Monday, May 9, 2011

Celebrating World Environment Day

Celebrating World Environment Day

By Dr Nandkumar Kamat

This year’s World Environment Day (WED), June 5 would have the background of a paradigm shift in our understanding of biology and biodiversity and the experiment to discover the fine structure of matter. The debate would now have the added dimension of synthetic novel species and the possibility of endless chimeras-interspecific hybrids.
Craig Venter’s laboratory created a synthetic species - undoubtedly the kind of research which cannot be denied a Nobel Prize. Within hours of it’s publication I downloaded and read the original paper (readers may get it free from
Venter claims use of a sound protocol and proof of the concept of “programming life in the laboratory”. You take natural DNA out of the cells, insert the synthetic DNA and get the new population of cells, which is as good as the natural one. There are millions of possibilities with the basic ‘life cooking recipe’. If Venter’s recipe has not so far taken off then the reason is that the full sequencing of all the species has not been accomplished. Venter’s technique now gives rise to a new science of synthetic species diversity.
The flourishing of the science of synthetic biology means a gradual erosion of anthropogenic notions or beliefs in a creator, creationism and the beginning of the end of all scriptural religions. Those like Venter, who have found the switch of life, would also find the switch of death and levers for mind and consciousness. New discoveries would lead to molecular spirituality. Would World Environment Day on June 5 discuss and debate the ethical, moral aspects of such research and its implications for the planet and mankind or just confine to token, routine, symbolic and populist activities?
Consistent with the International Year of Biodiversity, the theme of World Environment Day (WED) this year is ‘Many Species, One Planet, One Future’. Our planet is estimated to have between 5 million to 100 million species. Scientists have only managed to identify about 2 million species so far. A total of 17,291 species are known to be threatened with extinction – many species disappear before they are even discovered. This is just tip of the iceberg. There is also a different kind of diversity known as ‘non culturable diversity’. It may comprise of bygone species. Every nook and corner of Earth is teeming with life. Life has been discovered in the stratosphere and in deep mines and marine trenches. Even 225 million years old bacteria have been revived from salt crystals. Species on Earth are not created on a human time scale. But scientists wish to defy this limit by tinkering with genes.
The extinct Siberian woolly mammoth may be brought back to life with just a small amount of genetic material. How do species help us have a common future? It is global mutual interdependence accomplished through a network of species interwoven and interconnected through complex food chains and food webs. Biological time scales do not match earth’s geological time scales. Suppose the Indian tiger, the Royal Bengal tiger becomes extinct? Would it affect the planet? Immediately nothing would happen. But when a top predator is removed from a natural ecosystem then the prey population would increase without any check. The ecosystem would not be maintained. Collapse of ecosystem structure means a gradual collapse of ecosystem functions.
A forest without tigers means a ship without rudders. Suppose the Earth loses the diversity of whales? Nothing would be noticed immediately but different types of fishes would dominate. Are polar bears useful as a species? How will the extinction of polar bears affect me here in Goa? That’s what biologists are supposed to explain on WED.
WED this year, no matter by whom and where it is celebrated, with or without glamour, needs to focus on demystification of the importance of our natural history. We need not really fall for species popular with media - whales, dolphins, tigers, turtles, snakes, frogs, butterflies. Too much attention on these species has deprived other not so well known species their rightful place in the biodiversity discourse. Dragonflies and damselflies are as important as tigers, panthers and pythons. I am more worried about the fast diminishing fireflies, the Photinus species in Goa. On 27th May, after a short spell of rain, at daybreak I saw them emerging from their hibernation in silk cotton trees. Their appearance is delayed by one week this year. The normal dates are between May 15 and May 22. We have zero knowledge about their local habitat, diversity, ecology and biology. Public discourse is more centred on publicity seeking topics like conservation of turtles, snakes and frogs. But fireflies, wild honeybees, stick insects, leaf insects, orb weaving spiders, dragonflies, damselflies, weaver ants, earthworms, fruit bats and such lowly creatures have no friends.
Insect pollinators and insectivores plants have no friends. How many kids have seen insectivorous plants in the countryside? Who would point them out? With almost every plateau being developed and concretised there is no sanctuary left for Goa’s beautiful wildflowers. Patches which are seen during the monsoon are the last fragmented habitats in the history of Goa. Even the urban eco warriors have no interest in their conservation. The global theme of WED needs to translate into local action, community level action. If people refuse to buy baby fish and female fish laden with roe then many species would be saved. Why are hammer headed sharks permitted to be sold in Goa? Experts believe that over fishing of sharks would lead to their extinction very soon.
People who buy medicinal plants need to question their source. Himachal Pradesh mourns the overexploitation of the state’s wild medicinal plant resources. The ban came too late. Urban consumers and rural sellers believe that supply of any wild species would never end. The real threat for biodiversity in Goa comes from people’s lack of knowledge of sustainability, existence value and ecosystem services offered by natural species. Media and environmentalists need to stop advertising the pristine and scenic spots which are subsequently thronged and disturbed by picnickers. There are still no mandatory guidelines for regulating ecotourism or trekking, hiking, camping activities in protected areas.
Invasive species are already playing havoc with local ecosystems. On WED, it is time to discuss the strategy to save what remains and not promote shallow urban interest in picture postcard biodiversity. Start counting fireflies in your backyard and connect to global reality.

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