Urban forestry: For animals, home is where the tree is

Published: July 10, 2016
Consistent decline in Karachi’s vegetation drives wildlife out of the city. PHOTOS: AYSHA SALEEM/EXPRESS

Consistent decline in Karachi’s vegetation drives wildlife out of the city. PHOTOS: AYSHA SALEEM/EXPRESS

KARACHI: Rapid development and the subsequent chopping of trees in Karachi has not only created problems for residents but also damaged the habitat of many birds and animals that lived here. Wildlife diversity, which is crucial for environmental stability, has reduced to such an extent that one doesn’t listen to birds chirping in the morning anymore.

As environmental activists make a case for more trees in Karachi, we take a look at how the absence of greenery forces wildlife away from the city and as a result disturbs the system that keeps all living things alive.

Why are animals important?

Umair Shahid, a conservationist working with World Wildlife Fund Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan), says protecting wildlife is essential because birds, animals and insects help maintain the ecological balance which supports life. “Snakes protect rice crops from mice; birds control pests and protect fruits. Our ecosystem works because there’s a balance,” he says.

In agreement, wildlife expert at International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Tahir Rasheed says every living creation has a role to play and together they make the food web. “If we remove even one organism, there will be serious consequences. For instance, if we have fewer birds, there will be more insects and the use of harmful pesticides will increase. Certain birds and insects help in seed dispersal; if they disappear, there will be food security problems. Birds that feed on termites help in controlling the damaging pests,” he elaborates.

If this balance is disturbed, Rasheed says, human beings will suffer because ultimately the food chain ends with them.

An ecologist associated with IUCN, Nadeem Mirbahar, says wildlife is also important for recreation which has a positive impact on mental health. “Looking at animals or interacting with them gives you peace of mind. That is why zoos and animal sanctuaries are established in the middle of cities so people are not deprived of this experience,” he states.

How trees help wildlife?

Trees play a crucial role in maintaining balance in our ecosystem by providing shelter, food, breeding ground and protection to animals. “It is such a beautiful system in which one tree is used by different animals in multiple ways. Animals make homes in tree trunks, roots and cavities. They eat their leaves and fruits as well as other smaller animals living in them. They reproduce and bring up their children in the protective environment. And in case of a threat, camouflage in them,” IUCN expert Rasheed explains.

To ensure a healthy balance of wildlife in Karachi, WWF’s Shahid says it is important to restore native trees. “There’s a relation between the local trees and local animals established over the years and they support each other. To sustain one, we have to protect the other,” he states.

While trees are valuable when alive, Rasheed from IUCN says they are equally important when decaying or dead. “Animals continue to live in trees and feed on them as they decompose,” he says.

Protecting biodiversity

Just like humans, wildlife stays in an area as long as they have food, water and shelter and when these basic necessities cease to exist, they move on. With the number of trees in Karachi only decreasing, it comes as no surprise that many native species are no longer found in the metropolis. “If you speak to the older residents, they tell you numerous species of birds have vanished from the city. Earlier, one could easily see koel, kingfisher, jungle babbler, purple sunbird and bulbul flying around in the city,” Shahid says, lamenting that now we are only left with eagles and crows.

Shahid, however, shares there are small animal sanctuaries in different areas around the city thriving because of the greenery in those locations. “A wide variety of natives trees are found inside the University of Karachi and Karachi Zoo and you can find diverse species of birds there. There’s a place in the KDA Officers Cooperative Housing Society near Stadium Road which is an excellent spot for bird watching in the morning. In Gulshan-e-Iqbal’s Aziz Bhatti park, there is a pond made from seepage water and I encountered 21 birds species there during the last winter,” Shahid lists.

On protecting wildlife in the face of unregulated development in Karachi, IUCN’s Mirbahar criticises the city planners’ disregard for urban ecosystem management which calls for preservation of biodiversity in the area chosen for development work. “Sometimes the Environmental Impact Assessment reports lie about the extent to which biodiversity is hurt by a project; in other cases, the reports only look at threatened species (critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable animals) and ignore scores of other species which are equally important,” he says, stressing that no animal can be taken out of the food chain.

“Animals are part of the ecosystem and provide important services invisible to human eyes and when their habitat is damaged, they migrate,” Mirbahar says, regretting that while we enjoy sitting on a bench under a tall tree when we travel abroad, we don’t support such urban features in our own country.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2016.

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