Halting the loss of mountain biodiversityThe Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder of the consequences of habitat degradation.
The caterpillar fungus was once an abundant resource in the Himalaya. Over-harvesting and exploitation over the decades have pushed it to the brink of extinction. In the past 15 years, its population is estimated to have declined by 30 percent across the region due to over-harvesting. This has prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to put the caterpillar fungus in its red list of vulnerable species. The caterpillar fungus is just one example of how overexploitation is threatening mountain biodiversity. These extraction pressures are compounded by climate change, which is already impacting phenology, interspecies interactions, and causing range shifts, among other changes. Mountain biodiversity has never been under as much pressure as it is now.
Around 22 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by mountains, home to around 13 percent of the world’s population. Mountains are also the source of most major river systems crucial for the survival of human societies. Their ecosystems and rich biodiversity provide a range of goods and services to support the lives and livelihoods of millions living within the mountains and downstream. Half of the human population and many vulnerable communities, in particular, directly depend on this biodiversity for their sustenance, which shows the key role that biodiversity plays in shaping human wellbeing and contributing to sustainable development. Hence, there is no denying that biodiversity is the cornerstone of our survival.
Hotspots under threat
We understand biodiversity as the variety of life forms on earth, from microscopic organisms to the largest trees and mammals. This diversity varies globally and regionally and increases as we move from the poles towards the tropics. Mountains are rich in endemic plant and animal species and harbour one-third of global terrestrial biodiversity and nearly half the global biodiversity hotspots. Biodiversity is high in mountain regions because of their wide range of habitats, varied micro-climates and ecological conditions.
Mountain landscapes and biodiversity have been exploited, altered and modified by human beings for thousands of years. What has changed in our time is the rate of degradation and loss. The HKH Assessment notes that 70-80 percent of the Hindu Kush Himalaya’s original habitat has been lost, and that this may increase to 80-87 percent by 2100. Globally, biodiversity loss is occurring at an alarming rate. The Living Planet Report 2020 notes that population sizes of animals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have seen an alarming drop of 68 percent since 1970. This is also the case with mountain biodiversity. It is estimated that a quarter of the endemic species in the Indian Himalaya alone could go extinct by 2100. If this continues, we are putting the livelihood and wellbeing of current and future generations at great risk.
The decline stems from the fact that, in pursuit of economic development, humans are overexploiting biodiversity resources on an unsustainable scale. This is changing the natural landscape and destroying the habits of mountain plants and animals, putting mountain biodiversity in danger of extinction. The intrusion into wildlife habitats has also triggered human-wildlife conflicts and poaching, which are serious threats to biodiversity conservation. This accelerated decline in biodiversity and habitat destruction is also exposing us to the threats of zoonotic and other emerging diseases.
As we observe International Mountain Day, it is time we reflected on the consequences of our actions on mountain biodiversity. Here, it is important to highlight a few important ones that could significantly impact human societies. The first is a decline in food security. Mountains are a storehouse of rich and diverse genetic resources, including wild relatives of crops, which scientists have used for crop improvement. With deforestation and habitat destruction, these genetic resources are fast degrading, and opportunities for using them for crop improvement are becoming limited. This means that the genetic resources that we are dependent on are becoming increasingly limited and more vulnerable to disease, drought and climate change. Ultimately, there will be an overall reduction in food security.
A decline in biodiversity could lead to loss of livelihoods and increased poverty in the mountains. The lives and cultural values of indigenous and rural communities revolve around natural resources and mountain biodiversity is crucial to sustaining their livelihoods and traditional practices. With habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, these communities are likely to be displaced along with the erosion and loss of their traditions and cultures.
Halting the decline
The need of the hour is to halt a further decline in mountain biodiversity. Sound government policies, public education and people’s participation are some pragmatic strategies for achieving long-term conservation of mountain biodiversity. Mountain environments need to be well understood not only as being diverse and fragile, but also requiring different conservation approaches from the plains. These should form the basis of conservation interventions specific to the mountains, including anticipating and planning for climate change impacts on fragile mountain habitats and biodiversity.
Public education is another pragmatic strategy and must be pursued vigorously to stress the importance of biodiversity conservation. Similarly, people’s participation can support long-term conservation of mountain biodiversity. Conservation and management of natural resources are effective when communities are empowered as custodians. Millions of indigenous people living in the mountains and depending on biodiversity for subsistence could ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable management of mountain biodiversity.
We are witnessing a biodiversity decline that is unprecedented in human history, and we need to act now. The Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder of the consequences of habitat degradation and biodiversity loss and our unique interconnection with nature. It is important to remind ourselves of the threats to mountain biodiversity and take coordinated actions to halt this decline.