Biodiversity and Urban World: Understanding the Relationship

Text & photos by Yogini Patil



The term biological diversity or biodiversity describes the extensive variety of life found on our planet. The term was first coined in the year 1985 by Walter Rosen of the National Research Council. The mega diversity of species of plants, animals, microorganisms, humans, and the various environments such as forests, deserts, grasslands, coral reefs, cities, etc., are all elements of Earth’s biodiversity. Each species of our planet’s biodiversity, no matter how big or small, plays a very important role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem and thereby keeping the Earth, and us, alive. Earth’s biological diversity today, is a product of over 3.5 billion years of evolution [1].


Why Is Biodiversity Important?

It is an understatement to say biodiversity is important for humanity. Healthy biodiversity is a must for the stability and sustainability of the planet. From something as apparent as providing us with the wealth of the biological resources that we rely on to something as crucial yet obscure as being a part of the solution to the climate change crisis, a solid biodiversity plays a vital role.

Irrespective of whether one resides in a top metropolitan city anywhere on the globe or a nondescript village in the remotest pocket of India, the dependency on the ecosystem for the requirement of food, fresh water, medicine, pollination, soil fertility and more, cannot be argued. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, FAO 2011 report, 45% of the world’s population depends on agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting for their livelihood [2]. In India, the ecosystem and its services are subsistent means of livelihood for an estimated 70% of the country’s population [3].



The interdependency of all the elements of the biodiversity and what each species offers to each other ensures natural sustainability for all life forms on Earth. Destroying this natural balance can cost us way more than what one may think! It is a different story that nature can and will, always restore the balance, but how heavy the price will be and who will bear the brunt is simply an unthinkable thought.

Take, for example, the bees. The relationship between plants, bees, and humans is a crucial one. The honey bees are the world’s most important pollinator, followed by other insects, birds, and bats. Globally, a vast variety of wild plants and crops depend on these pollinators. They are one of the primary reasons that we find our diet to be nutritionally diverse and healthy. Among other threats and challenges faced by the bees, the most serious one is a steady decline in the bee population, mostly due to direct and indirect human activities.

As the CNN report (dated May 2000) [4] states, “One-third of all our food -- fruits and vegetables -- would not exist without pollinators visiting flowers. But honeybees, the primary species that fertilizes food-producing plants, have suffered dramatic declines in recent years, mostly from afflictions introduced by humans.”

Farming practices such as large monoculture cropping, use of harmful pesticides, environmental pollution, environmental degradation, and many other human-induced factors are also some of the reasons for their decimation. Land development is the single greatest cause for damage and destruction of the natural ecosystem, and not just for bees but also for other species. Bees’ is just one of the many examples that we can look at to get an idea of the issue at hand and the grave need to assess certain actions and their impacts on the environment.

In today’s growing world many would argue that focus should be given to development, poverty and other pressing matters, which are equally, perhaps more important, however, what’s the point of development if this planet that we call our home is not livable, not just for the present generation but even for the generations to come?

Biodiversity of India

The diverse climatic conditions and varied physical features found across the length and breadth of India support a variety of ecosystems. These thriving forests, deserts, wetlands, grasslands, coastal and marine ecosystems are home to as many as 45000 plant species and 91000 species of animals [5].

With a landmass of about 2.4% of the world’s land area, India contributes to around 7-8% of the world’s recorded species [5], making it one of the stunning megadiverse countries in the world. Simply put, the number of life forms found in India is much higher than that of other countries.

The Himalayas, the Western Ghats, the Northeast, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India are four of the 34 globally identified biodiversity hotspots.




Threats Faced By Our Biodiversity

The Living Planet Report, released by WWF in 2018, has given the world a daunting, but helpful insight on the changing biodiversity of the planet. It is terrifying because this reality check revealed a massive, 60% decline in the global Living Planet Index (LPI, is an indicator of the state of the planet’s biodiversity) in just under the last 50 years [6]. At the same time, this information is helpful, because knowledge is the first step to change. A stronger, healthier biodiversity can not only stop but also help reverse the damage.

In the recent past years, rainforests being wiped off, glaciers melting, incessant forest fires, frequent flash floods, and many such events have been noticed across the globe. Some of the reasons, according to the report, for the decline of the studied species are listed below. Apart from the below mentioned, there are other groups/population/species for which the data is not available, meaning, the threats to global diversity are not limited to these:




In India alone, multiple instances indicate the loss of biodiversity in various regions of the country. These changes are directly or indirectly causing an increase in natural disasters, changes in weather patterns and numerous other dreadful changes across the country. Here are a few examples, out of the many, that are taking place in the different parts of India, even as you read this:

- 40% of ‘sacred groves’, which are patches of forests in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra, are highly threatened while 20% of it is already destroyed. Studies reveal some of the reasons for disturbance to the grove biodiversity across India to be deforestation, land conversion, fragmentation, encroachment, change in species composition and human developmental activities in the area [7][8].




- According to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) data, between the years 2015-2018, the human-elephant conflict has caused 1713 human deaths and 373 elephant deaths [9]




While there’s no doubt that the blue planet is in danger, there still is some respite. Fortunately, the numbers are not all bad for wildlife, and there’s some good news too. Concerted efforts in several parts of the world are yielding some great results, of course, there still is a long way to go:

- In Assam, a community-based conservation initiative has managed to save a species of scavenger birds – the Greater Adjutant storks, from extinction. These carrion eater storks are ‘endangered’ in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species [10]. An interesting fact to notice here is that this success story took shape in urban and suburban localities of Guwahati.

- Another rare species, the Black Softshell Turtle that went extinct in the wild, were bred and reintroduced in the wild, in Guwahati city, Assam. This is another example of a conservation success story in an urban space.

- In 2018, Nepal announced that its conservation efforts have led to the tiger population being nearly doubled in comparison with the numbers in 2009 [11].

An important aspect of conservation, which is kind of sidelined and overshadowed by other major issues and measures of conservation is the ‘urban biodiversity’. Even though it is not talked much, but, given the rise of urbanization in today’s world, it is important that we understand this term. Whether one admits it or not, we are living in times where, in a typical urban settlement, it is easier to find a greater number of people who can identify commercial brands easily than the names of plants, flowers, butterflies or birds around them.

While it is debated amongst the conservation communities, but at the same time, many ecologists and conservationists believe that urban biodiversity plays a major part in maintaining a healthier environment, and thereby, strengthening the sustainability of the web of life, especially in the urban spaces.

What Is Urban Biodiversity?

Imagine a day where you wake up one morning and open the windows to hear no chirping of birds. Or that you are taking a walk in the nearby park one fine Sunday, and notice no insects, bugs, honeybees or even butterflies hovering on the flowers. Or worst still, the entire city is devoid of plants or trees. You cannot imagine this, right? These events are an everyday occurrence, which is probably why we seldom notice or acknowledge them. And yet, there’s no way one can miss their absence even for a single day. This is exactly what urban biodiversity, in simple words means - a coexistence of humans and their non-human neighbours in an urban settlement.

According to the UN Report, 55% of the world population resides in urban areas today. Further, this number is expected to increase to 68% by 2050 [12]. This means, as more and more population move to the urban areas or more areas are urbanized, it will become necessary to make them livable for the health of not just the humans but also that of the planet’s.

The Guwahati Example


Nestled in the Eastern Himalayan region, the state of Assam is located in one of the four biodiversity hot spot regions in the country and the transitional zone between Indo-Malayan and Indo-Chinese biographical regions. Numerous favourable and conducive climatic and topographic factors give way to expansive stretches of evergreen, semi-evergreen, deciduous, and savannah forests. The presence of Brahmaputra unfolds massive swamps, wetlands, inland lakes, and marshes, and together these ecosystems create ideal conditions for a diverse species of mammals, butterflies, primates, reptiles, birds, etc.

Resembling a shape of a bowl with as many as eighteen hills on its edges, the Guwahati city is bordered by the forests of Meghalaya in the south-west. Flowing through the upper parts of the city, river Brahmaputra here is also home to Umananda Island – the smallest island in this river. Until recently, the island was also home to a small colony of the critically endangered golden langur, which were moved to the Assam State Zoo, early this year as a part of a conservation program. The nature enthusiasts can still find a variety of birds, insects, bugs, and butterflies on the island.

The city itself is fringed with a number of reserve forests and wildlife sanctuaries with rich biodiversity. And while Guwahati itself serves as the winter home to thousands of migratory birds, several stretched of wetlands, forests, and even farms and fields on the outskirts of the city also serve as rest spots for the passing migratory birds, like Amur Falcon, in their long flights towards their destinations.

Deepor Beel and the reserve forests like Rani-Garbhanga are at such proximity to the city that they can be easily mistaken to be a part of its adjoining urban settlement. This is perhaps why, in Guwahati, though it is the most urbanized city of Assam, the urban biodiversity blends effortlessly with the surrounding wildlife.

All these species play a vital role in shaping the urban biodiversity of Guwahati and making the city what it is – a biodiverse and beautiful place to live in. While development is inevitable, ensuring the imperative tasks that our non-human neighbours help us with such as pollination, seed dispersal, etc., are facilitated for the greater good. Here we are going to talk about some of the areas in and around Guwahati that, we hope, will give a fresh perspective on urban biodiversity and help you understand more about it. We believe, these places are fine examples of urban biodiversity and might be apt for understanding, observing, and learning about its importance and impact in human lives.

Forests and Hills

It is needless to state how important forests are for the planet and its inhabitants. From the air we breathe to the wood we use; forests have been providing us resources to survive for centuries. Beyond the known, forests also help prevent soil erosion and mitigate climate change. Guwahati is home to eight reserve forests, namely, Rani, Garbhanga, South Kalapahar, Jalukbari, Fatasil, Gotanagar, Hengrabari, and Sarania Hills. Along with these reserve forests, it also has two wildlife sanctuaries – Deepor Beel and Amchang. It is, therefore, no surprise that Guwahati is one of few urban spaces across the globe with such substantial wildlife concentration. Read below about some of these forests and hills and their rich biodiversity.

Rani-Garbhanga Reserve Forest


The twin ranges of Rani & Garbhanga reserve forests are huddled on the banks of the Basistha river, covering an area of about 180 sq. km., stretching all the way from the hilly forest range of Meghalaya to the Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary.


With a combination of moist deciduous and mix forest, along with patches of evergreen and semi-evergreen forests, these are home to a wide variety of wild animals such as leopards, wild elephants, bison, deer, wild cats, Assamese macaques, as well as some rare species like Hoolock gibbons, to name a few. Studies and researches conducted suggest as many as 128 species of birds, both residents as well as summer and winter migrants, are found in Garbhanga RF. Garbhanga RF is also an ideal place to spot numerous species of butterflies.

Did you know the flora and fauna of a region state how healthy (or unhealthy) the ecosystem is? One such wild indicator of the ecosystem is the butterfly. These flying jewels with their delicate and exquisite wings, aren’t only pleasing to the eyes but also play a crucial role in indicating the health of the ecosystem. Some of these efficient pollinators, even migrate over long distances, carrying and sharing pollen across plants that are far apart from each other, bringing about genetic variation in plant species.


There are about 1500 species of butterflies reported from India, half of which are from Assam and other Northeast states. The IUCN has identified the entire Northeast region as the ‘Swallowtail rich zone’. Garbhanga RF has a rich population of butterflies and moths. While hiking through the forests in the late autumn/early winter month, we were able to identify at least about 70 species of butterflies on a trail of 5 kilometers - which is quite good given the best period to observe butterflies is the monsoon and post-monsoon months. We wonder how many more were fluttering about higher and deeper into the woods.

Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary


Nestled on the flood plains of Brahmaputra, Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary is approximately 50 km away from Guwahati. A short drive from the city will take you to this stunning natural paradise. The striking feature of the sanctuary is that it has the densest population of the greater one-horned rhinos, after Kaziranga National Park. This ensures higher chances of spotting them here than in most forests around the state.

Apart from being a popular tourist attraction, these megaherbivores also play a key role in shaping the ecosystem. They feed on grass, leaves, fruits, and also submerged and floating aquatic plants. Rhinos are important grazers as they consume a large amount of vegetation, eating as much as 1% of their body weight daily. They help increase plant diversity in grassy areas and provide grazing patches for other animals, maintaining a healthy balance within the ecosystem. Unfortunately, one-horned rhinos are listed as vulnerable under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The landscape of Pobitora is a mix of flat flood plains and hillocks of Rajamayong hill, which ensures diverse vegetation across the sanctuary. The wetlands here are home to numerous waterfowls, that can be spotted here throughout the year. However, come winter and the sanctuary is visited in thousands by the winged visitors from colder regions of Europe, Russia, Siberia, Ladakh, etc. These vibrantly coloured birds add to the aesthetics of nature in Pobitora. But that’s not all, swimming of these birds helps break the surface film growing on the water bodies, and thereby, facilitating the sunlight to penetrate deeper into the water. This further helps the fauna growing at the bottom of the water bodies that also serve as food for the aquatic creatures, especially the fishes, thereby helping the fishing industries. So, you see, even these birds with their beautifully coloured wings, making arduous journeys of several thousand kilometers for warmth and food, can make such an impact on the human life.

Wetland, Rivers & Inland Lakes


Originating in the Himalayan glaciers in the autonomous region of Tibet, and known by several different names in different geographical locations, the river Brahmaputra paves its way through Assam like a lifeline of the state. Its innumerable wetlands, freshwater lakes, marshes, and hundreds of river islands and sandbars or ‘chars’, as they are locally called, along with its phenomenal wildlife breathe life into these exquisite ecosystems.

Wetlands host a diverse range of animals and plants and provide benefits like water detention, flood control, erosion control, water filtration, and groundwater recharge, etc., that are vital for natural as well as urban areas. These unique ecosystems in Assam, and especially around Guwahati are home to some unique species like river dolphin, one-horned rhino, dugong, winter monitor lizard and few rare species of turtles. Most of these creatures are, regrettably, either extinct or highly endangered at this moment in time.

Brahmaputra River


The Brahmaputra in Guwahati has a rich avifauna. Nature thrives gloriously along the banks of the river, across the city, surprising you with wonderful sights at every few kilometers. The stretch of the Brahmaputra flowing alongside the urban areas such as Noonmati, near the Guwahati Refinery quarters, and the many ghats of the Brahmaputra in the city are some wonderful spots for bird-watching with a massive population of resident and migratory birds.

Assam is also one of the few Endemic Bird Areas of the world and supports about 17 restricted-range bird species, meaning, species that are found nowhere else in the world but here. However, due to factors like habitat loss and alteration, nearly half of these species are vulnerable or near threatened according to IUCN Red List data. Spotting or photographing them would bring joy to any birdwatcher and wildlife photographer. So, you see, these little creatures add to the elegance of nature as well as create opportunities for eco-tourism, education, recreational activities and more, for the city dwellers.

Deepor Beel


Guwahati has a major wetland and Ramsar site at Deepor Beel. Beel is a local word for freshwater lakes in Assam. With a mosaic of bird diversity and a tranquil environment, the lake is a perfect recreational spot for nature and wildlife enthusiasts. Deepor Beel provides habitat to a great number of species of birds including residents, summer migrants, winter migrants as well as few globally threatened species. The Guwahati University Campus that is located very close to Deepor Beel, harbours a large variety of avian fauna as well.



Wild Elephants are also frequent visitors to the Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary. These gentle giants are integral to the forests and play a key role that impacts the environment hugely, which is why they are known as keystone species. Given their ability and tendency to push the trees down and stomp the shrubby areas flat, elephants are known as the ecosystem engineers. These actions of theirs help keep the forests in check which would otherwise grow past the open grasslands. Moreover, the dung they leave over the large tracks is full of seeds with its manure, which further grow into new grasses and trees, improving the health of the savannah.

Mayong Village


This interesting village is located approximately 40 kilometers from Guwahati. Perched on the bank of river Brahmaputra, this mystical village is known for black magic and witchcraft. Well, apart from this feature, the village is also known for its archeological riches and serene landscape.

The Brahmaputra at Mayong is also home to the freshwater dolphins, locally known as ‘sihu’. Interestingly, in India, these endangered river dolphins are only found in the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers. With a great sense of hearing, this species is unique as they can swim sideways. The presence of these intelligent aquatic creatures is slowly gaining popularity among the wildlife enthusiasts, and therefore creating a livelihood opportunity for the local villagers. The Ganges river dolphin is also the official mascot of Guwahati, making Guwahati the first city in the country to have a city animal.

Some other interesting wetland areas where one can visit to observe and understand the richness and importance of urban biodiversity are Kulsi river and Chandubi lake, located at short distances from Guwahati. The Brahmaputra ghat and lakes in and around the IIT Guwahati campus are also frequented by birders and enthusiasts.

Urban And Suburban Areas Of Guwahati


One can take a walk along any corner of Guwahati and find interesting creatures at work. Hundreds of sparrows roosting on trees and electric wires in the middle of a busy street, a kaleidoscope of butterflies hovering over flowers in home gardens, sprightly sunbirds feeding on nectar from flowers on the trees in the office premises and many such examples can be seen all around the city. Each of these species is going about a chore its role calls for in this web of life, each working on the mutually beneficial relationship.

Nilachal Hill


The Nilachal hill is famous for the Kamakhya temple that is perched atop the hill. The temple is frequented by thousands of devotees every single day. And yet, one would be surprised to know that Nilachal is abode to leopards, pythons, monkeys and several other creatures. Of course, the sightings are not frequent and the incidents of animals entering the populous areas are sparse. Old villagers have tales to tell of how dense the forests on Nilachal hills were, once upon a time, reminiscing on the greener time before urbanization changed the face of it.

Numerous birds and varieties of butterflies can still be spotted along some quiet stretches of the hilly path. Higher up, is the old Bhubaneshwari temple, with a significantly lesser number of visitors than the Kamakhya temple below. The area around this temple is filled with trees and shrubs where birds, butterflies, and other species go about their tasks without much disturbance.

Ugratara Temple


Right in the heart of the city, closer to the prime location of Uzan Bazar, is another popular, religious place – the Ugratara Temple. Apart from its religious importance, the temple is significant for its pond which hosts a diverse variety of species of turtles, some even rare, along with fishes and geese.

The turtle diversity found in Assam is the highest in the country. Out of the 29 species of turtles and tortoises reported in India, 20 are found in Assam. The freshwater turtles help maintain the aquatic ecosystems. They help balance the aquatic vegetation, act as scavengers and help maintain the health of the various wetlands including rivers, lakes, and ponds.


The Ugratara temple pond has 12 different species of turtles living in it. Two species of turtles found in the pond are the Black softshell turtles - known to be extinct in the wild [13] and Indian softshell turtles – listed as vulnerable according to IUCN Red List data [14]. A conservation program was recently conducted to collect and artificially incubate the eggs of these turtle species. The program concluded successfully by releasing 70 hatchlings into the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary.

Pan Bazar


Amidst the ceaseless human activities and constant noise of vehicles and traffic, there are rows of eucalyptus and rain trees standing silently in the buzzing Pan Bazar area of Guwahati, closer to the banks of Brahmaputra. Every day, thousands of commuters busily cross over, board and de-board buses, oblivious to the creatures hanging upside on the tall trees by the sidewalks. We are talking about the fruit bats or the Indian flying fox, that roost in large colonies here.

These nocturnal creatures are most active at night, feed on ripe fruits and nectar, and play an important role in pollination and natural seed dispersal. Flying foxes are hence, vital for the regeneration of plants and trees, especially in urban spaces. Though they are known to be carriers of disease and deadly viruses, these creatures benefit the environment far more than that.



The fruit bats feed either on the fruiting tree or carry the fruits over to a different place. They consume only the pulp and discard or excrete the seeds, thereby helping in the dispersal of seeds over short as well as long distances. Flying foxes also drink nectar from plants that flower at night, like banana, and are the prime pollinators for such plants.

Boragaon Landfill And Dodora village


Heaps and mounds of filth, waste, and a rotten stench filled in the air – that is what the Boragaon landfill or any dumping ground for that matter, looks like at first. What kind of biodiversity are we talking about here, one may wonder? Though it is common to find birds like common crows and kites at such locations, what makes Boragaon landfill to the list of places under this topic is the presence of the endangered greater adjutant storks.

As tall as 5feet, these birds are quite attractive with their colours and powerful flight. Greater adjutant storks are scavenger birds and like other scavenger birds, these also feed on the dead and decaying matter, and therefore, help keep the environment clean. In their natural environment, these storks usually feed on fish, crab and other such creatures. But the shrinking of wetlands and habitat changes are narrowing the choices of safe habitats for the storks, forcing them to feed in toxic places such as dumping zones.



It is quite disheartening though to find these beautiful creatures feed at the toxic environment such as the landfill that has a dreadful amount of plastic and other toxic waste. But there’s another site, not far from Guwahati city that stirs hope and positivity – the Dodora village. With several years of serious, community-based conservation efforts, the population of these scavenger birds is now steadily on the rise. The awareness and changed attitudes of local communities are now helping these beautiful birds find a way to their natural homes.


References:

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1578735/

[2] http://www.fao.org/3/i2050e/i2050e.pdf

[3] http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/ESA_main.pdf

[4] http://edition.cnn.com/2000/NATURE/05/05/pollinators.peril/index.html

[5] https://www.iucn.org/asia/countries/india

[6]http://www.livingplanetindex.org/projects?main_page_project=LivingPlanetReport&home_flag=1

[7] https://go.gale.com/ps/anonymous?id=GALE%7CA420051515&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=fulltext&issn=20904045&p=AONE&sw=w

[8] http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/energy/water/paper/jfr_sacred_groves/result.htm

[9] http://moef.gov.in/wildlife/

[10] https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22697721/93633471

[11] https://www.worldwildlife.org/press-releases/nepal-set-to-become-first-country-to-double-wild-tiger-population

[12] https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html

[13] https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/2173/97400584

[14] https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/39618/97400216


This article was produced as part of a paid internship provided by Aaranyak with financial support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.


About the author:


Yogini Patil is a Creative Writer by profession and a traveler at heart who learns and discovers meaningful things while on the go. She blog at http://www.travelandhappiness.co.in . Her travel writings are also available online at Native Planet , B-change & Travelista.


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