By Nagesh Manay
The heart of the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 is striking for several reasons, starting with the steep decline of species. Here’s an observation closer to home. In Bengaluru's numerous lakes alone, there are first hand reports of a drop of over 70% of wetland bird species, both native and migratory, recorded across a 30 year period. This has been observed in a lake that was once a suburban fringe locality, and is today at the heart of the city's IT hub, surrounded by massive residential complexes.
Of great relevance in the report is a blurring of lines between records of wildlife populations in two fairly diverse and broad systems - the Wilderness and the Urban. A macro perspective of the changes large swathes of forests, grasslands, rivers and seas are seeing, and the way our cities, highways and agricultural townships are affecting ecosystems at the ground level. These now share more similarities than ever before. While the key is of course the density of people, and the trail of activity we leave behind every minute, the crucial factor is our idea of ‘community’.
For most, the terms ‘community’ and ‘community living’, as experienced in a city, excludes nature by default. The plants, trees and animals, the climate, the soil, and the quality of air we breathe. These are ignored in favour of social harmony. As the report so aptly implies - a community that regards wildlife as being essential will enjoy a happier, healthier and more prosperous future. This means encouraging well-managed lakes, more wild or semi-wild spaces for plants and trees, and zones which are devoid of permanent human habitation, thereby allowing wild animals to thrive in them.
Wildlife has always coexisted alongside people in cities. Not just birds and small mammals, but also snakes and terrapins. Many species have successfully adapted to the ways of the city, its structures and spaces - modifying what they consume, how they source food, and of course reproducing well enough to keep the species going. As Indian cities expand into untamed land, we are bound to see more pressure on wildlife populations as their natural habitats shrink. Changes in land use are cited in the report as one of the most critical threats to wildlife populations, driven by urbanisation, agriculture, our food system, and the mining of natural resources.
At the PfA Wildlife Hospital in Kengeri, Bengaluru, we see a shifting trend of injured, orphaned and displaced urban wild animals. The report reflects our experiences on the ground. Our data, while not being empirical, stems from the 26,000 odd wild animals rescued and treated at the centre.
Displacement has always been the primary cause for animal rescues, whether it's a cobra discovering someone's kitchen, a juvenile squirrel fallen from a cut tree, or a pond heron disoriented by the flash of a street light. This is due to changes in land use, human activities and pollution. Pollution of all kinds - light, sound, substance, plastics - affects animals, just as it does us. One of the unfortunate routines of a community is to generate waste and then find novel ways of disposal; our urban districts were never designed for the volume buildup we see in our homes, streets and collection centres.
A focal aspect in the report is ecosystem goods and services - the economic, utilitarian, social, emotional and environmental value people derive out of nature. Understanding this is necessary as people tend to view ‘what’s in it more me’ with a kinder eye. It also helps decision making at various levels in a community, whether government, corporation, or tax-paying citizen. Simple connections are not understood, as they are not taught in school, left out of business studies, and bypassed in public messages.
A localised population of black kites is a favourite example. In a city like Bengaluru, where garbage disposal is untamed, kites and crows clean up organic waste spilling out of bins for no pay. Birds such as barn owls and several species of venomous and non-venomous snakes are natural pest controllers - hunting rats and other pests almost everyday, cutting down chances of an infectious disease spread. The lizards and spiders in our balconies, and the frogs and fish in our ponds and lakes, thrive on insects, including disease-carrying mosquitoes and flies. People benefit from all of this, all the time.
The connections and advantages are far deeper, something that the report illustrates as well. Plants are important in pharmaceuticals and traditional medicine, and of course in contributing to air quality and a moderated temperature, good for human life. Groundwater, essential for urban communities, is also better preserved when the soil is fertile. Plants keep it so. And all plants take root because of pollination and dispersal, which is largely due to bees, butterflies, numerous bird species like the small sunbird, and mammals - including macaques and bats. Wildlife is key in helping green a city naturally, giving us a healthier, cleaner environment.
Human actions are today uninhibited. We do what we want with a fair amount of impunity, not giving much regard to the wild animals that we coexist with. How often have we heard someone decide on not trimming a tree because black kite chose to make a nest on it? To paraphrase from the report "from now on, protecting and enhancing our environment must be at the heart of how we achieve economic prosperity". Bring this down to the ground, apply the reasons we've encountered in the report, and it reads "protecting habitats for wildlife to thrive makes our cities and communities healthier, and leads to sustainable economic prosperity". At the end, that's the only way for human populations to live and thrive. Given our mastery of urban development, isn’t it then far easier to conserve wildlife in our cities?
Nagesh Manay is a trustee of the PfA Wildlife Hospital, Bengaluru - Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Centre. His interests lie wildlife, community and design, focussed on the experience of nature in the city. He helps promote wildlife protection through webinars and writing for PfA. He is also founder of a brand and design consultancy.