Preserving Biodiversity, Reiterate the Resolve on World Environment Day 2016

research report

A famous Urdu proverb “Zinda Hathi Lakh Ka, Mara Hua Sawa Lakh Ka,” which, in English, loosely means that a valuable thing becomes even more profitable after its death, seems true for the illegal trade of wild animals. The etymology of this famous proverb does also have an implied mention of this illegal trade that is in full swing nowadays. The knowledge and information we have, disprove the literal meanings of the abovementioned proverb because today a living elephant is far more valuable than a dead one. A pair of ivories (elephant tusks) could fetch merely 21,000 dollars in black market, but a living elephant can benefit local eco-tourism to the tune of 1.6 million dollars throughout his life. In other words, it means that a living elephant is 76 times more beneficial than a dead one. Researchers believe that a living elephant can provide economic benefit of 22,966 dollars a year in terms of ecotourism. As average lifespan of an elephant is 70 years; so, in his entire life, he can earn 1.6 million dollars to local economy. But, who would wait for 70 long years? Out of avarice, people kill the goose that lays golden eggs; and the result? Only remorse! But those involved in illegal wildlife trade don’t feel any regret because they still can avail themselves of opportunities to go on with their illegitimate business. Amidst all these factors and contexts, the theme chosen for the World Environment Day 2016 is: “Go Wild for Life: Zero Tolerance for the Illegal Wildlife Trade.”

Illegal trade of wildlife is actually done to meet the rising demand of animals and animal products. This trade is controlled by organized syndicates who smuggle wild animals just like narcotics and arms. This is the world’s fifth largest illegal trade whose annual volume, according to United Nations Environmental Program’s yearbook 2014 entitled “Emerging Issues Update; Illegal Trade in Wildlife” ranges between 50 billion and 150 billion dollars. Since increase in human population is causing a rise in demand of wildlife products, therefore, for extracting materials to make foods, medicine, houses and textile, the use of wildlife is far greater than that in the past and it has resulted into the extinction of many biological species from the face of the earth. Many are still endangered and are at the verge of extinction. This fact has been pointed by the IUCN in its Red List of Threatened Species which says that at present, 834 wildlife species have gone extinct from the face of the earth while 69 have gone extinct in the wild. Similarly, 48,498 species, 2015, are critically endangered while 7,323 are endangered. Moreover, 25% of mammals and 41% of amphibians are also facing the threat of extinction as they are ‘endangered’ whereas 13% of bird species also fall in this category.

Scientists say that the rate of wildlife extinction is 1000 to 10,000 times higher than that in the past. The Living Planet Report 2014 of the WWF shows a decline of 52 percent between 1970 and 2010. In other words, vertebrate species populations across the globe are, on average, about half the size they were 40 years ago. The report further reveals that 1.5 Earths would be required to meet the demands humanity makes on nature each year; only earth is now not capable of providing resources on its own and it needs a partner to meet growing human demands.

The prospects for earning huge profits that the illegal wildlife trade offers are further pushing the already-endangered species to the verge of extinction. Rhino horns, ivory tusks and products extracted from tigers and other animals fetch exorbitant prices in the market. The fundamental reasons why this trade goes on unchecked are not only the demand for illegal wildlife products for their use in traditional East Asian medicine, but the use of animal hides as a status symbol and their use for clothing purposes and domesticating wild animals and birds are also among them. Moreover, factors like corruption, toothless laws, weak judicial system and only lax penalties allow the networks of smugglers and poachers to go on with their illegitimate practices. This happens also because only the poor operatives are nabbed on killing or capturing animals but their rich masters manage to go scot free. Thus they remain potent enough to do the same again and again. And this is a major factor that has made this business less risky and highly lucrative.

There are certain places in the world where wildlife trade is particularly threatening. These areas are called “wildlife trade hotspots.” They include China’s international borders, trade hubs in East/Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, the eastern borders of the European Union, some markets in Mexico, parts of the Caribbean, parts of Indonesia and New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. These black markets are called hotspots because here exorbitant prices are given for the wildlife. For example, elephant ivory gets as much as 2,200 dollars per kg in China — it was only 750 dollars in 2010. Rhino horn, with its supposed but unproven medicinal qualities, can bring over US$66,000 per kg on the black market. Similarly, in Europe, the volume of illegal trade in python skin is nearly one billion dollars whereas pangolin scales fetch as much as 600 dollars per kg. In Asian black market, a pangolin is priced about 1,000 dollars. These attractive prices cause the merciless killing of wild animals all over the world. For instance, 25,000 elephants were killed in 2013 to supply the illegal ivory trade. In the same year, nearly 1000 rhinos were slaughtered for their horns in South Africa — more than any other single year. In addition to this, countless other wild animals are also being killed to supply for this illegal trade.

Pakistan is not only a source country for the illegal trade of live wild animals, their organs and products but is a big transit and a consumer country of those as well. From Pakistan, illegal trade of marine life, reptiles, mammals, birds and forest products and medicinal plants is carried on whereas an organized network for illegal trade of freshwater turtles does also exist. Animals from Pakistan are exported to China, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Vietnam and other East Asian countries.

What distinguishes earth from other planets is its biodiversity. The constituents of this diversity are humans, plants and animals. This is life and preservation of it on earth is no less than incumbent upon us. And every life-form that goes extinct from the face of the earth is an irreparable loss to the planet. If we save a form of life, we actually build a block against the irreversible climatic changes because saving biological organisms is the other name of saving the environment. Every living thing plays its part in the efficacy and vigour of the natural system and paucity of any life-form causes changes to the natural environment and colossal losses thereupon. But protecting biological organisms does mean evading losses only; it is actually the protection of fabric of life which guarantees the survival of our planet. Besides environmental importance of preservation of wildlife, its economic, scientific, recreational and social significance are also an undeniable reality.

The survival of life on earth is contingent on prudently utilizing biological species and their natural habitats. Besides humans, there are countless life forms on earth which haven’t been discovered yet. According to a recent study by UN’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, there are 8,740,000 biological organisms on earth; among them 6.5 million inhabit land while the remaining 2.2 million are aquatic. Similarly, among 7,770,000 animals only 953,434 and have been catalogued yet whereas this number for plants among 298,000 is only 215,644. It means that we have only a limited knowledge about wildlife but still our actions are proving catastrophic for its very survival.

Among factors behind a steep fall in wildlife include falling number of habitats, illegal hunting and poaching, imbalanced trade (illegal), climate change, environmental pollution, deforestation, growing agriculture, desertification of wetlands, overuse of meadows, building of infrastructure and human-animal conflict, to name some. In the presence of these factors, the picture of wildlife in Pakistan is aptly described by Manager Research & Conservation WWF Pakistan, Mr Jamshed Iqbal Chaudhry, who says, “Wildlife in Pakistan is declining day by day” despite the fact that among the 10 most suitable areas for wildlife, 4 — deserts, moderate verdant regions, moist temperate forests and mountains — are found in Pakistan.

Hence, in the presence of this diverse natural environment, the increasing extinction of wildlife in Pakistan rings alarm bells and calls for due attention to be paid to this issue. In this regard, there is a dire need to amend country’s laws in order to meet the requirements of time. Mr Chaudhry opines that we need to amend country’s wildlife laws and bring them in consonance with international treaties that Pakistan has already signed and ratified. At the provincial level, too there are glaring disparities in such laws which should also be removed at the earliest.

The geographical region which makes today’s Pakistan was once rich in wildlife. When first Mughal Emperor of the Subcontinent, Zaheer-ud-Din Babur, set off from Central Asia, he, after passing through  Khyber, reached Pakistan’s present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Here, he found that the region has a diverse wildlife in form of lions, cheetahs, rhinos, peacock, nilgai, etc. He has given a detailed description of these species and the story of his hunting adventures in his autobiography named Baburnama (The Memoirs of Babur). A famous Western researcher Warburton also corroborates this fact in his book. He says, “At a distance of a few miles to the west of Peshawar, there are thick forests where animals of different species are found in multitudes. Among them urials, Ibexes, markhors, wild goats, chinkaras roam about freely. If you go by horse, you can come back to Peshawar within a day after hunting.”
However, all that has changed today and four mammal species have gone extinct from this region. Among them are included subspecies lion, leopard, swamp deer and rhinoceros. This is the situation before the establishment of Pakistan in 1947. Even after 1947 we have seen black deer falling prey to humans’ slackness as it has fast marched toward extinction. Moreover, Asiatic cheetah, Bengal tiger, alligator and hangul have also become extinct.

As per the data provided by the WWF-Pakistan, there are 2063 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians (cold-blooded vertebrates typically living on land but breeding in water) and marine fish found in Pakistan; making 3.11% of the total species population. Mammal species in Pakistan number 195, which is 3.53% of the world whereas those of birds are 668, of reptile are 192 and of amphibians are 22 which make 6.40%, 1.86% and 0.29%, respectively, of the world.

Pakistan has another distinction: 3 species of mammals are peculiar to Pakistan as they are not found elsewhere in the world. However, one of them Balochistan black bear is critically endangered whereas Woolly flying squirrel of northern areas and Indus blind dolphin (Bhullan in local lexicon) are also among the endangered species. As per IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, 2015, 24 mammal species in Pakistan are facing the looming threat of extinction. Likewise, 32 species of birds, 11 of reptiles and 36 of fish are facing extinction whereas 12 plant species are also included in this category. The Red List, in other words, highlights that 9 animal species of Pakistan are critically endangered while 29 are on the list of endangered species.

Among the animal species facing a threat of extinction are included Musk deer of northern areas, hog deer of riverine forests, nilgai of Indo-Pakistani border areas, chinkara gazelle of desert areas, urial of mountains slopes, markhor and ibex of mountain peaks, rosh (Marco polo sheep) of Pak-China border areas, zebra, Indus dolphin, anteater, civet, sand cat, Pallas’s cat, badger, hyena, snow leopard, green sea turtle, freshwater turtles, great Indian bustard, Western tragopan, white-headed duck, vultures, Balochistan black bear, wolf, peacock of Thar and black scorpion. All these species are slowly, but gradually, marching toward extinction and if serious efforts for their preservation are not put in, then it is highly likely that these animals will only be heard about in stories.

To thwart the situation from aggravating, one prudent step for wildlife preservation is the establishment of national parks. At present, there are 6,555 national parks in the world and among them 26 are only in Pakistan covering an area of 30,494 sq km. As per the WWF data, there are 5 national parks in Gilgit-Baltistan, 7 in Azad Jammu & Kashmir, 6 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 4 in Punjab, 2 in Balochistan and 1 each in Islamabad and Sindh.

Environmentalists call the earth a building whose pillars are these biological organisms and imbalance even of a single pillar can lead to the collapse of the whole building. Then, should we save the building or should we let it collapse. The time to decide has come and we all have to make this important decision.

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