Human life has always depended on ecosystems. The earliest civilizations of the world formed around natural resources: rivers and other water bodies and fertile lands — here, a fragile network of microorganisms and endemic animals, plants, reptiles, underwater creatures, and amphibians maintained fresh (drinkable) water, ensured soil fertility and stability, pollinated food crops and provided folk medicine. The most advanced cities still rely on the same resources for people to survive. Resources that are continually coming under strain as the little organisms working round the clock to maintain them, vanish. Over half the world’s GDP is derived from biological resources— so the very creatures most city-dwellers will likely never see in their lives are quite crucial to our survival.
In the fight against climate change, South Asia and island communities seem to be getting the worst end of the stick. Data shows that our children and future generations are going to brave the deadliest of its long-term consequences. Our coastal lands and mountainous areas are under great threat from rising sea levels and soaring temperatures.
However South Asia, home to 15.5 and 12 percent of the world’s flora and fauna respectively, is also blessed with abundant gifts by way of biodiversity. This is not merely something to be protected with our lives, not just because it is so very beautiful, but also because it could turn into our most powerful weapon against the deadly effects of climate change.
According to conservation.org, reversing nature, and therefore biodiversity loss could account for 30 percent of global action needed to stabilize our climate.
In spite of the crucial importance of biodiversity and natural habitats to human survival and combating climate change, the facts and figures of the situation are bone-chilling. One million species face extinction. The current biodiversity extinction rate exceeds the natural extinction rate by 1,000-fold.
The geography and climate varies tremendously across this region, from the temperate forests of the eastern Himalayas, to the monsoon forests of Sri Lanka. There are ecologically rich deltas, arid salt flats, and wide valleys. The Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Center, where over half of India’s evergreen forests are found, is home to approximately 63% of India’s woody evergreen species, which are found nowhere else.
Pakistan is geographically diverse and home to some of the world’s rarest animals and plants. From desolate deserts to forested valleys, it houses rich biological diversity. The undulating Karakoram, Himalaya and Hindu Kush are also found here. The endangered snow leopard and the endangered Indus dolphin are rare and belong to its alpine slopes and its rivers. In the drier western Himalayas, montane forests stretch up to 4,500 feet consisting of various species of pine, fir, spruce and deodar cedar, juniper and rhododendron.
Sri Lanka’s Wet-Zone Rainforests
Declared one of 34 biodiversity hotspots of the world by Conservation International, Sri Lanka has the highest biodiversity per unit area of land among Asian countries. For example, it is home to 23% of flowering plants and 16% of mammals, as well as many other plant and animal species only found on the island. Sri Lanka’s agricultural crops are very genetically diverse, with a whopping 3,000 varieties of rice recorded. The number of unique species is so large that their extinction would represent an irreplaceable loss: and they are already under threat. It’s extremely important not just for the country but also the region and possibly the world to protect Sri Lanka’s biodiversity.
The Sundarbans, home to the world’s largest delta and mangrove forests, are formed by the confluence of three rivers in the Bay of Bengal: the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. It was declared as reserved more than a hundred years ago, under the Forest Act, 1865 (Act VIII of 1865). There are an estimated 78 species of mangroves in these forests, which are also home to the royal Bengal tiger and the endangered batagur baska, a species of river turtle. Worryingly, the mangrove cover is shrinking. According to the India State of Forest Report of 2021, the Sundarbans had shrunk to 384 square miles from 418 square miles in 2011.
Along with Sri Lanka, the Western Ghats traversing the states of Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu in India have been declared a biodiversity hotspot. It is also a world heritage site. Also known as the Sahyadri Mountain range, it covers 62,000 squares miles in a stretch of 990 miles. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 elephants and 10% of the world’s tigers can be found in the Nilgiri Hills, in the southwestern part of the Western Ghats. Approximately 245 million people live in the peninsular Indian states that receive most of their water supply from rivers originating in the Western Ghats, making it key to survival.
Dominated by the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, Sundaland is one of the richest of the planet’s biological hotspots. India’s Nicobar islands also fall in the Sundaland Hotspot. What makes it more fascinating is that Sundaland’s life also extends to the tectonic plates under the Indian Ocean. Sundaland houses iconic species like orangutans, pig-tailed langurs, Javan and Sumatran rhinos, and proboscis monkeys, which are found only in Borneo. Sundaland also is home to the world’s largest flower, the critically endangered, carnivorous and ginormous Rafflesia arnoldii, which measure more than three feet across across and can stink up a bomb.