Date:19/03/2004 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/2004/03/19/stories/2004031902181000.htm
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Opinion - Editorials

SAVING THE WORLD'S BIRDS

THE STATE OF the World's Birds 2004 released by Birdlife International, a partner of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), presents fresh evidence that unsustainable development policies being followed by many nations have increased the risk of extinction for a large number of birds. One in eight bird species worldwide is threatened with extinction, making up a total of 1211 species or 12.4 per cent of all known birds. Of these, 179 species are in the red zone and could be lost forever in the immediate future. The status of birds assessed using the IUCN's Red List criteria is by far the most extensive study of any group of organisms over a 16-year period. The results indicate that biodiversity is at great risk today despite the more than 500 international treaties in operation to safeguard the environment. With 76 threatened bird species, India finds itself negatively ranked as the seventh in a global list. Nations with a worse conservation record are Indonesia, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, China and Ecuador where vital habitat is being cleared in the name of economic development. India has also to live down its reputation as a country that has not been able effectively to control smuggling of birds and animal parts. The scale of illegal activity was revealed by an IUCN affiliate, the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC); its 1997 investigation showed a decline in the population of species such as the Alexandrine parakeet owing to smuggling.

Calls for conservation are often dismissed as rigid arguments that retard economic development. Nothing could be further from the truth as research on macro issues such as climate change, soil fertility and water security has proved. Conventional economics does not account for the true value of natural systems, and by adopting a distorted model, encourages unsustainable development. The total annual value of nature's services to human economic activity is equivalent to an estimated $ 33 trillion for just 17 ecosystems, the journal Nature has reported. The State of the World's Birds 2004 recalls this statistic to make the point that the wealth generated with the help of the natural world is nearly of the same magnitude as the annual global Gross National Product. It has been revealed that the changes in global temperature resulting from unrestrained burning of fossil fuels has significantly affected the distribution and lifecycle patterns of a host of species, including birds. Unless this trend is reversed, it is bound to affect agriculture and water security for all.

Water security is an issue of particular significance to India. Preserving the freshwater wetlands in the country is vital for the survival of not just birds, but entire communities. The Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), which is working on a draft plan to conserve the seven million hectares of wetlands by involving local communities in all the States, estimates that over 35 per cent of these assets has already been lost. Saving the remaining wetlands will provide not just safe havens for birds both endemic and migratory, but also sustenance for people who depend on the land. Not enough attention is being given to wetlands and marshes by State Governments, which often classify them as wasteland. Many of the less known water bodies in the country could be recommended by the Centre for protection under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Birdlife has lamented the failure of most developing countries to use this instrument to protect their water bodies. SACON's formulation should become the blueprint for a national policy on wetlands.

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