One world for all

Alisha Shinde
Saturday, 2 March 2019

This World Wildlife Day, let us all raise awareness of the extraordinary diversity of wildlife, and the crucial role that species play in the well-being of the entire ecosystem, appeals Alisha Shinde

Earth is most likely experiencing its sixth mass extinction. The planet has been through at least five such catastrophes before, but this is the first one in human history — and the first one with human fingerprints.

In the past few years, we have come across many newspaper articles and pictures on the internet which have talked about some species slowly disappearing from the face of our planet — not by magic but by the doings of people like you and me. 

A report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) offers scary details about this decline, which has already cut the planet’s vertebrate wildlife populations by an average of 60 per cent in just 40 years. The 2018 Living Planet Report reveals the troubling extent of this and other environmental crises around the world, but also sheds light on the ways we can still protect and rehabilitate what’s left.

March 3 is observed as World Wildlife Day by the United Nations. It is an opportunity to celebrate the beautiful flora and fauna, raise awareness about it and show how conservation can actually be beneficial for the people. And more than anything, World Wildlife Day reminds each and every one of us of the urgent help and attention that is needed to step up the fight against wildlife crime and human-induced reduction of amazing species. Both these are impacting the world. Because these animals and plants have great value — they contribute to the ecological, genetic, social, economic, scientific, educational and aesthetic aspects of human well-being and sustainable development.

For a fair amount of time, conservation projects have been limited to animals that are seen on the land. Projects like Asian Elephant Conservation project, Save The Tiger and Panda Conservation in China have made a remarkable difference in conserving the concerned species. But conservation is not limited to wildlife found on land in jungles alone. The animals that live in the waters and elsewhere, are hardly spoken about. Keeping this in mind, the theme of World Wildlife Day 2019 is: “Life Below Water: For people and planet.” It is an initiative to urge people to understand the diverse underwater world and protect it from manmade problems. 

Talking to a few people who have dedicated their lives to conserving animals of all types, we find out how each animal out there in our ecosystem is important.

The ocean covers more than 70 per cent of the surface of the earth, and about 97 per cent of the earth’s water is found in these oceans, which in turn houses millions of animals. Marine wildlife has sustained human civilisation and development for millennia —  they have been providing food and nourishment and material for handicraft and construction to us. When we think of marine life, we often visualise the coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reefs. But did you know that there happen to be a number of coral reefs and ornamental fishes in the Arabian Sea too? Marine Life of Mumbai (MLOM), a non-profit, entirely volunteer-driven and citizen-dependent initiative, aims to present the fascinating array of marine life on the big city’s shores. “We aim to take you on a journey of rediscovery of these forgotten natural treasures and to collectively think about what we stand to lose if these seaside spaces, in many ways the lifeline of the city’s existence through the ages, continue to be ignored in the face of the city’s bigger ideas,” says Pradip Patade, co-founder, MLOM. 

A watersports instructor and marine biology enthusiast, Patade, says that a few years ago, when he was volunteering at the Girgaon Chowpaty during the Ganesh Visarjan ceremony, a few people there were stung by Sting Rays. “The panic created by it really shook me. I realised that people were not at all aware about aquatic animals,” he says. 

That was when he got together like-minded people and MLOM was born. Patade says that for long, sharks and rays have been protected, probably because they have a certain commercial value. “But marine life is much more than that, there are several ornamental fishes, reefs and sponges that too need our attention,” he points out. 

Of course, a lot of research is being done on marine life, but it needs to be boosted, feels Patade. He points out that not only marine biologists but even local fisherman have a lot of knowledge about the sea dwellers. “Here, interest plays a big role. Just like the fishermen, if more and more people get interested in the vast world of oceans, we can surely conserve more of the fading out species,” he observes.

Underlining the need to care and protect our oceans, Patade says that even today, most people believe that they get oxygen only from the trees and plants on the earth. However, in reality, half of the world’s oxygen is produced via phytoplankton (microscopic organisms that live in watery environments, both salty and fresh) photosynthesis while the other half is produced via photosynthesis on land by trees, shrubs, grasses, and other plants. So, it is extremely important to protect the oceans and all the living beings inside them. 

MLOM aims to do its job using a number of on-field approaches to engage diverse audiences and support scientifically useful documentation, along with easy, open dissemination of the information that they gather, says Patade. 

Intimately familiar with the shores of South Mumbai, he has been documenting the biodiversity and threats to these shores for several years now. His long-term aim of bringing these little-known details to the notice of Mumbai’s citizens and decision-makers is what drives the Marine Life of Mumbai initiative.

Dr Kerry Kriger, founder, Save The Frog, a public charity, funded primarily by donations from nature enthusiasts, also feels that when it comes to wildlife conservation, all people think about are the animals found in jungles. “There have always been conversation activities for land animals but in the process, some smaller animals are never spoken about.” 

Kriger points out that like many other small species, frogs too are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. “I founded Save The Frogs in 2008 when I realised that there was no organisation that was dedicated exclusively to protecting amphibians and if we did not educate the public about the threats amphibians are facing and the ways to save frogs, they would continue to disappear,” he says.

The reason behind this lack of awareness is lack of basic education, Kriger feels and adds, “Unlike birds and other animals, frogs are seen only during the night or in the rainy season when people are usually indoors. And of course, like they say, pretty things are more talked about and not animals like frogs.” 

But even though people do not consider frogs to be pretty, what they fail to understand is the fact that frogs play an important role in the ecosystem and contribute to each layer of the system. “Frogs play an important role in the food chain throughout their lives. They are both predators and preys and are also an important source of food for a variety of animals, including birds, fish, monkeys and snakes,” he informs. 

Not many would know but tadpoles actually help keep our waters clean. “As bizarre as it may sound, it is true, because tadpoles feed on algae and in a sense filter the fresh waters,” Kriger points out. 

Since 2008, Save The Frogs staff and volunteers have held over thousands of educational events in several countries around the world, successfully built, restored and protected wetlands and helped enact local, state and federal legislations which in turn have inspired thousands to assist the amphibians present in their local communities.

Finally, conservation comes down to education. “Education is an amazing tool to create awareness amongst people about all the species,” says Kriger. Patade feels that be it animals in the jungles or in water, until people see their beauty and understand their importance, they will not step forward to protect the animals, voice their opinions and start conversation. 

Kriger believes this awareness of conservation should be taught to youngsters as well. “Visual elements like photographs quickly spark interest in such issues, because they are striking,” he says. 

Social media is also something that reaches out to a wider audience. “When people come out of their homes and see nature, they understand why they should be protecting it. Public involvement plays a vital role in conservation. When people become fully aware about their surroundings and feel belonged to it, it gives them a sense of responsibility,” says Patade.  

Both agree that tourism can play a vital role in creating awareness so that people at least know of the animals that live in certain areas. “But this needs to be done with responsibility,” says Patade. Talking out of experience, he says, “Even though tourism is a good way to push forth the cause of conservation, what happens is that people don’t follow rules and if they see one person not complying, two more follow the suit.”

He further adds that in coastal cities, people tend to look at the beaches as a medium of carrying out beautification projects but it is often done with very little research of the flora and fauna of that particular place, “In the end, a lot of damage is done to it. People need to understand that we are all responsible for these resources.” 

Patade concludes by saying that conservation does not only mean protecting a species from going extinct, it means safeguarding the future of the earth and the mankind, “At the end of the day, everything that walks on this planet is linked to each other, so why not take care and protect everything like it is our own?,” he asks.

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