Biodiversity, the colourful diversity of earth's ecosystems, species and their genes is being increasingly valued because it sustains life itself. But it is under serious threat. Globally, several hundred species are becoming extinct everyday with habitat destruction, unsustainable ways of living and competition for space between people and wild species.

The threat

India may have just 2.4 percent of the world's area, but it has eight percent of the world's biodiversity. India is one of the 12 mega diversity "hotspot" regions in the world, with tropical rainforests, alpine vegetation, temperate forests, wetlands, deserts, coastal areas and an inventory of over 47,000 species of plants and over 89,000 species of animals. Look at just the agro-biodiversity in India: There are 167 crop species and over 350 wild relatives. India is considered to be the centre of origin of 30,000-50,000 varieties of rice, pigeon-pea, mango, turmeric, ginger, sugarcane, gooseberries and so on and ranks seventh in terms of contribution to world agriculture.

The intentions

A strategic plan document of 2002 had the central government envisaging that by the end of 11th Plan in 2012, India must restore forest cover back to atleast 33 per cent.

The reality

"Forests are hardly ever seen as a symbol of development. But roads are. Mining in a forest is totally destructive. Government corporations often violate rules that lead to biodiversity destruction."

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But India is in danger of losing this rich biodiversity. Widespread habitat destruction has been one of the villains. Forests are the largest repository of biodiversity. Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa, was built on 500 hectares of pristine sal forests. 23 per cent of the land in India is under forests and is being constantly eyed by the government as it is seen as the largest land bank available, says a former forest official insisting on anonymity.

As most of the minerals in India are in forest areas, there is tremendous pressure to cut forests for mining. If tribal areas have to be developed, roads, water and power has to be reached to them. But most of the tribal areas are in forests. Once roads enter forests, there are edge affects. With the ingress of population and vehicle, trees become the first casualty. Says a former forest official: "Forests are hardly ever seen as a symbol of development. But roads are. Mining in a forest is totally destructive. Government corporations often violate rules that lead to biodiversity destruction. As they are a part of the government setup, they do not take the required permissions."

S.K. Pande, former director general, Forests, points out: "Often we feel happy with compensatory tree planting which is if you cut one hectare, plant another hectare. But what really happens is that we lose thousands of years of evolution of the ecosystem. We lost the regalia of the biodiversity and what gets replaced is a plantation of one or two species. So, compensatory forestation does not really compensate - it only replaces trees, not biodiversity."

The response

Is the Indian government serious about restoring our deeply endangered biodiversity? As it made loud noises saying it wanted to stop its declining forest cover and loss of biodiversity, there was a ray of hope. But when Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram presented this year's budget, one thing was clear: Saving the environment in India was not on the government's immediate plans. There was no mention of the word "environment" or "biodiversity" in the budget.

Restoring biodiversity that has been lost or is dying requires money. India has planned a series of measures restoring biosphere reserves and mangroves, setting up of news ones, protection of coral reefs and finally, conservation and management of wetlands. But all these measures can be implemented if the concerned state governments cooperate with the central government. This has not been easy, with one obstacle being that many times governments at the Centre at the states are run by different political parties or alliances.

Still, the intentions in themselves so far are good: India wants to set up at least one biosphere reserve in each of the bio-geographical zones in the country representing different ecosystems. The biodiversity Act 2002 was a sweeping legislation for conserving biodiversity and resources like medicinal plants that were till now harvested and patented by multinational firms. The Centre setup the National Biodiversity Authority, Chennai in 2003 under the Ministry of Environment and Forests as statuted by the Biodiversity Act. The idea is to regulate access to biodiversity, promote and conserve traditional knowledge and safeguard Intellectual Property Rights.

At present there are only 13 bioreserves spread across the country. Of them, only three have been recognized by UNESCO: Nilgiri in the Tamilnadu-Karnataka-Kerala border, Nanda Devi in Uttar Pradesh and Gulf of Mannar in Tamilnadu. India has 89 national parks and 489 wildlife sanctuaries. In total, India has 578 protected areas covering nearly 154,572 square kilometers. However, bioreserves differ from wildlife sanctuaries because of the emphasis on biodiversity and the landscape rather than some species.

Biosphere reserves of India
Source: Ministry of Environment and Forests

Many difficulties

It is not going to be easy. For example, the Gulf of Mannar bioreserve may be a protected area, but fishermen often kill fish here using cyanide because it makes their job easier. There are problems related to pollution, encroachment by fishermen, beach erosion and coral mining. Coral reefs are crying out for attention. Mining of coral reefs are common, but have been checked to a large extent in areas like Andaman and Nicobar islands as officials are vigilant and keep a constant eye on tourists and other marauders. India accounts for only about 7% of the world's mangrove area of 70,000 sq km. With its mangroves spread just over 4,900 sq km despite a very long coastline, the challenge now is to increase the area. In areas of Andhra Pradesh where there were thick mangroves, residents were not affected by cyclonic storms.

Millions of birds used to converge at the Keoladeo National Park every year. But this year, there are hardly any birds as the water in the lake has dried up as farmers pressurize the Rajasthan government to give them more water for farming. The Keoladeo National Park is a Ramsar wetland. India is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, 1971, under which 881 wetland areas covering an area of 62.77 million hectares have been designated by 101 contracting parties. India has 6 Ramsar wetlands - Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur; Sambar, Rajasthan; Chilka, Orissa; Loktak, Manipur; Wullar, Jammu and Kashmir; and Harike, Punjab. Last year 11 more wetlands became Ramsar sites.

The government had envisaged in 2002 in a strategy plan document that by the end of the 10th Plan in 2007, India should have a forest cover of 25 per cent and by the end of the 11th Plan in 2012, it should have atleast 33 per cent. Today, in 2005, India just has 13 per cent of good forest cover - that can deliver ecological services. Six percent of forest cover that exists is in a degraded state. Grazing pressure is increasing. Estimates say that 60-65 per cent of forest land is being grazed more than its carrying capacity.

There are also the burning issues of migration of animals. In the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh, elephants, tigers, rhinos migrate to Nepal and also from Nepal to India. In the process, they are exposed to danger as they walk into unprotected areas. One way out is to increase the protected areas network so that such dangers are minimized. But land is in short supply and it is difficult to rehabilitate those who will have to move out to enlarge the protected area.


Biodiversity has serious economic and social benefits for any country, but very few countries in the world have done an inventory of their bioreserves. Nearly 10 to 20 plant species provide 80 to 90 percent of food requirements of the world. More than 8,000 species are used in some 10,000 drug formulations. The global plant-based drug trade is around Rs. 310 billion with a seven percent annual growth rate. India has a share of about 2.5 percent share in it.

India's first step towards making an inventory of its bio-reserves has led to the identification of 24 new genes that could bring millions of rupees to the country. New genes could open up new research and findings could help find new drugs. India now has a biodiversity and database atlas. The characterization has been done using genetic profiling and molecular markers. The findings are the result of a unique study taken up by the department of space and the department of biotechnology. Using remote sensing, scientists have generated maps of the hotspots provide information on habitat, habitat quality and biodiversity riches at macro level. Indian scientists hope this will prevent theft of Indian biodiversity wealth.

Stress and cold resistant genes identified in the Himalayan region could lead to more research and applications. Stress-tolerant genes have been isolated from species of the cold desert and the mangroves of the coastal region. A number of bioactive molecules and enzymes have also been isolated and are being taken forward for product development. The study becomes crucial because, from new drugs to energy, the world becomes more dependent on plant reserves.

K.K. Mohapatra, Research Associate, Forestry and Biodiversity, The Energy and Resources Institute, points out that that the challenge today is to manage diversity through ecosystem approach. This is a strategy meant for the management of land, water and living resources to promote conservation in a sustainable and systematic manner ensuring that no resource is affected. But this is not easy to enforce.

"Nature can recover, but we need to give it some space, time and an opportunity to recover."
-- S K Pande, former forests official.
Concern over the threat to biodiversity is growing. A group of developing countries called the "Like Minded Megadiverse Countries" met in New Delhi in early 2005 to develop a common position on biodiversity matters. This meet came about as most of the member countries possess 70 per cent of the world's biodiversity. It wanted a bulwark against the interests of developed nations that have mainly benefited from biological resources and traditional knowledge of developing countries but have not wanted to share the benefits. There is worldwide concern today about such resources illegally making its way to research labs in developed countries. The patent on neem, a medicinal tree from India focused international attention on the dangers of bio-piracy.

One silver lining in the clouds was that the Kani tribals in north Kerala are now reaping economic benefits of sharing their indigenous knowledge of a traditional plant, Trichopus Zeylanicus Travancoricos, that had anti-fatigue properties. In Kerala, the plant is commonly known as, Arogyapacha which in Malayalam would mean, "Health Plant". Kani tribals used to climb great heights everyday in the forests of the Western Ghats and do not feel tired as they keep eating the leaves of the plant. Today, the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute at Trivandrum is marketing a medicine called, "Jeevani" made from the extracts of the plant. The Kani tribals get 50 per cent of the commercial returns of the product.

Says celebrated scientist M.S. Swaminathan: "Biodiversity knows no political or geographical frontiers in terms of it occurrence, spread and evolution. There is greater need for international collaboration in the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of biological wealth."

People and nature

All protected areas have demarcations, but in the fringes of protected areas with habitation, people must get involved in protection. They will get involved only with a sense of belonging and they have to be trained and sensitized to it so that they can also benefit from their involvement. This philosophy comes from the joint forest management programme in India. JFM, as it is popularly called, has helped many forests in areas like Gujarat regenerate as the community has taken the responsibility of protecting it and benefiting from it.

S K Pande says that the greatest advantage of nature in India is that it has tremendous resilience. All we have to do is to withdraw the pressure and it will bounce back to health. "Nature can recover, but we need to give it some space, time and an opportunity to recover," says Pande. The former top forest official feels that there has to be positive human intervention to work out an enabling environment that has set aside land, human resources and finances.

India's leaders aim to use bioreserves to push research and tap into the opportunity for people's participation, currently absent in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. But without an aggressive strategy laid out and acted upon soon, it may be business as usual - just as it was in the last 50 years when the last forest policy was formulated.