Conservation of habitat ensures the long-term survival of life on the planet. It allows species to thrive in their environments through different techniques and practices depending on the level and type of degradation/destruction. Habitat loss is also identified as the main threat to 85% of species listed in the IUCN Red List (i.e. those listed as Threatened or Endangered).1 Alongside climate change, it is the most concerning issue in the environmental realm since ecosystems and habitats do not exist in isolation from each other. This is why it is no surprise to see organizations ramping up their efforts to save crucial habitats. Securing the planet’s future cannot happen without preserving spaces for plants and animals to flourish again.
Different animals showing up in the most unexpected places was a common sight during the initial phase of the pandemic around April 2020. These animals left their habitats to wander off into man-made spaces, some in awe of the sudden freedom, and some even in search of food. For many, it might have once even been their original habitat that was now destroyed or perhaps a corridor used for migration by previous generations. As an appreciation for lack of human disturbance in their habitats arose, it brings us to an important question-What is a habitat and how does conserving it influence the presence of flora and fauna on this planet?
What is a habitat?
A habitat is the natural home of a species, be it a plant, animal, or any other organism found on earth. One ecosystem can provide many habitats. Since the earth has such a wide variety of habitats- mountains, forests, oceans, deserts, and more, the type of habitat found in a country/region varies depending on where one is. Habitats bring with them a unique abundance of diverse species. Depending on the species’ rarity, this can often mean native and endemic species which are not found anywhere else.
Many flora and fauna found across countries in similar habitats. Some species such as the Rose Ringed Parakeets and White-Throated Kingfishers are even found in different habitat types. Consequently, being found across several regions, wildlife may adapt minor differences resulting in subspecies. In many specific regions, habitats are home to rare endemic species that may not be found anywhere else in the world. For example, a 2020 study found that New Guinea has the greatest plant diversity of any place in the world. The island harbours a variety of habitats such as swamps, mangroves, tropical and montane forests. The range of habitats the island supports allows it to be a paradise brimming with plant life.
What happens when habitats disappear?
The short answer to this would be that it leads to loss of species in addition to lants, animals and other organisms losing their homes. The longer answer entails a detailed examination between biodiversity, species abundance, and the negative impact of rapid global development at an ecological cost. As with many natural things touched by humankind, habitats too have been through a decline which has made the conservation of habitat a crucial topic. This can manifest through habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction, and/or habitat degradation. Unchecked expansion (industrial, urbanisation, etc.) has not just led to green cover loss but also habitat loss which has had unintended consequences such as a decline in species and biodiversity. According to an IPBES report, habitat loss and degradation has caused a 30% reduction in terrestrial habitat integrity globally. Hence conservation of habitat has become one of the primary issues to tackle when dealing with wildlife decline.
Fragmentation occurs when a larger habitat is broken up into smaller patches and/or isolated areas. This creates a disconnect, and the inhabitants are suddenly left with partial land/aquatic pockets to live in. On land, this is often why one may find animals on roads as once what was once their home is now converted through development. Unfortunately, these situations also lead to human-wildlife conflict that can cause harm to either.
Conservation of habitat can be done in a few different ways, for example, by establishing wildlife overpasses and corridors that allow safe passage for animals to cross without the risk of being injured by vehicles. However, it is not that easy and needs an integrated and comprehensive understating of the species, habitats, their interactions and the ecosystem as well. Modern innovation has brought some great solutions for the same, by creating artificial bridges over highways, some even involving nature-based solutions. Other ways of habitat conservation include conserving, protecting and restoring areas of concern (degraded land, etc.).
Habitats serve as a place for organisms to live and support biodiversity of all kinds. Biodiversity, in turn, is essential for a healthy ecosystem. Conservation of habitat is often listed alongside addressing land-use change issue for a sustainable future. In the oceans, habitat loss can look like polluted waters, coral reef destruction, degrading coastal development, etc. Damaged marine ecosystems and habitats due to anthropogenic activities have hurt some of the planet’s smartest species, i.e. dolphins.
An international study published in Scientific Reports attributed the reason behind this to be a change in their habitat. Dolphins are being exposed to prolonged periods of freshwater as the salinity of their coastal habitat gets altered due to high rainfall whenever cyclones, hurricanes occur. Since climate change has recently increased the frequency of such storms, dolphins, are bearing the unexpected consequence of an alteration in their habitat.
“Habitat loss due to agriculture and overexploitation remain the biggest threats to biodiversity and ecosystems” Living Planet Repot 2018, WWF
Loss of biodiversity due to habitat eventually affects its inhabitants. This could often also mean losses in financial terms. For example, the FAO estimates that pollinators contribute ~$235 – $577 billion/year worth of global food production.
Pollution and disruptions in ecosystem services also lead to habitat destruction and degradation. The reason certain species are only found in specific habitats is that over millions of years, they have adapted to be able to live in that niche. A key feature of evolution is the fact that species evolve and adapt to survive in their environments. An interesting point to note is that habitat loss has also forced many species to alter their behaviour to fit their modern surroundings. However, sometimes this comes with another problem – for example, human-animal conflict.
However, such instances are a few because most of the times, habitat loss can occur at such a fast rate that flora and fauna are unable to adapt and die out. One example of this can be seen with the salamander, Axolotl, in Mexico, where rampant pollution of their natural habitat directly led to a drastic decline in their population. They are abundant in laboratories around the world and are successfully bred in captivity. Unfortunately, they are almost extinct in the wild.