By Apoorva Joshi, (Contributor, PhD Student, Michigan State University)
About a decade ago, a team of volunteers was wrapping up the first-ever study of gharials in India’s north-western state of Rajasthan. Traversing a 100-kilometre reach of the Chambal river’s bank on foot, this expedition was a novel attempt to record primary information about the gharial – a critically endangered species of crocodile inhabiting this mesmerising yet, at times, unforgiving terrain of the National Chambal Sanctuary.
Flash forward ten years. The gharial is still critically endangered as per the International Union for the Conservation of Nature [IUCN]. An entire decade has passed and while the Chambal river remains a stronghold habitat for the gharial, human beings have all but ensured that a viable future for our wildlife and ecosystems gets even more out of reach each year.
Today, it’s almost as if our natural world and mankind are playing a painful game of tug of war. No matter the ecosystem, no matter the habitat and no matter the cost, people have figured out a way to exploit it all. For all our technological advancements and financial profits, we have somehow forgotten to nurture and care for the very core of our species’ survival. Despite all this “progress”, a large part of our world conceptualizes development as being detached from sustainable living.
Depending on what part of the world one chooses to examine, myriad cultural, socio-political, and economic forces influence our environmental value systems differently. The irony though, lies in the fact that the further we stray from a value system that is intrinsically naturalistic, the worse we make our own chances of survival.
10 years prior, one might never have imagined that a scaly ant-eater – the pangolin – would top the charts to be the world’s most illegally trafficked mammal species. 6000 of these animals were found to be trafficked from India between 2009 and 2017. In fact, the increasing demand for pangolins on the black market that thrives on the global illegal wildlife trade got to a point that the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES] listed all the world’s eight species of pangolin on Appendix I of this multilateral conservation agreement, thus banning all international trade in these species.
Development simply cannot come at the cost of survival itself. Unfortunately, we do not see that survival is precisely what is at stake if we continue to be arrogantly ignorant about just how unsustainable our lifestyles have become. Notably, it is not the survival of wildlife that is at stake; mankind’s own future is grim.
As we continue to rely on fossil fuels for producing energy, policymakers insist on pretending that the impacts of global warming are not imminent while the damage can be distinctly recognized in real-time. Our oceans are now floating garbage dumps, our age-old forests are no longer carbon sinks but are instead a commodity, and our cities are competing for the top spot as the world’s most polluted city.
Meanwhile, wildlife continues to suffer, being burned by the rope in this tug of war. Less than a month ago, a northern white rhino died in Kenya while in captivity, bringing his entire species one step closer to being honorary mentions in history books. This comes only five years after the western black rhino was officially declared extinct, and eight years after poaching claimed the last remaining Vietnamese Javan rhino. Giraffes, a species no one ever thought would be on this list, are currently experiencing what conservationists are calling a “silent extinction”. African elephant populations have been consistently plummeting thanks to an insatiable demand for ivory on the international wildlife trade black market. In the three months since 2018 began, 57 leopards have succumbed to poaching and wildlife crime in India alone. Globally, environmental crimes are worth over $258 billion and international wildlife crime is now the world’s fourth-largest criminal enterprise after the trafficking of drugs, humans and weapons. Not only is this unsustainable demand for wildlife and wildlife products decimating populations of species in the world and pushing the balance of ecosystems to a perilous level, but wildlife crimes are now known to occur in conjunction with other serious and violent crimes including drugs and weapons trafficking, murder, financial crimes, and corruption to name a few.
A recent report indicates that if we don’t pull up our socks, re-learn to co-exist with our natural environment, and reduce global warming, some of our most incredible, diverse and valuable forested habitats could end up losing over half their plant species and multiple species of animals.
Collectively, we must recognize that natural processes do not obey political boundaries. The disproportionality of resources and impacts between the global North and the global South, as well as between developed and developing countries is real; as is the potential for resource-based transboundary conflicts. It is imperative, therefore, that we find common footing, interdisciplinary, and integrative solutions to a shared problem. Whatever our value systems, whatever our cultural or political differences, the undeniable and irretrievable damage that our unsustainable living is doing to the future of generations to come is something we all have in common. Whether and to what extent individual nations are liable for this dramatic and drastic biodiversity loss is largely irrelevant. We are all responsible for ensuring that this sixth mass extinction set in motion by human activities does not end up claiming us and our only home next.
Why – because someday in the future, another group of young college students deserves the opportunity to explore the raw wilderness in India or elsewhere. They deserve to have access to an ecosystem like the National Chambal Sanctuary, where they can sit atop large boulders in pin-drop silence, completely captivated by a gharial gloriously basking in the sun on the shimmering, golden sands of the Chambal’s banks. We owe them an opportunity to wander through rainforests, wade through streams, look under rocks, listen for bird calls, and to be enthralled by the natural world so they too, may persevere to protect it.
[Research areas – Environmental journalism, Risk communication, International wildlife crime, Persuasion and Environmental attitudes and behaviour]
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