Awhite-bellied heron called out to Sarala Khaling years ago from the pages of a journal. A student volunteer at the  Natural History Museum in Darjeeling, Khaling and her friends were arranging  old  journals, when she chanced upon something about the species. She learnt that the birds were seen along the Teesta River in the 1950s. She  would later learn that its history appeared in some of the locations she has always known in West Bengal. About five to six birds are regularly sighted in known sites of Namadapha Tiger Reserve. Her first bird, though, was in Bhutan.

The published literature says the species had a fairly wide distribution across West Bengal, Sikkim, the eastern Himalayan foothills in Bhutan, and northeast India up to the hills of Bangladesh, north Myanmar, and across west and central Myanmar. Current distribution seems to be limited to Assam—non-residential, perhaps—and Arunachal Pradesh. Recently, one was recorded in Kamlang Tiger Reserve by forest authorities.

The bird is usually found on the sand and gravel beds of small and large rivers. It stays in and adjacent to broad-leaf forest, and in lowlands and up to 1,500 metres. In India, sightings—apart from the six recorded—are so rare that it’s very difficult arrive at a population estimate.

 “One of the biggest conservation issues is the paucity of information on the species especially with regard to its distribution, biology and ecology. We don’t know enough as most of the potential habitats have not been surveyed,” says  Khaling. A native of Darjeeling, she is regional director of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE)-Eastern Himalayan-Northeast India Office.


Sarala Khaling. Photo: Tajum Yomcha

Based in Bengaluru, ATREE is a a global non-profit research institution, which generates interdisciplinary knowledge in biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, climate change mitigation, land and water resources, forests, and works to inform policy and actions from local to global levels.

Extinction, the report says, looms over 40 per cent of all amphibian species, 33 per cent of corals, and about 10 per cent of insects.

“Northeast India is undergoing rapid economic and developmental changes and we may be losing some of the sites without even knowing whether the species ever existed there,” she says.

In addition, the bird faces a host of threats: sand and gravel mining from river beds, tree cutting, overgrazing, invasive weeds, human settlements, land-use changes like converting forests into agricultural lands and pillaging of forests, and in all probability, poaching too. The fate of innumerable species is on the line due to human activity.

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ature is collapsing around us, and will erase us even as it gets wiped out by us. One million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades, according to an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report, released on May 6 in Paris. It details the state of biodiversity while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) deals with climate. The UN-backed, Bonn-based IPBES is funded by 132 member countries and its more-than 1,500-page report, which has 145 authors and synthesises about 15,000 scientific papers is the most exhaustive look so far at the state of biodiversity and directly links the loss of species to human activity.

The white-bellied heron. Photo: Tajum Yomcha

Extinction, the report says, looms over 40 per cent of all amphibian species, 33 per cent of corals, and about 10 per cent of insects.

“Biodiversity loss actually encompasses reduction of genetic diversity within a species, but ultimately means extinction of a species: the termination of a four-billion-year line of evolution. That is something in my view that shouldn’t be accepted casually or cavalierly,” says Thomas Lovejoy, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation.

The Amazon generates half of its own rainfall because of the presence of forest affecting evaporation and transpiration after rainfall. That requires 80 per cent of the Amazon to remain forest.

The loss of biodiversity tracks the increase in population, according to the report. Human population has doubled over the last fifty years. Global economy, trade and consumption have increased manifold. To feed nearly eight billion people, the earth and oceans and climate have been altered.

The summary pinpoints how humans are causing biodiversity loss:

First, we’re turning forests and grasslands into farms, human settlements, and cities. Landscape changes, the summary says, are so severe that about 75 per cent of the land is altered. At least 75 million acres of primary or recovering forest was destroyed in the last decade alone. Plants and animals have no home. But these trends have not been this severe or altogether avoided in areas held by indigenous people and local communities.

Lovejoy notes that the species/area curve relationship shows that 90 per cent reduction of a habitat will lead to loss of 50 per cent of the species.

“But ecosystems are often more sensitive because of processes like the hydrological cycle of the Amazon rainforest: the Amazon generates half of its own rainfall because of the presence of forest affecting evaporation and transpiration after rainfall. That requires 80 per cent of the Amazon to remain forest.”

Secondly, oceans have been overfished. The report says, “Sixty-six  per cent of ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 per cent of wetlands (area) has been lost.” About half of the corals are lost already.

Third, climate change and global warming, which is due to us, makes it too hot, or dry or wet for species to survive. Warming has already hit half the mammals and about one-fourth of birds so badly that their habitats are gone.

Our land is degrading, soils, the basis of human civilisations are eroding, water resources are declining, air is increasingly becoming unfit to breathe, and climate change will make all these problems worse.

Fourthly, pollution of land and water with toxins, heavy metals, and others has caused irreparable damage. According to the report, plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilisers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean “dead zones”, totalling more than 245,000 sq km—a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.

Fifth, invasive species are crowding out native plants and species, with each country bearing as much as 70 per cent load of invasive species.

The loss of biodiversity is directly related to human well-being. In the words of Robert Watson, a British chemist who served as the panel’s chairman, it undermines, “the foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

“We have created a mess for quite some time. Biodiversity—the vast assemblage of species, plants and animals, that exists in the form of ecological communities—sustains humanity in all possible ways economically and spiritually,” says Kamaljit Singh Bawa. Evolutionary ecologist, conservation biologist and distinguished professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, he is also the founder of ATREE.

“Our land is degrading, soils, the basis of human civilisations are eroding, water resources are declining, air is increasingly becoming unfit to breathe, and climate change will make all these problems worse.”

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iodiversity loss is not just the loss of charismatic megafauna like tigers. It also means the loss of worlds of fungi, bacteria, protists, and innumerable microorganisms. Eliminating one species of plant or an animal involves loss of other species which depend on it.

Lovejoy says it is “essentially the equivalent of eliminating a star causing the elimination of a constellation of species. The size of that constellation is highly variable, being large for a vertebrate but much smaller for a protist. Nobody will ever know for example what constellation was lost with the disappearance of the Dodo, Steller’s Seacow or the Passenger Pigeon. In the case of the latter, with original population in the billions, it would have had a dramatic effect.”

Each species, Lovejoy continues, “possesses a complex of traits that make up its life history. Any one of them could have a transformative effect on our understanding of the life sciences and render huge human benefits.”

But each species is also part of an ecosystem that collectively does things like purify water, provide soil fertility, contribute to the major planetary cycles of elements like nitrogen.

Loss of biodiversity affects our food supply by eliminating pollinators. Birds, bats and bees and insects help pollinate 75 per cent of all food crops and 90 per cent of flowering plants. When these decline and pollination doesn’t occur, we’re left with no new seeds.

“The carbon cycle is particularly important because it relates to CO2 in the atmosphere and the climate system—which of course is badly distorted. The planet is already 1.0 degree warmer as a consequence of the burning of ancient ecosystems (fossil fuels) and the destruction of modern ones.”

All parts of the world are witnessing impacts of warming on biodiversity: species are changing annual cycles and geographical distribution. Lovejoy says “climate-sensitive relationships among species,” does have devastating effect.

For example, even a subtle increase of temperature for a short period can cause coral animals to eject their symbiotic algae, a separation that quickly leads to coral bleaching and often to mortality and the collapse of the reef ecosystem.

Slightly warmer temperatures in the coniferous forests of western North America made it ideal for native bark beetles to proliferate and chew through trees from southern Alaska and northern British Columbia to southern Colorado, he relates in another example.

In an editorial written with Lee Hannah, senior scientist, climate change biology, The Moore Center for Science, Conservation International, Arlington, USA,  in Science Advances, they say, “Historical records of glacial-interglacial swings also help us understand that ecosystems do not move as a unit in response to climate change. Instead, individual species each move at their own rate, in their own directions, and in idiosyncratic responses to changes in climate including temperature. At a certain point, the divergence of responses leads ecosystems to literally disassemble and the species that survive reassemble in novel and unforeseeable biological configurations.”

The loss of biodiversity, the report points out, directly affects our food supply by eliminating pollinators. Birds, bats and bees and insects help pollinate 75 per cent of all food crops and 90 per cent of flowering plants. When these decline and pollination doesn’t occur, we’re left with no new seeds. Pesticides seem to be the main cause of decline and die-offs of pollinators.    

The unfolding catastrophe is numbing. Biodiversity loss, caused and reinforced by climate change, both abetted by us, the goal of lifting people out of poverty and provide food and livelihoods—all are not mutually exclusive, experts say.

More than twenty years ago, Bawa and his colleagues, including Siddappa Setty of ATREE, in a first of its kind in India started systematic monitoring of the giant Asian bee, Apis dorsata, in the Biligiri Rangaswamy Hills in Karnataka. The bee is the most important pollinator of wild and domesticated plants in India. Their monitoring suggests a significant decline in the abundance of bees.With the loss of biodiversity, richness of life is lost. The richness of life means, Bawa says, “Various types of plants, animals and micro-organisms (bacteria, viruses etc), the communities they form, and the services these biological communities or what we call ecosystems provide such as clean water and air, soil, pollinators and predators of insect pests, and spiritual and recreational values.”

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ulture decline is tied up with temporal and spiritual aspects of life in India. The government has made a concerted effort to restore their numbers. We don’t know how many other lesser, non-charismatic species like insects and plants we’re losing.

Khaling, meanwhile, applied for the National Geographic Society’s species recovery programme and got a project on surveying species and raising awareness. In Assam, she and her team worked to get communities to protect habitats where the white-bellied heron is known to occur along the Indo-Bhutan border. They are also working in Arunachal Pradesh as pristine and undisturbed habitats of the species are located there. One of the great threats, Khaling says, is “hydropower plants in many parts of Arunachal Pradesh.”

While Khaling heeded the call of the white-bellied heron, IPBES calls for a “transformative change.”

It’s not that the international community is unaware of the severity of the crisis. The report mentions the Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2020 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

On October 18-29, 2010, a Conference of Parties was held in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, and a document named “Aichi Biodiversity Targets,” for the period 2011-20 was produced. The new report points out that most of its targets will be missed. As for the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the world is going back on most of it.  Although the report doesn’t give any country-specific recommendations, it presents possible policy actions on protecting local environments, promoting sustainable local economies and restoring degraded areas.

It is not only possible but very much needed to simultaneously address poverty alleviation, biodiversity loss and climate change.

Since food is the most basic thing for survival, the report places great emphasis on what’s happening with food production and lays out possible pathways to feed people. There has been a 300 per cent increase in food crop production since 1970 and 23 per cent of reduced productivity due to land degradation. More than 75 per cent of food crops depend on pollinators. Marine and land ecosystems sequester 5.6 gigatonnes of annual carbon dioxide emissions—equivalent of 60 per cent of global fossil fuel emissions. Three per cent of forest land has been transformed into agriculture, with 33 per cent of the world’s land surface used for crop and livestock production.

The unfolding catastrophe is numbing. Biodiversity loss, caused and reinforced by climate change, both abetted by us, the goal of lifting people out of poverty and provide food and livelihoods—all are not mutually exclusive, experts say.

Bawa and Lovejoy are optimistic, their hope grounded in science.

“It is not only possible but very much needed to simultaneously address poverty alleviation, biodiversity loss and climate change,” says Bawa. There are inexpensive natural solutions grounded in biodiversity science to combat economic, social and environmental challenges.

“Degraded land can be restored following basic principles of biodiversity science with native species. Simultaneously, agrobiodiversity can be enhanced, raising farmer incomes. Land can be managed to reduce carbon emissions and sequester carbon through restoration of biodiversity rather than replanting with an arbitrary group of species that as often done by government and other agencies,” he adds.

India recently announced a “National Biodiversity Mission”. The goals include comprehensive documentation of the India’s biodiversity, assessment of its conservation status, development of professionals who can handle large data sets and monitor biodiversity, expanding knowledge ecosystem function that helps restoration efforts, improving options for agricultural production and livelihoods, among others.

ATREE is also working a massive restoration project, which is at the planning stage. Lovejoy’s hope springs from a fundamental constituent fact. “Its (nature’s) regenerative powers are spectacular: every organism is driven to make more individuals… if given half a chance species can recover,” Lovejoy says. He is heading to Egg Rock off the coast of Maine in July to see the Atlantic Puffin colony which has re-established itself there, thanks to the innovative approach of ornithologist Stephen Kress.

Focused and purposeful restoration of ecosystems helps us address the interlocking problems, says Lovejoy. 

Present trends in energy use and ecosystem destruction point to a temperature rise much higher than 1.5 degrees C. But, “1.5 degrees should be the absolute limit for a biologically manageable planet.” One pathway to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees C, Lovejoy says, is ecosystem restoration.

“So much biodiversity and so many ecosystems have been destroyed that the amount of carbon from that in the atmosphere is equal to that in remaining extant ecosystems,” he says. The proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from destroyed ecosystems, according to their calculations in the Science Advances article is estimated at 450 to 500G tonnes, which roughly equals the amount remaining in extant ecosystems.

“If we can restore 7.7 G tonnes of ecosystem services, we can reduce atmospheric loading by 1 ppm of CO2,” they point out in the article.