow life around us to survive. Despite being billed as the most intelligent of all species, human beings are known to have deliberately or otherwise, disturbed biodiversity. The most visible issue currently, is anthropomorphic acceleration of global warming that is driving several species to extinction. And the other issue, besides pollution and disease, is destruction of forest and ocean habitats that are home to a multitude of species.
WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 states that the numbers of mammals, birds, fish, plants and insects have declined by an average of 68% between the years 1970 and 2016 – that is, by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years. Two-fifths of the world’s plants are at risk of extinction, according to an assessment of the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi in 2020, based on research from more than 200 scientists in 42 countries. Scientists estimate that the extinction risk may be much higher than previously thought, with an estimated 140,000 or 39.4% of vascular plants rendered vulnerable, compared with 21% in 2016.
According to director of science at UK’s Kew, Prof Alexandre Antonelli, we are living in an age of extinction: “We’re losing the race against time because species are disappearing faster than we can find and name them. Many of them could hold important clues for solving some of the most pressing challenges of medicine and even perhaps of the emerging and current pandemics we are seeing today.”
A UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs report released in April this year says that around 1.6 billion people worldwide depend directly on forests for food, shelter, energy, medicines and income: “Progress in protecting the world’s forests—and the people who rely on them—is at risk due to the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalating climate and biodiversity crises.”
“Before the pandemic, many countries were working hard to reverse native forest loss and increase protected areas designated for biodiversity conservation,” wrote UN Secretary-General António Guterres in the report’s foreword. “Some of those gains are now at risk with worrying trends of increased deforestation of primary tropical forests.”
Meanwhile, dedicated scientists and natural historians share their revelatory findings in the hope of improving the man-nature interface. One such is Jane Goodall, who has been awarded the 2021 Templeton Prize. The 87-year-old primate ethologist, with her long years of research and engagement with chimpanzees, has widened our understanding of other species.
According to Goodall, if one species becomes extinct, one thread in the tapestry of life is gone. When more species vanish, more threads are lost until the tapestry is in tatters – the ecosystem collapses. She believes that the most pressing issue currently is climate change. Interestingly, David Attenborough has been named COP26 People’s Advocate ahead of the crucial UN climate change summit slated to take place in Glasgow later this year. Attenborough, broadcaster and natural historian, has popularized documentaries on the natural world, creating public awareness and interest in the life and times of other species.
As host of COP26, Attenborough is expected to address world leaders at major international events over the next six months, including the G7 Summit in Cornwall in June, to put climate and the protection of nature at the top of their agenda, and he has also been invited to address world leaders and the public at the Glasgow Summit.
To enlist experts who work on the ground, close to the natural world, to create greater awareness among people and governments on the need to respect biodiversity, is a move in the right direction. Their words may carry more weight that those of bureaucrats and politicians.
While human beings cannot survive without vibrant ecosystems, the truth is that biodiversity may heal and thrive without human beings — for not only do we not add value, we create problems. The theme of Biodiversity Day 2021 is, “We are Part of the Solution for Nature”. Maybe we should first find ways of ceasing to be a threat to nature; once that happens, there would be no need to look for ‘solutions’.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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