According to the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas prepared by the World Wide Fund for Nature –

  • India among nations whose soil biodiversity faces the highest level of risk.
  • India, Pakistan, China, several countries in Africa and Europe, and most of North America – have been coloured red on the Atlas

Soil biodiversity

  • Soil biodiversity encompasses the presence of micro-organisms, micro-fauna (nematodes and tardigrades for example), and macro-fauna (ants, termites and earthworms).
  • The WWF’s ‘risk index’ for the globe — indicates threats from loss of above-ground diversity, pollution and nutrient over-loading, over-grazing, intensive agriculture, fire, soil erosion, desertification and climate change.

Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas 

  • The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative is global collaboration of scientists, with a focus on informing the public about the need and benefits of environmental policy, and overall creating a platform for the current and future sustainability of soils.
  • The Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, released by the European Union (EU) raises awareness on the role of soil organisms in sustaining life on planet, and presents the latest research on soil
  • The Atlas is a result of discussions, during the International Workshop on ‘Managing Living Soils’ conducted by FAO in Rome in 2012.

According to the Living Planet Report (LPR) 2018

  • Human activities pushing the planet to the brink.
  • There has been a 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years.
  • There has been drastic decline in populations of pollinators. (For instance, while 150 million bee colonies were needed to meet the pollination requirements of about 50 million hectares of agricultural land in India, only 1.2 million colonies were present.)
  • The above two recent studies by WWF have focused on the dramatic reductions in bee and other pollinator numbers and on the risks to soil biodiversity, critical to sustain food production and other ecosystem services.
  • The two key drivers of biodiversity loss were the over exploitation of natural resources and agriculture.
  • While India’s per capita ecological footprint was less than 1.75 hectares/person (the lowest band among countries surveyed), its high population made it vulnerable to an ecological crisis, even if per-capita consumption remained at current levels, the WWF warned.
  • The majority of flowering plants are pollinated by insects and other animals. It has been estimated that the proportion of animal-pollinated wild plant species rises from an average of 78% in temperate-zone communities to 94% in tropical communities.
  • The WWF Living Planet Index tracks more than 4,000 species spread across nearly 17,000 populations.

Living Planet Report (LPR) 

  • The Living Planet Report is published by WWF every two years.
  • It documents the state of the planet including biodiversity, ecosystems, and demand on natural resources and what it means for humans and wildlife.
  • The report brings together a variety of research to provide a comprehensive view of the health of the Earth.

Below are the key findings:

Crashing populations

From 1970 to 2014, the number of animals with a backbone — birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and fish — plummeted across the globe, on average, by about 60%.

For freshwater vertebrates, losses topped 80%. Geographically, South and Central America have been hit hardest, with 89% less wildlife in 2014 than in 1970.

Disappearing species

  • The index of extinction risk for five major groups — birds, mammals, amphibians, corals and an ancient family of plants called cycads — shows an accelerating slide towards oblivion.
  • Depending on which categories are included, the current rate at which species are going extinct is 100 to 1,000 times greater than only a few centuries ago, when human activity began to alter the planet’s biology and chemistry in earnest.
  • By definition, this means that Earth has entered a mass extinction event, only the sixth in half-a-billion years.

Breaching boundaries

  • In 2009, scientists weighed the impact of humanity’s expanding appetites on nine processes — known as Earth systems — within nature. Each has a critical threshold, the upper limit of a “safe operating space” for our species.
  • The do-not-cross red line for climate change, for example, is global warming of 5°C, according to a new U.N. report.
  • So far, we have clearly breached two of these so-called planetary boundaries: species loss, and imbalances in Earth’s natural cycles of nitrogen and phosphorous (mainly due to fertiliser use).
  • For two others, climate and land degradation, we have one foot in the red zone. Ocean acidification and freshwater supply are not far behind. As for new chemical pollutants such as endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, and plastics, we simply don’t know yet how much is too much.
  • More generally, the marginal capacity of Earth’s ecosystems to renew themselves has been far outstripped by humanity’s ecological footprint, which has nearly tripled in 50 years.

Shrinking forests

Nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest, has disappeared in five decades. Tropical deforestation continues unabated, mainly to make way for soy beans, palm oil and cattle.

Globally, between 2000 and 2014, the world lost 920,000 sq. km of intact or “minimally disturbed” forest, an area roughly the size of Pakistan or France and Germany combined. Satellite data shows the pace of that degradation picked up by 20% from 2014 to 2016, compared with the previous 15 years.

Depleting oceans

  • Since 1950, our species has extracted 6 billion tonnes of fish, crustaceans, clams, squids and other edible sea creatures. Despite the deployment of increasingly sophisticated fishing technologies, global catches — 80% by industrial fleets — peaked in 1996 and have been declining since.
  • Climate change and pollution have killed off half of the world’s shallow water coral reefs, which support more than a quarter of marine life. Even if humanity manages to cap global warming at 1.5°C — which many scientists doubt is possible — coral mortality will likely be 70 to 90%.
  • Coastal mangrove forests, which protect against storm surges made worse by rising seas, have also declined by up to half over the last 50 years.

India’s case:

  • The report shows India among countries whose soil biodiversity faces the highest level of risk.
  • The reasons for this according to WHO are pollution and nutrient overloading (eg by excessive fertiliser use), over-grazing, intensive agriculture, fire, soil erosion, desertification and climate change etc.
  • WWF-India pointed to threat to pollinators like bees which have direct consequences on food security. More than 75% of leading global food crops depend on pollinators, it said
  • Tamil Nadu Agricultural University study that observed that while 150 million bee colonies were needed to meet the pollination requirements of about 50 million hectares of agricultural land in India, only 1.2 million colonies were present.
  • While India’s per capita ecological footprint was less than 1.75 hectares/person (which is in the lowest band, among countries surveyed) its high population made it vulnerable to an ecological crisis, even if per-capita consumption remained at current levels, the WWF warned.

What needs to be done?

To address these challenges, the WWF suggests three necessary steps: “clearly specifying a goal for biodiversity recovery; developing a set of measurable and relevant indicators of progress; and agreeing on a suite of actions that can collectively achieve the goal in the required time frame.”

The WWF has called for an international treaty, modelled on the Paris climate agreement, to be drafted to protect wildlife and reverse human impacts on nature.

Way ahead:

The current efforts to protect the natural world are not keeping up with the speed of man-made destruction, and that the world is heading for an “ecological credit crunch” far worse than the current financial crisis because humans are overusing the natural resources of the planet.

This trend will continue unless human beings learn to minimise the use of resources and internalize the benefits of recycling/reuse. The nature conservation agenda is not only about securing the future of tigers, pandas, whales and all the amazing diversity of life. It’s bigger than that. There cannot be a healthy, happy and prosperous planet with a destabilised climate, depleted oceans and rivers, degraded land and empty forests, all stripped of biodiversity, the web of life that sustains us all.

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