Threats to our forests

Threats to our forests
Does it ever surprise you that large forest patches still exist in India alongside our growing populations and ever-increasing expansions? India is host to one of the richest forest habitats in the world. But like all natural ecosystems today, our forests are extremely vulnerable. They are under stress from a host of human-made problems — from encroachment and degradation to climate change.

We cannot lose our forests. Even though India has 77.18 million hectares of forests, it is only about 21% of India’s total land area, and our forests are rapidly shrinking. The forests are home to a variety of flora and fauna, and indispensable ecological services like clean air and water. Many people directly depend on them for their livelihood and survival even today. It has become paramount that we understand how vulnerable our forests are to be able to implement effective policies in order to protect them.

Measuring vulnerability

In a recent study, scientists from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun have assessed the vulnerability of forests at the national scale, using a measure  that tells us how well (or how poorly) the forest can resist disturbances or adapt to harmful changes. Their findings were published in the journal Environmental Management.

The researchers studied the forests’ inherent vulnerabilities as well as vulnerability due to climate change. To gauge the inherent vulnerability of the forest, they looked at four indicators — biodiversity richness, canopy cover, slope and the disturbance index. These factors take into account the very nature of the forest which makes them resilient or susceptible to degradation. For instance, if a forest has a high disturbance index due to deforestation, it increasingly loses its capacity to cope with stresses. The study mentions that an extremely high proportion of our forests are inherently vulnerable. Almost 73% of the forest area experiences light to heavy grazing, including grazing by domestic cattle, and 54% of total forest area is prone to fire.

Climate change is a reality. Earlier studies have shown that warmer temperatures have been disrupting the forests’ seasonal patterns, which may result in vital processes like flowering and pollination to fall out of sync, compromising the well-being of the entire ecosystem. Furthermore, extreme weather events like droughts and floods have become deadlier and more frequent, which will undermine the  forest systems even further. This study looks at the effects of present and future consequences of climate change, as well as the inherent factors that are affecting forests.

The results of this study revealed that a whopping 40% of our forests shows high or very high vulnerability. When current and future climate change impact predictions are considered, 46% of forests may show vulnerability that is high, very high or extremely high by the year 2035.

The assessment of forests on such a large, nation-wide scale can be extremely challenging. In order to effectively measure vulnerability, the entire forested area of the country was divided into smaller grid-points, which made it easier to determine which sections had low, medium or high vulnerability. The study found that plantation forests, which have less flora and fauna, are more vulnerable than natural forests.

Natural forests, like those in the Western Ghats, have such a rich biodiversity that the organisms form interconnected networks, increasing the forest’s capacity to bounce back after a disturbance. On the other hand, in a less diverse ecosystem, the loss of even a single species can be catastrophic. The study also shows that Himalayan temperate and alpine forests, and tropical evergreen forests, show less vulnerability. Forests which received more rainfall were also shown to be less vulnerable than drier forests.

Throughout the world, studies have considered only a few stress factors like fire, drought or a contagious or infectious epidemic disease to measure the forests’ vulnerability, and very few have taken climate change into account. This is a first-of-its-kind study which has looked at both inherent vulnerability and vulnerability caused by climate change, for forest ecosystems. Such a holistic approach is necessary to identify the most ‘at-risk’ forest areas and take action to reduce their vulnerability.

Understanding the inherent vulnerability of the forest can go a long way in reducing mismanagement of the forest and direct restoration efforts to boost its resilience. While future vulnerability predictions enable us to be prepared to take care of our forests in a changing climate, it also prepares us to deal with any uncertainty associated with the climate change projections. This study demonstrates that both non-climatic and climatic stressors are important factors to consider while studying ecosystem vulnerability.

Making forests more resilient

Dr Jagmohan Sharma, one of the researchers from IISc, recommends that we need to reduce vulnerability of all natural forests as well as plantation forests to be better prepared to deal with an uncertain future under climate change. He says, “A practical approach to better secure the future of forests under climate change is to minimise all kinds of disturbance to forests. Human disturbances including cattle grazing, fire hazard, mining, road construction, etc. should all be minimised inside forests.”

Reduced disturbance will lead to rejuvenation of forests and an increase in animal and plant populations, which will result in an overall reduction in vulnerability. Such recommendation should be translated into policy level changes to ensure good management practices.

Jagmohan comments that there are still gaps in our understanding about how forests will respond to different climatic and non-climatic stresses. Additionally, we need to monitor ecosystems on a long-term scale to manage our forests for the future, he adds. “To reduce the risk or vulnerability, the perception of the community is very important. Realising the seriousness of the vulnerability can enable one to get a good vulnerability assessment and successful implementation of vulnerability reduction measures,” he says, highlighting that is a ‘now or never’ opportunity to save the forests.

(The author is with Gubbi Labs, a Bengaluru-based research collective)

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