Saving biodiversity in our backyards

Saving biodiversity in our backyards

Where are house sparrows these days? They have just become extinct!” is a common rhetoric we hear  in the cities. Yet, it is impossible to scientifically assert that they are dwindling in numbers, since there has not been any systematic observation or data gathered about them. The case of the ‘vanishing’ sparrows in cities like Bengaluru throws light on an important issue associated with biodiversity – the lack of data.

To add to this, there has been a significant drop in the tree cover and the number of insects and birds in our neighbourhoods. But, to answer such questions — like the change in the numbers of any species and the total number of species present — rigorous observations, documentation and research are necessary. Without the numbers, it is simply impossible to infer that there has been a change, let alone the decline or disappearance of certain species.

It is, of course, not the same story with charismatic forest dwelling species like the tiger. Tiger numbers are hailed from the rooftops at the slightest increase in number, and it becomes news the world over, and correctly so, because India is one of the last bastions for the world’s tigers. Tigers, elephants, leopards and other species which inhabit forests (mostly located within protected areas) are systematically counted every year by the forest department and researchers.

Edges matter
But what about the species in our backyard? We have very scant records of biodiversity — at this point we should reiterate that biodiversity also includes insects and amphibians and aquatic life, to name a few — outside our protected areas. However, we depend on the biodiversity around us for basic needs such as medicine, food, fuel and fibre. An elephant, tiger, leopard or bear entering human inhabited areas creates a furore that catapults small villages to national fame.

A group of researchers at Gubbi Labs, a research collective based in Bengaluru, has  carried out a series of observations and saw more than a 100 species of birds, over 20 species of butterflies, more than 10 species of frogs and many others flora and fauna in and around Gubbi taluk in Tumakuru district, Karnataka. These numbers are astounding, considering Gubbi is not a part of any biodiversity hotspot, nor is it within a designated Protected Area (PA). It is a part of the typically hot and semi-arid south-central Deccan plateau, dominated by scrub, chequered with plantations of coconut, arecanut and banana, and vast open fields with paddy and millets.

So what makes an area rich in biodiversity? A key aspect that seems to encourage diversity is the presence of edges. Despite the nature of ‘monoculture’ in plantations and other crops, the edges of these plantations and farmlands are mostly dotted with trees and plants that harbour and attract numerous taxa. The numerous tanks that dominate the landscape around Gubbi provide the much-needed access to water.

There is a ray of hope now as nations across the world have now slowly begun to understand the importance of urban biodiversity and the benefits of its conservation. In 2008, the United Nations Environment Programme set up the Urban Environment Unit, kickstarting a global partnership on cities and biodiversity, with representatives from many nations participating in the conference. The primary objective of the unit was to conserve land efficiently, thus helping the biodiversity of the region thrive.
Contributing factors
Unlike PAs, where dedicated forest departments are responsible for conservation, human-dominated landscapes like cities depend entirely on their citizens to help conserve the rich biodiversity they offer. Bringing about a biodiversity-friendly outlook in citizens seems to be a challenging task in the current context.

What makes us shudder at this responsibility? “The general public have other concerns like livelihood, their own future, their own culture and so on. Farmers for example, have a lot of problems like financial condition, rains or lack of it, etc. And biodiversity is really not on the top of their heads,” points out Ashok Hegde, a citizen science enthusiast and resident of
Mavinagundi, Karnataka.

He also feels that biodiversity is largely ignored by the public and it only becomes a concern when there is a human–animal conflict, and the academicians address
bigger problems like climate change. Which is why Ashok feels that the efforts put in need to be complementary. “For common people to participate and understand what’s happening in the academia, they have to, temporarily at least, suspend their immediate gains,” opines Ashok.

Factors like different kinds of pollution and loss of habitat and food sources affect biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes. These are mostly caused by an expanding human population that results in the destruction of natural ecosystems. Apart from encroachment of natural resources, human activities like the use of chemical inputs in agriculture, mono-cropping and indiscriminate fishing and hunting indirectly affect biodiversity.

When people help
The onus is now on us, the people who co-habit with wildlife of all kinds in cities and villages to conserve and nurture everything around us. Conservation, however, requires an understanding of the underlying biodiversity in a region and its role in the ecosystem. A fun and interesting way to spend time with nature is to watch, observe and count – in other words, help with assessing biodiversity in your backyard.

In a first of its kind, a citizen science based initiative that was launched in 2012 called ‘Citizen Sparrow’ in India. ‘Citizen Sparrow’ is an ongoing citizen science project in which the public are encouraged to contribute information on the presence and absence of the house sparrow. It is organised by Bombay Natural History Society and Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India in partnership with the National Centre for Biological Sciences and Nature Conservation Foundation. The effort resulted in gathering 11,262 observations from 5,989 persons at 8,870 locations across India (as per their latest report). In the recent past, citizen science activities by Gubbi Labs has recorded at least two new species of frogs outside protected areas.

Such efforts have reinforced how little we know about the diversity right in our backyard. As Ashok puts it, “If one has to live with nature, then one has to understand it.”

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