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Our dwindling natural wealth

If business continues as usual, we are looking at around 45% loss of natural habitats and species by 2050

There could be around 45% loss of natural habitats and species by 2050. Photo: Ananda Banerjee
There could be around 45% loss of natural habitats and species by 2050. Photo: Ananda Banerjee

March was for the natural world. Four days and an hour in the month were earmarked to raise environmental awareness: World Wildlife Day (3 March), World Sparrow Day (20th), International Day of Forests (21st), World Water Day (22nd) and Earth Hour (24th).

This month also saw the Olive Ridley turtles returning to Mumbai’s Versova beach after 20 years, and the death of Sudan, said to be the last captive male northern white rhinoceros in Kenya. The same week, a series of reports were presented by scientists and experts working to save life forms on Earth, collectively termed biodiversity.

In Medellin, Colombia, experts came together for the sixth Plenary (17-24 March) of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which advises policymakers with scientific assessments on the state of the planet’s biodiversity. And the news was grim.

Four regional assessment reports (from Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe and Central Asia) raised the alarm: “Biodiversity—the essential variety of life forms on Earth—continues to decline in every region of the world, significantly reducing nature’s capacity to contribute to people’s well-being." And the fifth report, on “World Land Degradation And Restoration Assessment", co-authored by Mahesh Sankaran from the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, revealed, “Land degradation caused by human activities is undermining the well-being of two-fifths of humanity, driving species extinctions and intensifying climate change."

Data emerging from Asia suggests that there will be no exploitable fish stocks in the region by 2048 if current fishing practices continue, and that up to 90% of corals are expected to suffer severe degradation by 2050, even under conservative climate change scenarios. And if business continues as usual, we are looking at around 45% loss of natural habitats and species by 2050.

Even protected ecological landscapes are not safe. To cite an example, three (out of seven) UN natural World Heritage sites in India are threatened by harmful industrial activities, according to the wildlife conservation non-governmental organization WWF. These are the Western Ghats, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary and Sunderbans National Park. Moreover, many protected areas are facing the threat of denotification to meet industrial needs.

“Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment. We cannot afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation—they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together. The best available evidence, gathered by the world’s leading experts, points to a single conclusion: we must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature—or risk not only the future we want but even the lives we currently lead. Fortunately, the evidence also shows that we know how to protect and partially restore our vital natural assets," said Robert Watson, IPBES chair.

The 129 member countries of the IPBES approved these assessment reports in the plenary—the reports took three years to compile and involved more than 550 experts from over 100 countries. The experts reviewed over 10,000 research papers; the process is said to have cost about $5 million (around Rs32 crore). The assessments also suggest how policies can mitigate or even reverse the situation. The complete reports (with all the data) will be published later this year.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

Ananda Banerjee tweets from @protectwildlife

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