By Prof Sanjay Jain*
The Corona crisis has reminded humans once again that they are just one species in nature like any other species – a truth they always tend to forget, knowingly or unknowingly. Nature had been enabling the evolution, sustenance and growth of millions of life species over millions of years that resulted into a grand, unified web of life. The secret of the stability of this web is its complexity, which is due to the enormous intricate interdependencies among its various species. Each species in this web, however insignificant looking it may be, has a definite role to play in ensuring the strength and prosperity of the web. In this web a virus is as significant as humans.
Though humans are considered the most intelligent species in this web, ironically they have caused greater harm to it than any other species. According to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) (May 2019), nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. The report says that around 1 million out of the total estimated 8 million life species are threatened with extinction. At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century.Prof. Josef Settele, co-chair, IPBES observed, “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
Humans have maintained systematic records of the number of people infected and killed by coronavirus. But there are no such records pertaining to the death and destruction perpetrated by humans to other life species. This is because humans assume that other species are inferior and exist primarily for human use. But some estimated data are available and according to the source, more than 3 billion animals are estimated to be killed for food around the world every day. In contrast to this the average number of deaths per day due to coronavirus is about 3000. Thus every day humans kill about a million times more animals (for food alone) than the humans killed by the virus. This comparison is all the more appalling considering the facts that a human body is naturally vegetarian and plenty of vegetarian options are available in the world. Moreover, a pandemic of this proportion occurs only once in a century and lasts for a few months whereas killing of life species by humans is perennial.
There are many examples that bring forth the complex interdependences among various species in nature’s web of life. Probably the most convincing among them in the recent past occurred in 1958 when Mao Zedong ordered all sparrows in China to be killed to reduce the damage they did to the crops. Described as the ‘Great Sparrow Campaign’, hundreds of millions of sparrows were killed by the Chinese people assuming that they would destroy the grains. However, the dangerous ill effects of vanishing sparrows were witnessed in 1960. As sparrows not only ate grains but also the insects that destroyed the grains, with no sparrow left, the locust populations grew in an uncontrolled way destroying the crops intended for human consumption. This led to a massive famine resulting in millions of people starving to death.
Here are a few more examples. In the 1980s, India used to export frogs in large numbers to serve the palates of a large western population. As frogs are gluttonous consumers of pests and insects, this led to a corresponding increase in pest population, which was then controlled using pesticides causing increase in pollution levels. Realizing the crucial role of frogs in the ecosystem the export was finally banned by the government. Species which are considered harmful by humans also play a significant role in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem. For instance, insects help in this balance by scavenging upon waste materials and debris and effectively utilizing the energy and nutrients from the dead bodies and waste materials of plants and animals through decomposition. Albert Einstein once said: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”
Humans can still salvage the harm they have done to nature if they can sportingly accept the fact that they are not the creator of nature’s life web; they are just one strand in it. Life species in nature are not created to serve humans. Human existence, like the existence of any other species, can be ensured only if the entire web is protected. The genetic biodiversity in this web is the ultimate wealth of our planet. As more and more life species get extinct, more strands in the web are lost and the web is shaken loose making its collapse imminent. We must save other species to ensure the survival of human species. If we can’t do this then humans are most likely to be added gradually to the list of endangered species and then to the list of extinct species in future.
*Head, Knowledge Center, PIET, Nagpur