Tomorrow is International Day for Biodiversity. Geeta Padmanabhan suggests what we can do to protect our planet

Whenever Savithri, a resident of south Chennai lifts a drink of water she sends a silent “thank you” to the sea near her home. “This is the latest gift from the sea,” she says with feeling. “Breeze, boat rides, beach, open air, fish, and now, drinking water. We are blessed.” Down the coast, fisherwoman Mariamma casts a worried look at the sea. The catch has been dwindling, the baskets come back half-empty. No one has told her ocean warming is pushing the fish towards the poles; that fishing trawlers on several coasts lie locked against the pier because “they don't have any fish to catch.”

“Three basic needs of man come from the ocean,” says Supraja Dharani, whose Tree Foundation has been fighting a battle to save the turtles, dolphins and other marine creatures that frequent our waters. Seventy per cent of the oxygen we breathe and the rain we enjoy blow in from the ocean, she says. More than 10 lakh people depend on the sea for food. Yet, we pollute it, and exploit marine life faster than it can recoup. “It's time we understood our life on land is connected to the ocean. We cannot afford to forget ours is a blue planet.”

Water and Biodiversity is the theme for International Day for Biological Diversity (May 22) in 2013. The period 2005-2015 is the International Decade for “Water for Life.” “Biodiversity in general includes the variety of living forms starting from microbes to higher plants and animals,” said marine biologist TD Babu. “They live in a diversified ecosystem, making up the bio-spectrum on earth. Biodiversity is essential — for a stable climate, water regime, soil fertility and air quality.” We interfere with bio-diversity at our own peril.

India has 18 bio-hotspots, he said. For example, the eastern Himalayas are rich in plants and animals — look out for swallow-tailed butterflies — native to that area. Alas, they are under constant threat due to human pressure. The Western Ghats running from Gujarat to Kanyakumari have tropical, wet, evergreen forests — home to endemic plants/animals such as the king cobra, rock python, cane turtle and terrapin. The Eastern Ghats are known for our elephants and medicinal plants. We have a long coastline, islands, estuaries, lagoons, mangroves, backwaters, salt marshes, rocky coasts, sandy stretches and coral reefs. Our marine species include seaweeds, sea grasses, mangroves, sponges, crustaceans, molluscs, fishes, sea snakes, sea turtles and marine mammals such as dugong, dolphins and whales. We've all seen and heard the sea birds.

“The Western Ghats are one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world,” says Mohan Chunkath, IAS, Additional Chief Secretary, Environment and Forests. Tamil Nadu has nearly one-third of the total flora of India, has biosphere reserves in the Nilgiris and the Gulf of Mannar. The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (first in India) provides a habitat for tigers, elephants and other large mammals. The Gulf of Mannar (Rameswaram to Thoothukudi) has been declared India's first Marine Biosphere Reserve. “The State Government is fully committed to preserving the rich biodiversity of Tamil Nadu,” he added.

We don't want to lose this wealth to habitat destruction, mining, change in land use, urbanisation, industrialisation, tourism, cultivation of commercial crops, filling of water bodies and bio-piracy. The loss of biodiversity will reduce the productivity and stability of the ecosystem and weaken the ability of the biosphere to withstand natural and manmade disasters such as floods, droughts, landslides, earthquake, pollution, climate change and global warming.

Biodiversity heritage sites

We have laws. We have declared some places as biodiversity heritage sites. We know which bio-spots are threatened. We believe in sacred groves and sacred water bodies. We have traditional breeds of animals, farming methods and plant-based medicines. We have businesses dependent on bio-resources. “We must spread knowledge of the Biodiversity Act to protect our natural resources,” said Babu. “We must do it on a war footing.”

What will you do this May 22? Log on to wikiHow and read Help Protect Biodiversity, Understand the Concept of Biodiversity and Learn About Biodiversity and Food Webs. Read books on Nature, animals, plants and ecosystems — all pieces of the biodiversity jigsaw. Go to a zoo, Nature park, reserve, Nature centre, aquarium or a museum to educate yourself on biodiversity first-hand. Get your local community/ward/corporation to organise celebrations. Plant a tree at 10 a.m. local time to create a “green wave” across the world. Record it online.

To-do ideas

- Tree-photo competition: people submit photos of favourite neighbourhood tree or stand of trees and a note why it matters to them.

- List native plants in your neighbourhood.

- Get local farmers/forest officer/NGO to talk of biodiversity conservation efforts.

- Organise a poster competition.

- Arrange a group tour of local biodiversity.

- Hold a quiz. Collect questions on local wildlife, trees, plants, ecosystems.

- Raise funds for a local environment (lake, pond, park, tree) restoration project.