We may blame Covid-19 for drawing our attention away from biodiversity conservation. But the truth is, for a long time, we have been talking about biodiversity a lot, rather than saving it.
That is why the World Wildlife Fund International estimates that the earth's wildlife has gone down by almost 70 percent in the last five decades; the United Nations predicts that the world's one million species, out of eight million, would be extinct in the next few decades; and the World Economic Forum ranks biodiversity loss as the third most serious risk for the world, after weapons of mass destruction and climate change.
Through the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), countries did set targets to save world biodiversity, first by 2010, then by 2020. But they have failed tremendously. Given the present alarming decline in our biodiversity, we need to transform our conservation approaches altogether.
Let us take our current approach to saving wild species in danger. First, we need to measure the overall conditions. There are some important issues that ensure the survival and existence of a plant or animal species in nature: for example, the number of mature individuals, if the number is increasing or decreasing over the years, if they are widely distributed or confined to a small area, etc. Based on these criteria, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) developed an assessment system 56 years ago to prepare the Red Lists of threatened species.
If an assessed species' condition is good, it is classified as "Not Threatened" on a Red List, which is good news. But if the condition is bad, the species is put in one of three threatened categories: Critically Endangered, Endangered, and Vulnerable, corresponding to the severity of the condition. Based on the conservation status of a species, we take measures to save it from extinction.
Plants have always been slow in entering the Red Lists. IUCN, for example, has so far assessed about 120,400 species of the world, of which 36 percent are plants.
The year 2001 saw Bangladesh's first attempt to prepare a plant Red List, a year after IUCN published the first animal Red List of Bangladesh. The Bangladesh National Herbarium (BNH)—an agency of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC)—under the leadership of renowned botanist Professor M Salar Khan, assessed 106 plant species and found four as threatened. Twelve years later, following IUCN's Red List methodology, BNH listed 120 species in the second volume of the plant Red List.
Recently, BNH and IUCN have initiated a new project under the World Bank-Bangladesh Forest Department (BFD)'s Sustainable Forests And Livelihoods (SUFAL) programme (2018−2023), to assess 1,000 plant species out of a total of about 4,000 and to prepare an updated plant Red List of Bangladesh. This new initiative was first discussed in a meeting of the National Committee for Updating Species Red List of Bangladesh, held in May 2015 and chaired by the secretary of the MoEFCC. It took a while for that decision to materialise.
A Red List preparation is a time-consuming academic endeavour, which demands large groups of experts to conduct and review the species assessments. The interest of funders in such an exercise has always been limited. Institutions supposed to lead such initiatives often show low enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the new BNH-IUCN project is a good step forward towards the long-pending plant Red List of Bangladesh.
In the wake of this development, it would be useful to explore the impact of IUCN's last animal Red List of Bangladesh (2015), also funded by the World Bank. In that exercise, 160 biologists rigourously assessed 1,619 species of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, freshwater fish, crustacea and butterflies. Alarmingly, about 24 percent of these species were found to be threatened. But what was the use of that knowledge, captured in almost 2,400 pages in seven volumes?
Since 2016, the animal Red List of Bangladesh has been repeatedly quoted by different conservation and environmental action plans and strategies of Bangladesh. Many environmental project documents have mentioned the Red List while discussing the dire condition of Bangladesh's biodiversity. Countless Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports written by many consulting firms matched the biodiversity of project areas against the animal Red List.
That Red List also furthered research on biodiversity in Bangladesh. On October 20, 2020, I searched on Google Scholar—an online search engine for finding academic research publications—and found around 230 items published in the last five years citing the "Red List of Bangladesh".
Since the publication of 2015's animal Red List, several conservation projects targeting threatened species were initiated or completed. The ongoing UNHCR-IUCN's Asian Elephant conservation activities around the Rohingya refugee camps are essentially a legacy of IUCN's elephant conservation work initiated back in 2001 with the US Fish and Wildlife Service's support, which was later strengthened under the BFD's Strengthening Regional Cooperation for Wildlife Protection (SRCWP) programme. Similarly, the USAID-Wild Team's Bengal Tiger (2014−2018) and UNDP-BFD's Ganges River Dolphin (2015−2020) conservation projects were results of earlier initiatives by other conservation organisations.
The animal Red List of Bangladesh (2015), therefore, was an excellent academic exercise and is being used as reference in new research, but has not helped much to stimulate significant conservation action on the ground.
The 1,000 plant species' Red List will indeed improve our knowledge on Bangladesh's biodiversity and will be an excellent reference point. But knowing the conservation status of species is meaningless, unless we take action to improve the situation. We, therefore, should use the new Red List project to advocate for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh's conventional biodiversity conservation in two important areas.
Project-based, donor-funded approaches have not been good for meaningful, long-term conservation. We need uninterrupted funds for our conservation work. We have 10 years of experience in managing the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund (BCCTF). We should use that experience to establish the Biodiversity Conservation Fund—as described in Article 36 of the Bangladesh Biodiversity Act, 2017—to support our conservation activities.
The assessment of 1,000 or 25 percent of plant species of Bangladesh will help us to map the areas where the threatened species are now found. Combining this location data with that of 1,619 animal species can build an outstanding knowledge base for us—the prioritised ecosystems to be conserved. We can then prepare comprehensive investment plans to spend resources to conserve these ecosystems, instead of focusing on a few individual species.
Now the question is—are we ready to go beyond biodiversity research and focus more on conservation action?
Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems. His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah