Far in the distance flows a channel of the Yamuna like a trickle of black water amidst clusters of modern high rises. Rapid incursion of people has led to an alarming growth in grey infrastructure– that continues unbridled in the Yamuna’s floodplains that had thick forest earlier. The Central Government has been relaxing the need for environmental clearance to fast-track housing projects, especially affordable homes, that needs to be constructed to discharge the government’s agenda of “housing for all” by 2022—an agenda mired in controversy–because it has been alleged that this is a ploy to benefit the construction industry. All this development, however, comes at the cost of green spaces and water bodies.

“Science is showing us the harsh reality that our forests, oceans and rivers are enduring at our hands,” Director General of WWF International, Marco Lambertini recently stated in a press release. “Inch by inch, species by species, shrinking wildlife numbers are an indicator of the tremendous impact and pressure we are exerting on our planet. The two key drivers of biodiversity loss were the over exploitation of natural resources and agriculture,” the WWF said in its report and added that the population of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have dwindled by an average of 60% from 1970 to 2014, and fresh-water species have declined by 83% in the same period.

Since 1960, the global ecological footprint has increased by more than 190%. The organization suggested three necessary steps to address these challenges–“clearly specifying a goal for biodiversity recovery; developing a set of measurable and relevant indicators of progress; and agreeing on a suite of actions that can collectively achieve the goal in the required time frame.”

The Yamuna Biodiversity Park

Even before the WWF revelation came along, random practices to recover biodiversity were put into place by people around the globe in their own specific ways. In Delhi, amid the environmental chaos, the Yamuna Biodiversity Park (YBP) in the Wazirabad area exemplifies the successful recreation of the natural heritage and re-establishment of one of the two life-supporting landforms of Delhi—The River Yamuna. Journalists from all over the country who converged in Delhi for a National Media Workshop on Biodiversity organized by Indian Institute of Mass Communication and National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) recently were witness to this sustained effort.

YBP is the first local government initiative in the world to develop a fully functional Nature Reserve on once highly degraded urban landscape under the able guidance and continuous efforts of scientific experts. Spread over an area of 457 acres, the YBP has conservatories of medicinal plants, butterflies and fruit plants, besides grasslands. But the major attraction is the wetland of 100 acre that has already started attracting a diverse population of resident and migratory birds. In Delhi region, YBP has become the only known wintering home for Red Crested Pochard. The Northern Shoveler and Northern Pintail, Lesser Whistling Teals and Coots are other attractions of winter here.

A total of 35 species of birds make the wetland of YBP their permanent home that includes Grey and Purple Herons, Oriental Darter, Little Cormorants and Indian Cormorants and has become an ideal breeding ground for the open-billed storks. The other important ingredient of this man-made wetland are dragonflies and damselflies – important component of wetland ecosystem which we could see in abundance in the YBP along with a healthy population of butterflies—another indicator species. The recreated nature reserve is now home for 2000 plant and animal species living in some 30 biotic communities.

Conservation strategies in Northeast India

Elsewhere, in Northeast India, the Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve, an NGO from Singchun in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, was awarded the National Biodiversity Discovery Award for 2018 for its unique endeavour to conserve rare wildlife in a 17-sq km area of Singchung Bugun Village in the fringes of Eaglenest Willdlife Sanctuary. It was here in 1995, Dr Ramana Athreya happened to discover a bird species–Bugun Lioccichla (Liocichla bugunorum Athreya 2006). When Dr Athreya first spotted the bird in the Bugun community forest in the wilderness of Eaglenest, neither he nor his field guide could identify the species.  It took him five more visits spanning a decade to finally brand the new species. He named it after the Bugun community. It was indeed a heartwarming discovery of a new bird species in the mainland India after a gap of 55 years.

With global warming and climate change posing threats to vegetation, plant and faunal diversity, the importance of conserving biodiversity is gaining momentum and scientists are now engaged in risk distribution agronomy that can ensure food security in an era of climate change. The term ‘biodiversity’ denotes the variability of life forms on earth. Each little life form has its own place, duty and specific utility that balance nature beautifully. Biodiversity conservation is also important for the maintenance of food, water, health and livelihood security as well as climate resilient food production system.

India’s biodiversity legislation has three main objectives, conservation of biodiversity, its sustainable use and ensuring equitable sharing of the benefits from use of the country’s biological resources or related traditional knowledge and to achieve this, the Biodiversity Act has a three-tier institutional structure—the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), State Biodiversity Boards (SBBs) in every state and Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs) at local village/urban levels. Unfortunately, the SBBs or BMCs hardly play any role in the conservation of biodiversity in this part of the country. On the contrary, privately funded projects or work at NGO level has yielded better results.

Saving the Seeds

Russian scientist Vavilov referred to the Northeast part of India as the “Hindustani Centre of origin of cultivated plants”. The region houses a good number of endemic and rare plants of considerable botanical and economic value and considered the richest gene pool of many groups of crop plants that include fruits, vegetables, millets, legumes, fibres, oil seeds and spices and rice varieties. The onslaught of hybrid seeds developed by large corporations pushed much of the crops that were grown from seeds to oblivion. Hopefully, there are people, rather farmers, tirelessly working to collect those native specimens at a very personal level.

Padma Kanta Nath, a farmer from Kaliabor, in the Nagaon district of Assam, has worked to collect more 110 traditional rice varieties. The growing dependence on a dwindling number of crops worldwide has raised big concerns about global food security. This means revitalising the practice of seed saving is vital.

Akhil Gogoi, leader of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samitee (KMSS), a people’s movement committed for upholding the rights of farmers and to protect the local heritage and resources in Assam has come up with a repository of more than 200 indigenous varieties of rice in the Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park. “Very soon, he informed, KMSS would encourage farmers to cultivate those in their fields. “We need to preserve, collect, distribute and grow our traditional seed and our traditional food culture that is the collective learning of thousands of years.”

Protection of indigenous plants, fishes and crops is one of the key agenda of KMSS and the organization has started its initiative to preserve the resources and natural heritage of this land. The KMSS has come up with a sprawling three hectare Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park, the one of its kind in the region.  “The basic purpose of KMSS to open this Park is to conserve the local varieties of orchids, flowers, fruits, fish as well as our colorful ethnic culture and to spread knowledge about them,” Gogoi said.

The Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park inaugurated in 2015, in the Kaziranga landscape preserves more than 600 varieties of wild orchids, a medicinal plant garden, a fishery for indigenous fishes, an extensive forest of native trees, a garden for native flowers and fruits and a rice museum.

Some 150 kms away from the Biodiversity Park, Rahmat Ali Laskar, a school dropout from the little known Udali in Hojai district in Assam has collected some 1200 species and sub species of orchids and another 270 varieties of bamboo under one roof. Rahmat Ali aspires to use his collection for generation of data with practical and scientific utility to enhance the knowledge on orchids, particularly the threatened and high valued species and dissemination of information on orchids to bring awareness among people in protecting the jewels of nature.

Inaugurating the two-day National Media Workshop on Biodiversity, Dr. B. Meenakumari, Chairperson, NBA, stressed upon the need for the organisation to engage with the media in efforts to create awareness about biodiversity conservation. She reiterated that such an engagement is critical for enhancing strategic involvement of people in the conservation of biodiversity.

Dr. Meenakumari also said that involving children in this endeavour to create awareness on biodiversity conservation would be useful, and suggested that campaigns similar to anti-tobacco campaigns be replicated for biodiversity preservation.

The Hotspot

The jungles of Northeast India host some of the most unique species in the world—from the Great One Horned Rhino to the radiant Hoolock Gibbon; from the shy Pigmy Hog to the elusive White-winged Wood Duck; the majestic Golden Langur to the playful River Dophins and Mahseers of the Himalayan waters. From the marshes of Kaziranga to the broadleaved forests of Eaglenest in western Arunachal Pradesh there is still a staggering variety of wildlife including avifauna, waiting to be discovered. Sadly, many species are disappearing before they have even been identified.

A new family of leg-less amphibians—Caecilians–that lay hidden under the soil in the forests and farms of the northeastern region a few years back suggested the region has a ‘potentially rich but still hidden biodiversity in need of improved inventories.’ The new family of Caecilians, named Chiklidae, is genetically closer to African Caecilians rather than other legless amphibians found across peninsular India and added a clan to the nine families hitherto known to science. These amphibians can be found in almost all the northeastern states — Assam, Arunachal, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. Another stunning discovery was when wildlife researchers came upon an amazing range of biodiversity at 4,200 meters in the wetland area of Nagula, Tawang in Arunachal some years back. Researchers and forest officials carrying out a baseline survey of Nagula wetland complex found nearly 70 birds, three species of mammals and an amphibian. The mammals include two mountain pikas and Himalayan marmot (ground squirrel).

Image credit: Rehana Akhtar

Arunachal Pradesh is known as a treasure trove of nature, where new fish and butterfly species have been found in recent years. The GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Studies, Arunachal Pradesh branch recorded six new species of fish while one by Rajiv Gandhi University researchers. The Department of Zoology, Jawaharlal Nehru College, Pasighat recorded yet another discovery of a new ornamental fish—Microphis ignoratus—in a tributary of the Siang river. Presence of this freshwater pipe fish is a new record in the freshwater system of the Indian sub-continent.

In 2015, a new species of butterfly — Banded Tit (Hypolycaena narada) — was found in the low-lying evergreen forests of Changlang district. Arunachal boasts of some 500 species of butterflies. The Kaiser-e-Hind (Teinoplaspus imperialis) was photographed live for the first time in India by Dr Tage Kano in the woods of Ziro. In 2006, a rare Damsel Fly was also spotted in the Rima area. The Rhinocypha Damsel Fly was not in Indian checklist till then.  In 2012, a new species of frog under the family, Dicroglossidae, was discovered at Mawphlang near Shillong in Meghalaya. This was an addition to the 6,771 species of amphibians known worldwide.

In Manipur, two new orchids—Dendrobium Tamenglongense and Ione Kipgenii were discovered by a team from Centre for Orchid Gene Conservation of the Eastern Himalayan Region a few years back. The State has around 300 varieties of orchids. By the same time a new ginger species —Zingiber Kangleipakense, locally known as ‘Namra’ was also discovered in Manipur. It was in December 2017, scientists discovered two new species of ginger in easternmost districts, Ukhrul in Manipur and Tuensang in Nagaland, both bordering Myanmar. Hedychium chingmeianum, the species discovered in Tuensang district, is an epiphytic plant and grows on tall trees, while Caulokaempferia dinabandhuensis was found growing in rock crevices, boulders and humus rich soil in the Shirui Hills, at an elevation of 2,938 metres. Both the plants are from the family of Zingiberaceae, to which the commonly found ginger (Zingiber officinale) belongs.

The rescue of a highly endangered black soft –shelled turtle (Nilsonnia nigricans) from a dry pond at Baghjan tea estate in Dibrugarh in Assam also tells the region’s rich herpetofauna diversity. One of the most interesting organisms on earth, amphibians are diverse group of life-forms that include turtles and tortoises, frogs and toads, newts and salamanders and the limbless caecilians inhabiting a variety of warm, humid and forest environments.

More than 100 amphibians have been identified across the Northeast of which many are endemic to the region. Herpetofauna is a key component of our natural ecosystem. However, studies suggest many of the amphibians are facing extinction due to habitat destruction and fragmentation added by other factors like pollution and radiation, introduction of exotic species and large-scale illegal trading for human consumption.

In July, 2010 conservationists came across a Luna moth (Actias luna)—one of the World’s largest moths with a wing span of 75 mm to 105mm. The lime green giant moth, which belongs to the Saturniidae family, was found in the Abhoypur Reseve Forest in Sivasagar district of Assam bordering Nagaland. The known distribution range of the Luna moth is otherwise restricted to North America, Canada and Mexico. While Assam has a rich and fascinating insect life with wide-ranging variety of butterflies and moths, it still awaits scientific research and documentation.  A distinctive part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, the topography, geomorphology and the climatic conditions favored the growth of copious forests and varied life forms that comprise the biological diversity of the region.

Decreases in forest cover to impact climatic conditions and overall biodiversity

Native forests are crucial for conserving biodiversity. However, forests have showed a declining trend in some of India’s most important conservation and bio diverse areas. Native forests are pooled with exotic tree plantations such as eucalyptus, acacia, rubber, teak etc. which have very limited value for endangered biodiversity.

The India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2017 showed a decrease in forest cover in six biodiversity rich states of Northeast India that include a shrinkage of 630 sq km in the eastern Himalayas. Based on interpretation of satellite data from October-December 2015 the biennial assessments by the Report showed forest cover loss in the five states as—Mizoram (531 sq km), Nagaland (450 sq km), Arunachal Pradesh (190 sq km), Tripura (164 sq km) and Meghalaya (116 sq km). The reasons for the decrease are said to be shifting cultivation, rotational tree felling, diversion of forest land for developmental activities, submergence of forest cover, agriculture expansion, natural disasters and other biotic pressures. Northeast also have a diverse tree population but many of the species are now facing threat from the same factors. Shrinking forest cover, especially dense natural forests that account for the region’s famed wildlife and overall biodiversity, stands to raise pollution levels and seriously impact climatic conditions. More than anything else, a denuding forest cover has led to an alarming situation of conflict between humans and animals.

“At present, we deal with environment issues at a superficial level only,” Director General, IIMC, KG Suresh observed while delivering the keynote address in the national media workshop. “Deeper exploration by the media of issues such as man-animal conflict and exploitation of natural resources in the name of tourism, needs to be focused upon in any effort to generate awareness towards biodiversity conservation,” he said and added that biodiversity preservation should become an integral part of political agendas for the upcoming 2019 general elections.

Mubina Akhtar

Mubina Akhtar is an environmental journalist and wildlife activist. She can be reached at: newildflowers@gmail.com

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