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Importance of Biodiversity

Abhijit Naik Mar 11, 2020
The very existence of life on planet Earth is in severe crisis, and lack of awareness about the importance of biodiversity is one of the key problems which needs to be looked into. Wondering why you should contribute your bit towards biodiversity conservation? Here are some good enough reasons for you to do so!
Most of us must be oblivious of this fact, but 'biodiversity' is as important to humans as it is to the other lifeforms on the planet. In a bid to spread awareness about the importance of biodiversity, the United Nations General Assembly had declared 2010 as the 'International Year of Biodiversity'.
On 22nd December, 2010, the UN General Assembly passed a new resolution (65/161) declaring the 2011-2020 decade as the 'United Nations Decade on Biodiversity'.
While the UN is trying its best to encourage biodiversity conservation, humans seem to be least concerned about its importance or the need to conserve it; and the rampant exploitation of natural resources for our selfish gains makes this very fact obvious.
Increasing population has resulted in rapid growth in consumption of resources, which, in turn, has started to take its toll on the biodiversity of our planet.
Over the last few decades, 'biodiversity conservation' has become one of the top priority environmental issues for the United Nations, and that has prompted them to come up with measures like the 'International Year of Biodiversity' and 'United Nations Decade on Biodiversity' to save the environment.
The first step towards environment protection is to create awareness about the role it has to play in our lives - directly or indirectly, and that is the need of the hour considering that we humans have a tendency to wake up from our deep slumber only when the 'threat' is right at our doorstep.

Why is Biodiversity Important?

In biology, 'biological diversity' or 'biodiversity' is defined as the "totality of genes, species and ecosystems of a region". Simply put, it is the variation of lifeforms in a given ecosystem which includes all the living organisms found there.
This is a broad definition, as the term 'ecosystem' may refer to any given area - including the woodlands in your neighborhood, different biomes of the world or the entire Earth as a whole. The biodiversity of our planet is made up of several million species of flora and fauna.
The distribution of these species however, is quite uneven - with major concentrations being seen in the tropics and least at the poles (latitudinal gradient).

Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon rainforest alone is home to more than a million species of plants and animals. Also known as the Amazon jungle or Amazonia, this rainforest spans across an area of 1.4 billion acres constituting half of the total tropical forests left on the planet.
Other than the thousands of insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and fish species that have been identified (and scores of which are yet to be identified), this rainforest is also home to tens of thousands of plant species.
In 2001, a study showed that an area of 64 acres of the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador supported more than a thousand different species of plants.
Though we have come a long way from the crude caves in deep forests to live in sky scrapers of the modern-day concrete jungles, we can't really boast of being a step ahead in competing with nature.
We have made some serious alterations in our natural surroundings so as to suit our basic requirements, and quite a few of these alterations have backfired on us in a drastic manner. From flash floods to landslides, we have had quite a few lessons to learn.
It's a totally different story that we are more comfortable in turning a blind eye towards them, something which we won't be able to do for a long time. Those who ask what difference would the extinction of a few species make to our lives, don't quite understand the importance of biodiversity in an ecosystem.
The fact is that all the species of flora and fauna - and that includes humans as well, are dependent on each other. Such is the dependence that the extinction of a single species can trigger a domino effect on various other species which are directly or indirectly dependent on the one that is 'lost'.
We need to understand that the entire ecosystem is a complex web with scores of interwoven food chains, and damage to any link in these food chains can snowball into a crisis which can spell trouble for numerous species on the Earth - including us humans.
The predator-prey relationship is crucial link in the ecosystem, such that the decline in population of either the predator or the prey can bring about a drastic change in the overall functioning of the ecosystem.
The tiger (Panthera tigris), which happens to be one of the four big cats found in the Indian subcontinent, is on the brink of extinction with only around 2000-3000 remaining in the wild.
The tiger shares a predator-prey relationship with the spotted deer or chital (Axis axis), and this relationship is a perfect example of how things would unfold some years down the lane - if one of these species become extinct.

Scenario 1

If apex predators become extinct...

The apex predator of a particular ecosystem plays a crucial role in smooth functioning of that ecosystem by keeping a check on the population of herbivores.
In this case, the tiger happens to be the apex predator, and it is but obvious that the decline in tiger population and its eventual extinction will bring about a surge in the herbivore population with no predator to keep a check on it.
The rise in herbivore population will put tremendous pressure on vegetation, and overgrazing by these animals would deplete the green cover without giving it any time to rejuvenate.
How will it affect humans - With the distance between agricultural lands and forests fast reducing, these herbivores will start encroaching on farmlands when the available food resources in the wild get exhausted.
The cases of human-animal conflict are not rare today, and they will only increase in a scenario wherein there are no predators to keep a check on herbivore population.

Scenario 2

If herbivores become extinct...

Even though it is not a threatened species, the spotted deer (chital) only survives in large numbers in protected areas of the subcontinent as of today (Schedule III of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.)
Substantial decline in the spotted deer population, and local extinction in many places, has brought their population density below the ecological carrying capacity. If the population of spotted deer, and other herbivores with whom the tiger shares the predator-prey relationship, comes down, the tiger will be left with no food to eat in its natural habitat.
How will it affect humans - The conflict area again will be rapidly-reducing region in between human settlements and forests.
If the tiger runs out of its food resources in the wild, the next best option will be livestock which will be readily available in human settlements along the periphery of the forests. When this happens, the tiger and humans will be pitted against each other - and end result will be casualties on both sides.
Note: This is a general representation of how the extinction of species affects the ecosystem. The tiger represents the apex predators, while the spotted deer (chital) represents the herbivore population in an ecosystem. There also exist several other species in a food web, but they have been excluded to make it easier for you to understand.
The absence of vegetation due to overgrazing would also affect us indirectly as it would hamper the precipitation pattern, thus resulting in desertification of the said region over the course of time. It won't just end there though.
Human encroachment of the natural habitat of animals is resulting is loss of habitat for them, and that - along with scarcity of food, is forcing them to encroach upon human settlements. The instances of direct conflicts between man and animals will only increase with time, and these conflicts will only create more problems for both the species.
Even insects are important! The number of insects inhabiting our planet far exceeds the million mark. In fact, it is estimated that somewhere between six to ten million insects are found on the planet.
We can't afford to lose these insects considering that most of them have an important role to play in activities like plant pollination. In absence of insects, plants will have to rely on wind and other animals to facilitate the process of reproduction, and that will hamper the entire process to a great extent.
And so are microscopic organisms!! When we talk about biodiversity importance, even those organisms which are not visible to naked eye cannot be ignored. These microscopic species have a crucial role to play in smooth functioning of an ecosystem.
A basic requirement for plant growth, nitrogen is produced by nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil. If nitrogen-fixing bacteria become extinct, plants will have no nitrogen to facilitate growth - and that won't just affect the plants in wild but will also result in the devastation of agricultural sector.

Extinction of Species

It may come as a surprise, but 99 percent of all the species of plants and animals to have ever existed on the planet have become extinct today. This large-scale species extinction is largely attributed to the five mass extinctions that the planet has witnessed since it came into existence.
The last of these mass extinctions, the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, occurred 65 million years ago; and is believed to have triggered the extinction of one of the most amazing species found on the planet - the dinosaurs.
Unlike these five mass extinctions, the ongoing extinction crisis - which many scientists call the sixth mass extinction, is directly related to the increase in human activities.
The extinction of species has become a prominent occurrence of late - an observation which is very well backed by the fact that the current extinction rates (normal) are 100-1000 times severe than the background extinction rates.
(Background extinction rate is the rate at which species were becoming extinct before humans stepped in as one of the major trigger factors for extinction of species.)
While a significant number of animals and plants have already been wiped off, several species are fighting for their very existence. It is estimated that a quarter of plants and animal species on the planet have already been brought to the verge of extinction as a result of human exploitation.
We are no doubt the most intelligent species on the planet, but we are also the most dependent of them all. We can't produce our own energy, and thus have to depend on plants (and animals which feed on these plants) which are able to produce their own food for it.
Our dependence doesn't just end there, we are also dependent on them for oxygen which is a basic necessity for our survival. With this level of dependence, we simply can't afford to get rid of trees - which are no short of life savers for us.

Biodiversity Hotspots

In 1998, British environmentalist Norman Myers introduced the world to ten tropical forests which were characterized by high levels of endemism and threatened by habitat loss as a result of human activities like commercial agriculture and logging.
Meyers called them the biodiversity hotspots, and added that "a region must meet two strict criteria: it must contain at least 0.5 percent or 1,500 species of vascular plants as endemics, and it has to have lost at least 70 percent of its primary vegetation" to qualify as a hotspot.
Since then, as many as 34 hotspots have been identified across the world, out of which 25 qualify the Meyer's definition for 'biodiversity hotspot'.

Western Ghats

The Western Ghats, a tropical forest covered mountain range along the western coast of India, is considered to be one of the ten hottest biodiversity hotspots of the world. The region is home to somewhere around 5000 species of flowering plants, alongside 139 species of mammals, 508 birds and 179 amphibians to boast of.
As many as 325 globally threatened species are found in the Western Ghats - and the adjoining region in Sri Lanka. Around 80 percent of the 179 species of amphibians found here are endemic to this region. High levels of endemism are also seen in reptiles, birds and mammalian species inhabiting the dense forests of this region.
These regions with high levels of biological diversity, typically characterized with high incidence of endemism and looming threat from humans, are home to somewhere around 60 percent of the total plants and animal species of the world.
It is a well-known fact that the endemic species are relatively more vulnerable to extinction as their population is restricted to a particular region. The biodiversity hotspots, identified by Meyer's definition, harbor thousands of such endemic species.
However, very little is done to save them - mainly because the cost incurred in the implementation of conservation measures in these complex ecosystems is quite high.
As the nonprofit environmental organization - Conservation International (CI) puts it, it may be difficult to save the species inhabiting these biodiversity hotspots, but by no means is it optional.
Biological diversity is undoubtedly one of the most important component of an ecosystem, and the onus is on us - the most intelligent of them all, to understand the importance of conserving it to save our planet.
A rubber band can stretch only till a point, after which it snaps and we end up hurting our own hands. The behavior of nature is not much different; the more we try to stretch it, the more severe will be its impact on our lives when it eventually snaps.