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SOS Rhino : In the News : Sustaining The Ecosystem

Sustaining The Ecosystem

  World Wetlands Day

NepalÍs wetlands, which are significant for global biodiversity, need more efforts for conservation

Feb 6 Æ Feb 12, 2004

Rich in biodiversity and supporting migratory birds that come from thousands of miles north as far as Siberia, the wetlands of Nepal are of global importance - but activities like hunting, poaching, encroachment and lack of concerted effort to conserve these areas have led to substantial decrease in the number of migratory birds appearing there indicating that not all is rosy in Nepalese wetlands despite the government's as well as international environmental organizations' commitment to preserve them.

"Thousands of birds belonging to 20-30 different species of ducks, geese, waders and cranes used to come from the north as far as Siberia to the wetlands of Nepal, mainly the Koshi Tappu. But, of late, their numbers has drastically reduced and they are hard to locate," said Dr. Hem Sagar Baral, a renowned ornithologist. Dr. Baral said that these birds mostly used Nepal's wetland during their passage to further south up to Rajasthan and Gujarat of India.

"Even till the mid-1990s, 10,000 - 20,000 migratory birds like cranes used to come every year to Koshi Tappu wetland during the December-February period to escape the harsh winter of Siberia. But now this figure has dropped substantially to 300-400," said Deependra Joshi, program officer at the World Conservation Union (IUCN-Nepal). The IUCN-Nepal has been working extensively to raise awareness and conserve the wetlands of Nepal.

Dr. Baral adds, "Hunting, usage of agro-chemicals by the farmers in their fields nearby the wetlands, poisoning of the water to kill the ducks have resulted in the sharp reduction of their numbers."

These migratory birds come from as far as 2500 - 2800 miles north. "There are some species of birds that are found to come here from Europe even," said Joshi. The major migratory birds include Sarus Crane or Grus antigone, which is a nationally protected species, black storks, Ruddy Shelduck or Tadoma Ferruginea, among others. Of the 859 bird species found in Nepal, 193 are known to be dependant on wetlands. "Not only the birds, even globally threatened species of mammals like one horned rhinoceros, tigers and Barasingha are wetland-dependant," said Subas Dhakal, a wildlife researcher and editor of The Wildlife journal published from Kathmandu.

The term wetland has been defined as "areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static, flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water, the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters".

The wetlands provide a wide variety of goods and services to the mankind in direct and indirect ways. According to IUCN, the multiple roles of wetland ecosystems and their values to humanity have been increasingly understood and documented in recent years. A recent assessment of the dollar value of global natural ecosystem has been estimated at US $ 33 trillion, of which the value of wetland ecosystem is estimated at US $ 14.9 trillion which is 45% of the total.

The IUCN, which has done extensive research on wetlands has also documented its significance. According to it, wetlands hold heavy rainfall and prevent possible downstream floods. Many wetlands help recharge underground aquifers that store 97% of the world's unfrozen fresh water. Wetlands also act as significant carbon sinks and so the destruction of wetlands release carbondioxide - a greenhouse gas. Wetlands are reservoirs of biodiversity, they house a spectacular concentration of wetland dependent flora and fauna. Freshwater wetlands cover only 1% of the earth surface, they hold more than 40% of the world's biological species and 12% of all animal species. Rice is a common wetland plant and the staple diet for over half of the world's population.

Nepal is home to 242 different wetlands including high altitude glacial lakes to hot springs, ponds to river flooplains, marshes to swamps and so forth. Wetlands are spread over approximately 5% of Nepal's total landmass.

There are four Ramsar Sites - wetlands of International Importance - including Koshi Tappu in eastern Nepal, Beeshazari Taal in central Nepal, Jagdishpur Lake in southern Nepal and Ghodaghodi Taal in western Nepal. The latter three were included in the Ramsar Site only in the year 2003. "These wetlands are critical habitats for one horned rhinoceros, Bengal tiger, Asiatic elephants, fishing cat, gharial and mugger crocodiles, turtles, gangetic dolphins and 193 species of wetlands-dependant bird. Out of the total wetland dependant birds 11 species are described as globally threatened. There are 10 species of amphibians, 1 species of reptile, 8species of fish and 7 species of flowering plants endemic to Nepal's wetlands," according to information provided by the IUCN-Nepal.

"Adequate knowledge on the biodiversity status of wetlands distributed through out the middle and high mountain regions of Nepal is yet to be generated," said Joshi. "Unfortunately, most of the wetlands of Nepal, especially those in the Terai region, and their rich biological resources are facing several threats due to growing population's demand for land and wide variety of products and services," Joshi added.

Some of the major threats are: siltation, over exploitation of wetland resources, over fishing, hunting and poaching, overgrazing by livestock, illegal harvesting of wetland resource, encroachment, water pollution, developmental activities in adjoining areas, drainage, introduction of invasive species, and floods.

Batu Krihsna Uprety, joint secretary at the Environment Section of the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation concedes that efforts to conserve the wetlands are inadequate. "But the government has come up with new Wetland policy, which aims to make use of local community for the sustainable conservation of wetlands and Ramsar sites, which supports waterfowl habitat," said Uprety. "The government is ready and willing to join hands with environmental organizations to preserve these sites." Nepal is a party to the international Ramsar Convention.

But past experiences have shown that it is at the implementation level that most management plans and goals of the government falters. "The main challenge before the government is how to convince the people about the significance of wetland to their livelihood and work accordingly," added another official from the Ministry of Population and Environment.

When this year governments and people around the world observe the World Wetland Day on February 2 with the theme "From the Mountains to the Sea: Wetlands at Work for Us", Nepalese wetlands will be yearning for more attention so as to remain in service for whole of the mankind.