“Where are house sparrows these days? They have just become extinct!”, is a common rhetoric we hear these days in the cities. Yet, it is impossible to scientifically assert that they are dwindling in numbers, since there has not been any systematic observation or data gathered about them.
The case of the ‘vanishing’ sparrows in cities like Bengaluru throws light on an important issue associated with biodiversity – the lack of data. Old-timers across the city are able to recall a time when sparrows were ubiquitous and also observe them diminish by the day. To add to this, there has been significant drop in the tree cover and the number of insects and birds in our neighbourhood. But, to objectively answer any questions like the change in the numbers of any species, the total number of species present and the effects of a vanishing species on an ecosystem, rigorous observations, documentation and research is a necessity. In the lack of these, it is simply impossible to infer or conclude that there has been a change, let alone the decline or disappearance of certain species. This drives us to reconsider the strategies of understanding biodiversity.
In areas that have been deemed protected, due to their ecological or cultural values, data required for such studies are mostly available, thanks to the studies conducted by research based organisations and forest departments. However, this extensive focus on protected areas has left a gaping hole in our knowledge about the biodiversity in our own backyard, and most other areas that lie outside these protected areas. There are scanty details on biodiversity in human dominated landscapes like cities and agricultural areas, though this biodiversity is what makes life possible to thrive. We depend on the biodiversity around us for our basic needs including medicines, food, fuel and fibres. Agriculture and farming also benefit from the presence of different organisms, which help in pest control and pollination.
The Edges that Matter
Interestingly, observations carried out by members of Gubbi Labs has reported more than a hundred species of birds, 20+ species of butterflies, 10+ species of frogs and a host of the several species belonging to other taxa in and around Gubbi, just one taluk belonging to Tumakuru district of Karnataka. These numbers are astounding, considering Gubbi is not in a biodiversity hotspot like the Western Ghats nor is it within a designated ‘protected area’. It is a part of the south-central Deccan plateau dominated by a semi-arid landscape and chequered with plantations of coconut, arecanut and banana, and vast open fields with paddy and a host of millets.
So what makes an area rich with diversity of species? A key aspect that seems to encourage the diversity is the presence of edges. Despite the nature of ‘monoculture’ in plantations and other crops, the edges of these plantations and farmlands are mostly dotted with trees and plants that either harbour or attract numerous taxa. The numerous tanks that dominate the landscape around Gubbi provide the much-needed access to water and support life. These factors have, in many ways, nurtured biodiversity in such human dominated landscapes.
The power of People
Unlike protected areas where dedicated Forest Departments are the sole agency responsible for conservation, human dominated landscapes like cities and agricultural lands depend entirely on their citizens to help conserve the rich biodiversity they offer. Enforcing this, in the current context, this seems to be a challenging task. “Even earthworm numbers are declining. But a farmer is more concerned about earning his daily wage and feeding his family, so he will turn to using more fertilizers and not really bother much about the earthworms” explains Mr. Ashok Hegde, a resident of Mavinagundi (near Jog) and retired businessman who is also an active supporter of research on biodiversity in the area.
What makes us shudder this responsibility? “The general public have other concerns like livelihood, their own future, their own culture and so on. Farmers for example, have a lot of problems, like financial condition, rains or lack of it, livelihood, etc. And biodiversity is really not on the top of their head”, points out Mr. Hegde. “Biodiversity is an ignored factor among the general public. It is only during a human – animal conflict that the common man would care about biodiversity. The academicians, on the other hand, look at addressing bigger problems like climate change or conservation. In my view, both of these efforts need to be complementary. For common people to participate and understand what’s happening in the academia, they have to, temporarily at least, suspend their immediate gains”, he adds.
Factors like pollution, loss of habitat, loss of food source, etc. affect biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes, mostly caused by an expanding human population resulting in clearing of land and destroying natural ecosystems. Some of our activities like use of chemical fertilizers, mono-cropping, indiscriminate fishing and hunting, etc. indirectly affect biodiversity. The onus is now on us, the ordinary people of the cities and villages to conserve and nurture the birds, insects, frogs, butterflies, flowers and everything around us that is beautiful. One way to imbibe that responsibility is by engaging people in such efforts and conducting a systematic assessment of biodiversity outside forests, in human dominated landscapes.
There is a ray of hope as nations across the world have now slowly begun to understand the importance of urban biodiversity and the benefits of its conservation. In 2008, the United Nations Environment Programme set up the Urban Environment Unit, kick-starting a global partnership on cities and biodiversity, with representatives from many nations participating in the conference. The primary objective of the unit was to conserve land efficiently, thus helping the biodiversity of the region thrive. Conservation, however, requires an understanding of the underlying biodiversity in a region and its role in the ecosystem. This can be achieved by extensively collecting data about the different organisms in our backyard, which makes studying biodiversity outside protected areas an important part of nation- building and development. As Mr. Hegde puts it, - “If one has to live with nature, then one has to understand it”.