The Emerging Trends of Biodiversity ‘Parks’ in India
A Biodiversity Park is fast becoming the catch-word in the Indian landscape. Be it the Delhi Development Authority’s biodiversity parks in the NCR (Aravalli, Yamuna, Tilpat Valley), the Late Uttamrao Patil Biodiversity Parks in Maharashtra (planned under the aegis of the State Forest Department), the Mahim Nature Park in the heart of bustling Mumbai, the Orchid & Biodiversity Park in Kaziranga or the Tepania and Baramura Eco-parks in Tripura, the list is expanding.
For conservationists, this is heartening news indeed. More land under green cover – do we want more? Ah well, it so seems, we do! First and foremost, it is critical to assess whether it is being done just as a marketing gimmick (we are bored of usual gardens and nana-nani udyans – we want new terminologies always!) or do the planners understand what biodiversity is? Are these Biodiversity parks doing justice to their purpose? Indeed, what is the purpose of a Biodiversity park? How do the planners interpret biodiversity?
In the absence of set guidelines that could have provided these answers, it is indeed true that some of our Biodiversity parks are less than ideal, while few others could have reached more dizzying heights of perfection.
As a student of biodiversity and a practitioner in the field, I am putting across my viewpoint on this, and hoping that some concrete answers emerge.
First and foremost – we must understand what biodiversity is? Is it limited to species? Among species as well, which taxonomic groups? The more visible vertebrates and angiosperms? What about genetic varieties then? What about habitat diversity? What about the socio-cultural aspects and the role of the smartest ape, i.e., us?
Well, had it been a multiple choice question with the above as options, and had there been a last option of ‘all of the above’, the knowledgeable one would have chosen the latter! Biodiversity is indeed all of the above and more – from the virus to the whale, from the desert to the ocean, from the parasite to the predator, Biodiversity encompasses all. Yes, there are trees beyond oak, willow, mango and ficus, herbs beyond wheat and rice, fish beyond salmon and rohu, birds beyond the peacock, pheasant and parakeet, and mammals beyond tiger and rhino. Indeed, biodiversity extends to the bacteria other than the pathogenic Salmonella and Staphylococci, the fungi other than the edible button mushrooms, to the ferns, the mosses, and the algae.
Let’s then see how experts define Biodiversity - "biological diversity" as "the variability among living organisms from all sources, including, 'inter alia',terrestrial,marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part: this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems" The term was coined by the proficient ant specialist (we love to call him a myrmecologist) Prof. E. O. Wilson in 1986, to highlight the sheer complexity and variety of life on earth.
Besides, a humongous amount of research is required to go into this – not only to develop jungle trees for plantation activities but also to fully understand the ecological linkages of each species.
Hence, there are three levels at which Biodiversity has to be studied – the species level is the most obvious, most visible and best understood one – but the ecosystem level above it and the genetic level below it together encompass Biodiversity.
Why Bother about Biodiversity?
We get all that we need from where else but Biodiversity. Our oxygen, our food, our medicines…list is endless. But wait! That is a selfish, anthropocentric attitude. Do we bother about Biodiversity just because it is a vitally important resource? No! Biodiversity has a larger role to play, much beyond serving the needs of the Home sapiens. Each species, and trust me there are millions out there (8.7 million, as per the latest estimate), has its own role to play in the ecosystem, of which the smartest ape knows little about. The bats and the snakes, the ticks and the mosquitoes, all come under the canopy of Biodiversity whether we like them or not! Each species is like a nut or a bolt in the ecological machinery and till date we know little about how the machinery will fail if one tiny bolt is lost.
On a level above is the ecosystem diversity, because of which exist conducive conditions for the species to exist. From conservation perspective, it is more practical that decisions are made on the basis of ecosystem diversity as it ensures that larger areas (housing several species) come under protection in one go.
On a level below is the genetic diversity, which ensures that enough ‘fit’ genes exist to ensure population survival through the natural challenges of disease, harmful mutation and nutrient stress.
What is a Biodiversity Park?
Before understanding what it is, one should probably first confirm what it is not. To be emphatic, one thing that a Biodiversity Park most certainly is not, is a ‘Park’. By using the term ‘Park’ one seems to emphasize the amusement or recreational aspect, when ideally, it is the ecological and conservation aspects that need to be highlighted. A Biodiversity Park must be perceived to be different from the usual public gardens and parks and hence, its nomenclature should be tweaked to make it sound closer to its intended purpose. How about a Biodiversity Center? A Biodiversity Conservation Center? A Biodiversity Research Center?
A Biodiversity Center should be looked upon as blue-green infrastructure, which is planned with the chief aim of conservation, eco-restoration or ecological enhancement. It is a bit of an oxymoron, a man-made natural ecosystem, a controlled wilderness, a tamed jungle.
Hence, a jogging track, park benches, manicured lawns and concretized or paver-block pathways strike alien notes and look artificial, belying the purpose and should be avoided! Anything man-made that can be avoided should be avoided. Anything man-made that cannot be avoided should be concealed or camouflaged.
One must understand that there are no orchid gardens and medicinal plant gardens in nature – in nature, such flora are either randomly distributed or grow together because of ecologically/evolutionarily significant associations – this distribution pattern should be understood and mimicked.
Also, since it is a Biodiversity center, the focus should be at all three levels of diversity – genetic, species and ecosystem.
And yes, it is meant as an eco-tourism site where the general public not unduly interested in nature has to be enticed – and hence, while the stress is on nouns such as wilderness and jungle, adjectives like man-made, controlled, and tamed are equally important, too!
Purposes Served by a Biodiversity Centers
While planning to convert an existing piece of land to a Biodiversity Center, what should the planners think of? What should a Biodiversity Center aim to achieve?
Ideally, a Biodiversity Center should aim to serve two sets of services. Ecological and Social.
Is the planned Biodiversity Center abutting a natural ecosystem that will be better conserved and monitored better after eco-tourism starts?
Is it being built as an attempt at eco-restoration of a previously degraded/disturbed ecosystem? In that case, is the closest undisturbed natural ecosystem adopted as an emulatable model? Or is historical data about the very same ecosystem in its pristine days available?
Is there fund enough to set up ex-situ conservation efforts such as a native flora nursery or a wild animal rescue center?
What unique features will help entice tourists?
Is there an honest attempt to educate the tourists about biodiversity? Are the signage, posters, banners informative and accurate? Will this Biodiversity Center make the term Biodiversity more socially relevant?
How are the local people getting benefitted through new opportunities of salaried jobs and business options?
The same has been represented through the figure below:
- Site Selection – Is the site located within the city? Then there may be restrictions on size, proximity to undisturbed natural ecosystem, and types of species and habitats that can be highlighted. However, there may be ample opportunity to restore a degraded habitat, and easy accessibility may help ensure more eco-tourist foot-fall. Larger the area that can be brought under the ambit of Biodiversity Center in urban/semi-urban locations the better – not only does it mean a larger ecologically disturbed site restored but also the assurance that this site that will not easily fall to squatters or land-sharks.
Sites located closer to natural ecosystems and further from cities provide opportunities of keeping a keener eye on the ecosystem (poachers, tree-cutters beware!) and better conservation, not to forget the boost to local economy. Here, stress should be on disturbing as little of the undisturbed natural ecosystem as possible – just enough along the edges to ensure that the uninitiated gets a peek into what wilderness is like.
- Materials – More recycled products are used, the better – both environmentally and financially speaking. Can treated sewage be used for irrigation? Can urban wet waste be composted and used as manure? Can sewage and waste treatment be managed through green technologies? Can construction & demolition waste be used for landscaping?
- The Right Kind of Experts – A really diverse blend of experts is necessary here – from specialized taxonomists who know their way around insects and algae to horticulturists and landscape architects, from civil engineers to soil scientists and hydrologists – we need them all on board!
- Managerial aspects – Roping in the locals works – especially those who have been a part of the ecosystem and understand it better than you or me. However, an external – preferably in the role of a government representative is always important to keep an eye on the proceedings. Local forest officers or municipality garden department representatives may be good options to start with.
- Financial aspects –The relevant government departments are most important sources of funding – especially the Forest Department and State Biodiversity Board or the municipal garden department, depending on where the park is located. A fee from tourists is also the most straightforward way to earn. Directing CSR funds towards this or planning to run it on a PPP model has also been feasible in some cases.
Hence, to Summarize –
- Biodiversity Centers must be aimed at conservation first and recreation next
- The features within Biodiversity Centers may be man-made but should appear as close to nature as possible; in fact, as few man-made features as possible should be the motto and utterly essential ones should be concealed/camouflaged
- There are no orchid gardens and medicinal plant gardens in nature – in nature, such flora are either randomly distributed or grow together because of ecologically/evolutionarily significant associations – this distribution pattern should be understood and mimicked
- A panel of experts ranging from ecologists and taxonomists to engineers and architects is important to be put together to guide through the planning process
- Planning of what should be included within the Biodiversity Center will depend on its location, available size and budget
- Use of as many recycled items (sewage, wet waste, recycled metal etc.) as possible is recommended
- Local involvement and highlighting socio-cultural features is significant
- Potential funding sources include – government grants, tourist entry fees, CSR funds and PPP model