Climate & Environment

Experts call for actions as Nepal’s biodiversity faces imminent threats

- CHANDAN KUMAR MANDAL, Kathmandu

May 26, 2019-

A landmark United Nations report, released earlier this month, paints a bleak picture for the world’s biodiversity. Up to a million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades.

The most comprehensive report yet on the state of global ecosystems from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, compiled by leading scientists from 50 countries over the past three years, says that the earth’s natural life-support systems have been drastically weakened, which is certain to have severe consequences for all living beings.

According to Uttam Babu Shrestha, one of the authors of the UN report, Nepal’s biodiversity too faces threats due to various drivers--climate change, invasive species, pollution, land use change, and direct extraction.

“The extent and prevalence of these drivers are incredibly high in Nepal. All these will have an impact on our biodiversity. Additionally, the extraction of several species of medicinal plants and poaching of animals have negatively affected our flora and fauna,” Shrestha told the Post in an email interview. “But we have a limited capacity not only to deal with them but also to understand their impacts on our biodiversity.”

Some studies have ranked Nepal 25th in the world in terms of biodiversity wealth. With 30,164 known species--17,097 animals and 13,067 plant species, pressure has been growing on Nepal’s biodiversity. Due to its unique topography, Nepal has 18 different ecosystems, where a wide variety of flora and fauna is present. These resources have been sources of livelihood for a large population in the country, and a reliable source for the country’s gross domestic product as well.

Nepal’s sixth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which the country is a party to, has concluded that the forest ecosystem is at a high risk due to habitat loss and deforestation, human-wildlife conflict, invasion by alien species, and forest fire. Likewise, protected areas have come under pressure mainly due to high livestock grazing intensity, according to the report.

Rangelands, wetlands, agrobiodiversity and mountain biodiversity are feeling the pressure due to manmade activities like overgrazing, overfishing, use of pesticides, unplanned and unregulated rural roads, and over-exploitation of natural resources.

“This report is a wake-up call for all of us but it is more critical for Nepal because our understanding of different dimensions of biodiversity and ecosystems is poor compared to developed nations,” said Shrestha. “We are yet to know how and to what extent these drivers will impact our biodiversity.”

Nepal’s biodiversity coming under threat has been evident in researches conducted so far. According to the Status of Nepal’s Mammals, which was published based on the findings of the IUCN Regional Red List Series with an objective to provide comprehensive and up-to-date accounts of 212 mammal species recorded in Nepal, 49 were nationally threatened, 9 critically endangered, 26 endangered, 14 vulnerable, one as regionally extinct, and 7 were near threatened.

The study also found that the most threatened group includes the Ungulates such as Barasingha (Swamp deer), Hog deer and Himalayan musk deer as well as the Gangetic dolphin, greater one-horned rhino and Hispid hare.

Laxman Prasad Poudyal, an ecologist formerly with the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation and currently the chief conservation officer at Shuklaphanta National Park, told the Post that the list of these animals can vary as per their population and vulnerability.

“A particular species can be locally threatened but not globally. For example, Blackbuck [Antilope cervicapra] is threatened here as it is found only in Bardiya, but it is not threatened in India,” added Poudyal, who co-authored the Status of Nepal’s Mammals published in 2018.

The Official Checklist of Birds of Nepal (2018) has recorded 886 bird species--43 species are globally threatened and 167 nationally threatened bird species in Nepal, which is roughly about 9.5 percent of the global share of bird species. According to the study, out of the globally threatened species, 9 are critically endangered, 26 are vulnerable, and 8 endangered; whereas nationally threatened species have been categorised into 67 (40%) as critically endangered, 38 (23%) as endangered and 62 (37%) as vulnerable.

Nepal’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and other extreme events, uncontrolled pollution, fragmentation of habitats and other adverse activities make it more prone to loss of biodiversity in future, experts fear.

“For example, Nepal is considered one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. We have the most polluted air and the country is witnessing unprecedented land use change. Due to the diverse climatic conditions, invasive and alien species can easily establish and thrive here,” said Shrestha. “Therefore, my fear is we might lose species before we know them. We need conservation, but more importantly, we need to know what should be conserved.”

Nepal started conserving its biodiversity in the early 1970s by setting up protected areas. The large-scale migration to the plains led to massive deforestation, illegal trade and poaching of wild animals, which surged during the decade-long armed conflict, posing a challenge for the country’s conservation efforts. However, with combined efforts from authorities and communities, Nepal’s green cover recovered and poaching of animals has come under control.

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1973 has enlisted 27 mammals, nine birds and three reptiles as protected animals that require special protection from external threats.

“That doesn’t mean poaching of other unlisted animals is allowed,” said Poudyal. “The conservation authorities need to revise the list.”

“The animals are put on the protected list considering the scale of vulnerability like risk of poaching and their limited numbers. For example, the leopard, whose population is on the rise, cannot be as threatened as the tiger. The list is already four decades old now and requires changes.”

A group of experts have already submitted their recommendations regarding revising the list of animals as protected.

Besides, for protecting other threatened Nepali species, there are already species of flora and fauna enlisted in all three appendices of the CITES, which groups species according to how threatened they are by international trade.

Now, for Nepal, the country marching towards massive infrastructure developments like highways, railroads, hydropower dams, airports, striking a fine balance between its development models and conservation commitment is a challenge.

A recent Asian Development Bank rapid study that assessed the potential impacts of various hydropower and irrigation dams built along the rivers concluded that these infrastructure will adversely affect both the indigenous as well as migratory fish species in the rivers.

“Our country leaders have a big appetite for prosperity, and in their understanding, big infrastructure brings prosperity. One of the key messages of the IPBES report is we can no longer do business as usual in the name of economic growth, which has long-lasting and widespread consequences for nature,” said Shrestha, who is currently associated with the University of Southern Queensland, Australia as a research fellow.

Similar studies exploring the nexus between development and conservation have warned that the increasing number of hydropower and other development projects along the water resources have disturbed the environmental flow of rivers.

According to water scientists, hydropower and irrigation projects hold large volumes of water at one place and limit the natural flow of rivers, which is essential for healthy aquatic ecosystems.

“As a latecomer in economic development, Nepal should learn from the mistakes of the developed nations and should not repeat the same mistake of degrading nature in the name of development and prosperity. We have to find ecologically sustainable and socially just pathways for our development,” said Shrestha. “In fact, some of the indigenous and local practices of conserving nature and sustaining livelihoods in Nepal are sustainable. We should also learn from them. The ongoing development discourse in Nepal is old fashioned and outdated. We need to embrace the recent developmental discourse. The aim of development should focus on well-being than prosperity.”

As part of Nepal’s commitment to Convention on Biological Diversity for protection of its biodiversity, Nepal has adopted National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2014-2020. For meeting its international commitments, Nepal’s biodiversity action plan has developed 81 national targets and various corresponding indicators.

By 2020, conservation plans for 20 additional priority species--10 animals and 10 plants--will be developed and implemented for their conservation and management in different protected parks of the country by government and conservation partners. The concerned stakeholders should also prepare and update the status of nationally threatened, rare and endangered species of flora and fauna by 2020 as one of the targets.

“It is also essential to measure the effectiveness of our conservation actions. Nepal urgently needs a credible assessment of our biodiversity,” Shrestha told the Post. “The government and our donors should provide support to conducting a national level assessment of biodiversity.

Published: 28-05-2019 06:00

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