Reality stings

Reality stings

DISAPPEARING SPECIES

Imagine a world without flowers. A world where there are no fruit-laden trees and no seeds to germinate into a new plant. Such a world is quite frankly, unimaginable. And yet, our planet is moving towards that future because those little things that keep the myriad lifecycles of nature going are themselves disappearing.

We are talking about butterflies and ants, fireflies and moths, honeybees and ladybirds of the dreamier world that do not fit anymore in the pollution and congestion-ridden metropolises. As they die, one species after another, they take along with themselves their ability of pollination and procreation.

“If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change, but if insects were to disappear, I doubt the human species could last more than a few months,” wrote noted American biologist E O Wilson.

Although humans are tempted to believe they are masters of the planet, it is the miniscule insects that are the progenitors of life when they act as natural plant pollinators. Even our daily meal, vegetables and fruits come to us because of fluttering butterflies that inadvertently carry the pollen from the anther to the receptive part of the flower and help plants bear fruits and seeds.

Food for thought
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that of the slightly more than 100 crop species that provide food for 146 countries, 71 are bee-pollinated, primarily by wild bees, and a number of others are pollinated by other insects.

Each year, India produces about 7.5 million tonnes of vegetables. This accounts for about 14 per cent of the global total, making the nation second only to China in the world’s vegetable production league table. The economic value of such pollinated crops to India is $726 million .

On more practical terms, without insect pollinators, it is impossible to grow vegetables like pumpkins, cucumbers and brinjals or fruits like apples, oranges and grapes. For that matter, it is also not feasible to sip a cup of coffee or taste a bar of chocolate whose key ingredient, the cocoa bean too is a product of natural pollinators at work.

Threat of extinction
There are 20,000 butterfly species known in the world, of which approximately 1,300 are found in India. According to the IUCN, more than hundred of these species are threatened and face extinction. Worldwide, a sudden decline in the population of honeybees has also been felt and conservationists still do not have any clues about the reason for the disappearance.

S Ramani, project coordinator, All India Coordinated Research Project on Honey Bees and Pollinators says, “The expected direct reduction in total agricultural production in the United States in the absence of animal pollination has been estimated to range from three to eight per cent, showing that agriculture has become more pollinator-dependent. It has been suggested that we may be in the middle of a global pollination crisis.”

Closer home, research conducted by Parthiba Basu from the University of Calcutta’s Ecology Research Unit last year suggests that in India too, while the yields of pollinator-independent crops have continued to increase, pollinator-dependent crops have levelled off.

“We, not only in India, but in other parts of the world, do not really know what is happening to natural pollinator populations,” he says.

A number of possible causes have been suggested, including the misuse of pesticides, habitat loss and fragmentation, and the spread of parasites and diseases.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, when large habitats are fragmented into small isolated patches, food sources become less scarce for resident animals.

Populations may then decline to the point that they are no longer able to benefit plants. As certain wild pollinators need undisturbed habitat for nesting, roosting, foraging and sometimes specific larval host plants, they are very susceptible to habitat degradation and fragmentation in particular.

Some scientists even suggest that with global warming, plant and animal species are showing a tendency of northward migration.

For those species that cannot migrate, even a four-degree celsius rise in temperature in a decade means certain death and extinction. Some bees and butterflies like the popular monarch butterflies are species that can’t move as fast as is presently required and thus are succumbing to climate change.

It is also worth noting that as farms and plantations have grown, the need for pollinators has grown too. However, the number of pollinators has not increased at the same pace.

Way ahead
Isaac Kehimkar, general manager (programmes) at the Bombay Natural History Society​ and author of ‘The Book of Indian Butterflies’ points, “Lack of knowledge and obsession with mega-fauna is killing entomology as a subject. It has become professionally unsustainable today as there is a fight for the same set of funds which inevitably go to the tiger or one of the mega-fauna species.”

Meanwhile, no one knows for certain if pollinators will soon vanish with nothing done to save their time on earth. With seven billion human mouths to feed, a little thought needs to be spared for the small yet significant helpers.

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