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Book excerpt: We will have lost close to 50% of all species by 2050

In Born Wild, journalist Swati Thiyagarajan writes about her experiences in wildlife landscapes across the world. In this excerpt, she draws attention to the damage human activities are inflicting on nature.

books Updated: Aug 22, 2017 09:05 IST
Swati Thiyagarajan,Swati Thiyagarajan book,Born Wild

We are living in the future. When I was a child and I used to read about environmental destruction and warnings about what we were doing to our planet, the endgame was always projected well into the future. In the 1980s, dates like 2023, 2030 and so on sounded like very faraway times, times that would take a long time in coming. It felt like we had time in which to right wrongs and fix things. Today, however, as we stand in 2017, 2030 is only as far down the line as 2000 is behind us. Which means the time is going to come and come soon.

It is an indisputable fact that right now we are in the middle of the sixth great mass extinction. The sixth wave of species dieoffs in half a billion years. The rate of dieoff right now, though, is the worst that the world has seen since the disappearance of dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. What makes it worse is that this time this wave of extinction is on us. We did this. Extinction is a natural process in nature. Natural selection makes extinction possible. It is how the system works. However, extinction rates, if natural, are usually at the rate of one to five species per year. Today, we are losing species at the rate of 1,000 to 10,000 times that natural rate per year. Scientific estimates say that we will have lost close to 50 per cent of all species by the year 2050. We stand to lose one-fifth of the world’s species by 2025. These are dates that are not so far off.

Ecosystems thrive only because of biodiversity. When species die off, they tend to create a knock-on effect, taking with them other species that are dependent on them, thereby multiplying the rate of loss. This dieoff also allows certain other species to proliferate, causing further damage down the line.

The author with a jaguar at the Jukani Predator Park, South Africa. (Jurg Olsen)

What’s worse is that we are not even aware as yet of all the species on the planet. Scientists estimate that so far we have discovered about 1.2 million species; this includes not just mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, amphibians and aquatic species but also plant species. At present, it is believed that we have only discovered about 10 per cent of the species in the oceans. A new study by Canada’s Dalhousie University estimates that there are about 8.7 million species on earth. This means we have not even found 86 per cent of the world’s species and yet, we are losing them at an alarming rate. There have been disputes over this number but no one disputes the fact that we have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to knowing about all the species on our planet. It is also an undisputed fact that each year, scientists discover about 15,000 new species.

The main reason for this devastating loss is anthropogenic activity, leading to habitat loss.

In India alone, according to the latest data acquired by a group of environmentalists from the Ministry of Environment and Forests through an RTI, about 333 acres of forest land are lost every day. Most of the land is diverted for industrial and development projects. As of September 2011, 47 species of animals were marked critically endangered as listed by the red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and 49 species have been listed as endangered. Hundreds more are listed as threatened and as vulnerable. Many of the animals on the endangered and critically endangered lists like our big cats and elephants and sharks are vital keystone and apex species of our various ecosystems and their loss will wipe out even that which is not considered especially threatened.

It is estimated that about 21.2 per cent of India is covered by forests. These are figures released by the Ministry for Environment and Forests and Climate Change. Conservationists argue against this figure by stating that the figures include plantations and orchards and groves of eucalyptus, poplars, teak and other plantation species which have questionable conservation values. As of now, less than 5 per cent of these forests are protected. These are the dense rich forests with adequate biodiversity that contain most of India’s animal and plant species. It is an unavoidable truth that forests that lie outside the ambit of protected areas are being slowly degraded and that important wilderness areas like scrub jungles, grasslands and wetlands are often overlooked as biodiversity hotspots as they do not fall under the conventional classification of forests. Right now, the Environment Ministry has asked states to identify what they call ‘degraded forests’ and give up 40 per cent of them to private management. This narrow view that only tree cover makes a forest has been the biggest detriment to India’s wild habitats. Also, the tree cover that is planted is usually monoculture of non-indigenous fast-growing species that does not help biodiversity.

And in our budget in 2015, we cut the allocations for environment and wildlife down by nearly a quarter to Rs 1,681 crores. Project Tiger has had its budget cut by 16 per cent. All these cuts while threats from climate change are looming large and the country has already received a warning of what is to come with the bad combination of unchecked progress, lack of environment awareness and unpredictable climates both with the Uttarakhand disaster and the floods in Kashmir. Floods in the North East and Assam has displaced close to 1.5 million people and the disaster is still ongoing. There is no disputing these facts – dams on the upstream rivers and unchecked constructions on flood plains and aquifers and illegal sand mining of river banks and deforestation destabilising river banks, all these have contributed to this disaster. Every year, cyclones ravage our coasts and the allocated budget for coastal management is Rs 100 cores. We have 7,000 kilometres of coastline in India threatened by development and industry and a burgeoning population facing down an inclement sea. Already every year, during and after the monsoons and storm season, thousands of people lose their homes and become displaced with nowhere to go.

And in the middle of these challenges, the government, instead of working on finding solutions, is more interested in extracting greater amounts of coal out of the ground, taking over forest lands for development and making no concessions to cut carbon emissions. Hundreds of more dams are being planned in the North East and the Himalayas while being aware that these are seismically sensitive zones.

Born Wild: Journeys Into The Wild Hearts of India and Africa
By Swati Thiyagarajan
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 233
Price: Rs 799

First Published: Aug 22, 2017 09:04 IST