This article is written by Raslin Saluja from KIIT School of Law, Bhubaneswar. This article reviews the deteriorating state of wildlife habitat and what measures can be taken to preserve all of what is left.
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Imagine waking up to an entirely different world from what you have always known. The worldly home as you know it and have lived in for your entire life is gone. The natural surroundings around you cause you harm and you cannot escape. The paths are different and the navigation is difficult and there is no safe abode. This is what the wildlife species have been going through as their habitats continue to get destroyed.
Loss of habitat gives rise to the greatest threat to a variety of species and life on the planet. As we continue to exhaust and waste natural resources, the homes of many wildlife species get destroyed. The use of forests, lakes, water bodies, swamps, plains continue to dissipate and vanish as they are being used for human consumption. They are being taken over and invaded for agriculture, construction, and other purposes of industrial development. If we continue at this pace, important ecological habitats will continue to fade. It is identified as the main threat to 85% of all species described in the Red List of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (those species officially classified as “Threatened” and “Endangered”).
According to a major report by the conservation group World Wide Fund for Nature WWF, wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years. It further says that this decline is of catastrophic nature and is showing no signs of recovering or even slowing. The chief executive at the WWF pointed out that the wildlife is in for a free fall and nature is desperately sending alarming hints for us to act as the time runs out.
What are habitat loss and destruction?
The National Geographic encyclopedia defines habitat as a place where an organism makes its home. It contains all the environmental conditions required by an organism to sustain and survive. For an animal, that means everything it needs to find and gather food, select a mate, and successfully reproduce. Thus the major elements of it are shelter, water, food, and space. Suitable habitat is one that has all these components combined in the correct amount.
According to the definition, loss of habitat is also known as habitat destruction and it happens when the natural habitat/shelter/refuge of the wildlife is destroyed. It can be of three types. One could be removing the trees and plants surrounding the shelter that are home to the wildlife and completely changing the landscape. A typical example of it would be mass deforestation.
Another loss occurs when we disrupt the wildlife’s natural state of living by modifying their land and confusing them. This happens in the form of habitat fragmentation when we make tourist attraction places amidst the natural areas and the woodlands. It leads to environmental chaos and separates the animals from one another and their herd and their food resources. Further many such species depend on migration for survival and preservation which the fragmenting takes away.
The third type is the degradation of the habitat which occurs by causing pollution and changing the quality of air, water, soil, and land accumulating all the harmful substances and toxins. This makes the area unsuitable for living, ultimately displacing the species from their natural habitat or worse leaving them to die. These negative environmental changes are done by the invasive species, namely, the mankind who are not essentially part of their ecosystem, however, invade their space and disrupt their living conditions.
The reports showed a decline of about 68% in more than 20,000 populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish since 1970 which is clear evidence of the harm that human activity has caused. A media report highlights a survey by an intergovernmental panel of scientists in 2019 who concluded that one million species (500,000 animals and plants, and 500,000 insects) are threatened with extinction, some within decades.
The continuous expansion of agricultural land, harvesting of timber, wood for fuel, overgrazing, all of these combined lead to high land conversion rates. The net loss in a global forest area during the 1990s was about 94 million hectares (equivalent to 2.4% of total forests). It is estimated that in the 1990s, almost 70% of deforested areas were converted to agricultural land. In the past, only small areas of land were used but today farming is one of the major businesses that is run not by the local families or communities but by huge corporations who capitalize on it by mass production of foods. Thus more space and land are required to meet the needs.
Further building homes and using the forest and its material also lead to its damage. Using wood, lumber, firewood, paper, medicinal herbs, fungi, edibles all combined slowly contribute to degradation. And even today, around half the world’s original forests have vanished and continue to be removed at a rate 10x higher than any other possible level of regrowth. It constitutes a dramatic loss to have clearance of about 17 million hectares each year since tropical forests form at least half the Earth’s species. The swamps, marshes, and wetlands are filled for building purposes and damage the unique and diverse soil and the ecosystem they provide. Another reason for this as pointed out by a study states neglecting the niche habitat of species while setting the extent of protected areas. It claims that a limited area does not allow the wildlife to undergo evolutionary processes.
Similarly, human intervention has destroyed the marine and coastal regions. Increasing population, industrial development, urbanization, and tourism activities have all contributed to it. In 1994, it was estimated that 37% of the global population lived within 60 km of the coast. Poverty, consumption, and land-use patterns contribute to the degradation of marine habitats and to the destruction of the species that rely on them to survive.
As we go on building space for ourselves, we often overlook the ones we are destroying in the process. Destroying habitat is one of the major reasons for causing the extinction of various species and their endangerment. They are not able to adapt to such sudden and drastic changes. Their entire way of life gets disturbed as like us animals also take abode in their shelters during the time of bad weather or for hiding from predators. They are also in the habit of gathering and storing food for future times so when their shelters are destroyed they are left with no place to go.
The ecosystems are formed in a way that creates a balance between the species and the environment. A science journal that goes by the name “Nature” stated that wild species to survive need to adapt to their surroundings, but due to the loss of their niche habitat, their capacity to sustain and evolve gets threatened.
Thus when that is disrupted, it also affects their ability to reproduce and ultimately results in death. Further, invasion also alters the quality and the composition of land which prevents the growth of certain plants and trees due to lack of the necessary nutrients. Land that is used for industrial farming also creates a lot of wastage and runoff in turn polluting the surroundings. It requires using chemical fertilizers, pesticides to protect the plant; however, it gets absorbed into the land and water, flows into the water bodies poisoning it for animals who rely on it.
The underwater species also get affected when the underwater systems are disrupted due to artificial changing their natural flow. This creates an imbalance leaving various areas dry and patchy. Thus all these combined contribute to climate change and global warming. The fewer trees there will be carbon dioxide emission and Earth would get heated up quickly. All these side effects require our immediate attention to combat this habitat loss and destruction.
The Indian concern
India has vast biodiversity where even though it accounts for 2.4% of the world’s geographical area, it has only 11.4% of the world’s plants (about 48,000 species), and 7.5% of its animals (about 96,000 species), according to government data. Further, due to illegal poaching, about 25 animal species and 77 species of plants stand critically endangered, while 172 plants and 205 animals are already endangered. Similarly, the same report states the count for the vulnerable animals and plants are 385 and 138 respectively, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The forest clearing in a day for India amounts to 135 hectares used for various projects such as highways, mines, factories. We need to understand that pollution is a public health issue, it takes about 1.2 million lives annually. Similarly, environmental issues are livelihood issues. An overdeveloped coast of the sea roiling with plastic and grime harms the life underwater as well the fishermen whose livelihood depends on it, and the general public, who then consume the plastic stuffed fish.
- Certain new modeling evidence hints towards reversing the habitat loss by taking urgent measures of conservation and preservation. However, the first step would be to incorporate a change in our perspective to seeing nature as something temporary or as an optional need rather than to perceive it as a single asset with the potential in restoring the ecological balance of the world. Thus, even if we start now we can strive to save the planet.
- Preservation and conservation are the keys: To make use of it in a manner that reduces unnecessary consumption and frequent damage to the environment. However, this will also require the Government’s intervention and proper plans and policies in place to set forth criteria to legalize the extent to which an area can be used. We have to practice restraint in order to leave the places undisturbed and provide space for the wildlife to adapt. We also need to get the values of conservation in the mainstream by ways of education, media, planning, and development. It needs to be inculcated in all disciplines such as health, engineering, mining, construction, hydrology, etc. Special focus and point of concern need to surround the wildlife and environmental protection which have to be intrinsic in every aspect of planning.
- Consideration needs to be given to the alternatives to ecologically destructive projects. Proper inspection and investigation on the potential environmental, ecological, and social impacts of projects need to be carried out, as is a cost-benefit analysis. We need to think of alternative measures or substitutes of increased efficiency of the existing under-performing infrastructure and the demand management.
- We will have to make some tough choices and instill the significance of biodiversity in people. The extensive and holistic study would enable people to understand the necessity of preserving biodiversity. We need to impart knowledge on how each one could contribute to preserve the species and build their habitat.
- On the other hand, awareness campaigns need to be raised. Documentaries must be filmed depicting the process of habitat destruction and the long-term impact of human activities. Visual clips would help better in presenting the sad state of affairs and the wretched circumstances leading to environmental harm. This practice could invoke emotional responses and might trigger action on the part of people.
- Inclusive efforts need to be put forward for developing and rebuilding what has been lost. It has to involve all the participants of the society who are willing to extend their help in reviving the damage that has been done. The process has to be truly sustainable, and not undermine the future. It has to balance the immediate and the enduring. For the areas that are damaged beyond repair, funds can be collected and separate areas can be created for displacing the wildlife.
- Involvement of government and the legislature can be in the form of laws making the killing or capturing of endangered animals or birds a punishable offence. Further, they should be enforced with severe punishment. The forest authorities should also not allow the indiscriminate killing of wild birds and animals, which are in abundance.
- Regular surveys need to be conducted by the Department of Government in all the forests regarding the conservation of wildlife. They should be well informed and know the population of all the species of wild animals and birds so that they can be helped during the time of floods and famines. Special attention should be paid even by us also to the conservation of endangered species of wild animals and birds to prevent their extinction altogether.
- Other small but substantial changes involve recycling the technology-based devices since they contain a mineral mined from the African habitats, recycling newspapers, magazines, and paper-based material, flushing clean and not disposing of trash that can later travel into streams and affect the water animals, regular visits to zoos, sanctuaries, and nature preserves to help in the funding of those wildlife refuges, conserve water and use it mindfully.
It is high time we take due responsibility to take care of the damage we have done. It is the need of the hour and is necessary to recognize the importance of nature and other wildlife species. We all must come together and engage ourselves in protecting the endangered plants and animal species along with their natural habitat. Our main concern should be to preserve the habitats so that future generations of wildlife and even humans can enjoy them.
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