Professor CR Babu has been working in the areas of conservation biology, biodiversity and genetic resources, environmental degradation and ecological restoration, ecosystem dynamics and functions, and systematics for more than 40 years. He was the founder director of the Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE) and School of Environmental Studies at the University of Delhi, and brought into existence the Department of Environmental Biology (now designated as Department of Environmental Studies) at the University of Delhi. Presently he is Professor Emeritus at the University of Delhi and Distinguished Professor of the Environment and Ecology at the School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University Delhi
Q: What are the biggest challenges in biodiversity conservation?
We are living in an era of 6th mass extinction. Recent Red Data list of IUCN shows that about 90% of global species are threatened. In India about 132 plant and animal species are critically endangered and 370 species are endangered. In fact, the present rate of species extinction is 100 times higher than the background extinct rate. To prevent losses of biodiversity is the biggest challenge in the conservation of biodiversity. There are on-site and off-site conservation measures, all of which contribute to the preservation of biodiversity. The challenge is how to recreate the lost biodiversity at the local levels particularly in urban landscapes. One new approach is the establishment of Biodiversity Parks. Biodiversity parks are unique landscapes where ecological assemblages in the form of biological communities are recreated over marginal lands. These serve as nature reserves and conserve the locally extinct natural heritage. The Delhi Biodiversity parks (Yamuna and Aravalli Biodiversity parks) established by DDA exemplify the success story of recreation of lost natural heritage including biodiversity.
Q: Are there some species of flora and fauna whose presence or absence can be taken as indicators of changing environmental conditions?
Environmental changes at the local, subnational and national can be identified by the presence or absence of specific plant and animal species. For example, many bird species and butterflies are used as indicators of change in the environment. Many bird species are sensitive to temperature change. Black francolins are usually found at 1400 meters in Himalayas and now these are found at 2800 meters altitude. This suggests that warming shifted their home range to higher elevations. Birds like Indian Pitta can be used as indicator for moist forests and absence or degradation of such forests make the species to move out of its home range. Similarly, the lichens and mosses are extensively used in monitoring air quality in US and Netherlands. These plants are sensitive to temperature, moisture, wind and airborne nutrients and metals. Many of these species disappear in highly polluted environments.
The extent of metal accumulation by these plants can be used as the level of pollution. Plants also indicate salinization of soils. For example, presence of Suaeda fruticosa indicates saline soils and it is always absent in non-saline soils.
Q: How do we restore ecosystems in states (including UP) that are high on mining, both legal and illegal?
Open cast mining – the most widely used method of mining of georesources – is ecologically disastrous and leads to death of ecosystems. The open cost mining has many adverse impacts on the environment and these include: Creation of new landforms such as overburdened dumps (OBDs) and deep mine voids which never exist in nature, reduction in recharging of ground water, drying of springs, reduction in stream flows, silting of riverbeds leading to flash floods, changes in the concentration of atmospheric gases particularly CO2, leaching of toxic chemicals leading to pollution of waters and soils and loss of livelihoods to local communities. Thousands of hectares of forests, arable and prime cultivable lands are rendered unproductive annually. How to bring back the dead ecosystems to original natural state of ecosystems is a challenge. Using ecological restoration (a young scientific discipline), limestone, morrum, dolomite, iron ore and coal mine out areas have been restored to their original natural forest ecosystems. The inputs used for ecological restoration are grasses, legumes, woody plants, microbes and soil invertebrates, all of which promoted biophysical processes leading to soil development and stabilization, soil moisture retention and establishment of nutrient cycling which in turn hasten the process of ecosystem redevelopment. The end product of ecological restoration of mined out areas over a period of 5-10 years is the establishment of original 3 storeyed natural forest ecosystem that has the biodiversity and function similar to the one before degradation, and with ecological services and goods that contribute to livelihoods to local communities. The spectacular success story is the ecological restoration of 250 acre limestone mined out area of Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL) at Purnapani (near Rourkela), Odisha to a 3-storeyed, 45’-60’ tall canopy, moist deciduous forest ecosystem that generate ecological services and goods, and restoration of 200 acre deep mined void to biologically productive ecosystem that provide livelihoods to local communities. This project was supported by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India and SAIL. The Purnapani model is now serving as a model for replication elsewhere by other stakeholders. The Uttar Pradesh Government can also replicate such models in its mined out areas.
Q: How would you explain the importance of greenery and biodiversity to the urban populace?
Without greenery and biodiversity, the urban spaces not only become heat islands but also death traps due to build up pollutants. Recent air pollution hazard in Delhi and other Indian cities is due to paucity of greenery and biodiversity. The greenery and biodiversity not only purify air, prevent formation of heat islands and regulate/ control vector born insects because of trophic cascade of biodiversity but also prevent water logging of roads, reduce the power requirement for air conditioners and coolers and also buffer the local weather, particularly temperature. In fact, it has been estimated that Chicago trees assimilate some 5 metric tons of air pollutants and this ecological service itself is worth of several million dollars. There is need to educate the urban populace about the importance of greenery and biodiversity in their neighbourhoods through conducting tree walks and bird watching regularly at weekends and also through writing popular articles in magazine like “TreeTake”. In some cities, the Residential Welfare Associations are actively involved in the development and management of greenery and biodiversity in the surroundings of residential complexes. For example, tree census has been regularly carried by some RWAs in Delhi with the help of an NGO, Green Circle of Delhi, headed by Dr Suhas Borker.
Q: Do you think that town planners don't keep urban ecology in mind while developing townships? What prominent measures must be adopted for a healthy balance?
For a long time, the town planners have been virtually eliminating the natural heritage from the developmental matrix of urban centres. In metropolitan cities of our Country, the flora and fauna and their habitats have been wiped out, and this is one of the reasons for air pollution hazards, water logging of urban roads and heat island formation. In fact, in the past many great civilizations were perished due to human induce ecological perturbations. The local City Development Authorities have now realised the role of greenery and biodiversity in sustaining the urban equality of life, and hence incorporating the concept of greens, preservation of natural heritage left out, and recreate lost natural heritage in the form of Biodiversity Parks. Delhi Development Authority has taken up several initiatives to preserve the left out wilderness, restoration of the degraded landscapes, establishment new greens in the form of Parks and gardens and a network of Delhi Biodiversity Parks to serve as Nature Reserves. In fact, the Government of NCT also established city wood lands and is also restoring the Ridge to its pristine glory, i.e., original fully functional natural ecosystems. Following DDA’s Biodiversity Parks, many State Governments such as Karnataka and Maharashtra have been developing Biodiversity Parks in cities like Bengaluru, and towns and district headquarters in Maharashtra. However, the concept of Smart Cities in India does not involve environment sustainability. A city without environmental sustainability is not liveable. It may be noted that every country should have 33% of forest cover out of the total geographical area. This rule is essential to ensure that ecosystems generate ecological services and goods to support life, in the absence of which life does not exist. Therefore, there is a need to have green spaces and biodiversity parks to the tune of 22-33% of the total area in the developmental matrix of urban centres