What causes desertification in the Gobi Desert?

Spanning large parts of southern Mongolia and northern China the Gobi Desert is the largest desert in Asia and the fifth largest in the world. This cold desert is in the rain shadow of the Himalayas. It covers an area of about 13.00,000 sq.km, and despite its popularity as a desert, a large expanse of the region is bare rock. The Desert is almost entirely waterless, but there are salt marshes within its confines. Since it is spread across a vast area, the place has been divided into five distinct ecoregions, including those exhibiting characteristics of semi-desert and desert steppes. The conditions are harsh, and the climate, remarkably extreme in several areas with very cold winters and very humid summers. The vegetation is sparse in the region, and is dominated by succulents, desert grass, and bushes. Despite this, the region exhibits variety in terms of birds, animals, insects and the like.

This cold desert is also of great importance to study the evolution of life on our planet, since fossils of dinosaurs and mammals dating back to millions of years have been excavated from here. As with most places across the world, the Gobi Desert has its share of concerns too, chief among them being desertification.

Wildlife

Despite the sparse vegetation, several species of birds can be spotted in the region. Among them are falcons, sandgrouses, Mongolian groundjays, wheatears, sparrows, plovers, warblers, cuckoos, owls, doves, pigeons, cranes. hoopoes, partridges, stints gulls, terns, lapwings, stilts, grebes, spoonbills, egrets ,herons, kestrels, pintails, geese, ducks, pochards, eagles, goshawks, buzzards, vultures, bustards, cormorants, stonechats, redstarts, flycatchers, tits, starlings, thrushes, buntings, wagtails, pipits, and larks. Among the animals found here are Bactrian camels, foxes, wolves, gazelles, antelopes, Mongolian wild ass, Gobi ibex bears, and rodents such as marmots and jerboas. The snow leopard is said to inhabit the Desert too and is among the chief predators. In addition to snake species such as pit vipers and many varieties of frogs, the region hosts about 30 species of lizards that thrive well in and around the desert sands.

Threats

  • Desertification refers to the degradation of fertile land to dry land. Among reasons that cause this are climate change and human activity Desertification has severe ecological and environmental impact. The Gobi Desert is the fastest growing desert today. Due to this, several km of grassland has been gradually turning into wasteland with each passing day
  • Overgrazing of livestock too is considered one of the reasons for the desertification of lands. Not just that it also has led to the reduction in the quality of existing desert soil, thereby depriving the soil of sources of nutrients that support life.
  • In addition to these, over-cultivation badly drained irrigation systems and the mismanagement of water in the region risk to this ecosystem. When the environment is thus affected, it invariably affects the wildlife in the region too. Since the area pose a supports millions of people, long-term degeneration will have a negative impact on humans also. There have been reports of mining in the area, and it has been of grave concern.

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In Bolivia, more than 25% of major fires burned in protected areas

Situated in the northeastern part of Bolivia, the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park in South America borders Brazil. Spanning more than 15,000 sq.km., it is considered one of the largest and the most intact Parks in the Amazon basin. Within its boundaries, it holds a variety of habitats from evergreen Amazon rainforests, grasslands, and swamps to savannahs and semi-deciduous dry forests. Small wonder this region, with large swathes of untouched land, offers incredible biodiversity - think 4,000 species of plants, more than 600 species of birds, 250 fish species, and more than 300 mammal, reptile, and amphibian species together! This includes several globally threatened and endangered species too.

In 1996, the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project, a joint government and private initiative, was set up in the Park. The project ended logging rights and strives for continuous action towards forest protection, reducing emission and degradation, conservation, and sustainable development, among others. In 2005, it became the world's first "forest emissions reduction project to be verified by a third party based on international standards established by the Kyoto Protocol". In 2000, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Wildlife

Fed as it is by the mighty Amazon, the Park's waterways are home to several water-dwelling creatures such as giant otters, dolphins, and caimans. Among the several mammals and marsupials in the region are opossums, tapirs, deer, marmosets, pumas, jaguars, wolves, oxes, raccoons, armadillos, giant anteaters, and monkeys. The birds in the region include tinamous, herons, cormorants, egrets, storks, ibises, ducks, vultures, kites, hawks, eagles, falcons, kestrels, crakes, lapwings, terns, sandpipers, pigeons, doves, macaws, cuckoos, owls, nightjars, swifts, quails, trogons, kingfishers, toucans, piculets, woodpeckers, woodcreepers, flycatchers, atbills, manakins, swallows, martins, thrushes, seed-eaters, honeycreepers, and more than 20 types of parrots / parakeets.

It's good, but...

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's latest report (2020), the conservation outlook for this site has been assessed as "good with some concerns. The assessment says that this comforting fact is due to how isolated the Park is. This isolation offers the place a lot of protection from livestock the transmission of diseases from livestock to wildlife, and commercial fishing And so "ecological processes, biodiversity and threatened species are in a good state of conservation Despite this aspects such as illegal logging, fishing, and hunting are of concern. Also, due to its very isolation, there is no clear data on management effectiveness in the region. It is also believed that the park rangers do not have enough means to carry out their work and carry out effective control and surveillance of the advance and incursion of settlers

Forest fires

The foremost threat to the region are forest fires. As recently as 2020, Bolivia witnessed more than 120 forest fires and a quarter of it is said to have burned in protected areas. One of the places affected was the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, at least 21,000 acres burned then. The Park encompasses three biomes Amazon rainforest, Chiquitano dry forest and Cerrado savanna. It is reported that fires were detected in the transition zone between the rainforest and savanna, moving mostly into the park's drier savanna biome" As climate change becomes more and more severe, forest fires in the region are expected to reach even greater proportions, and perhaps touch such severity this place will be unable to recover from.

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Why Los Katios National Park is unique?

Spread across more than 720 sq km on the northwestern part of Colombia, the Los Katios National Park is contiguous to the Darien National Park in the neighbouring country of Panama. Though located in South America, the region is considered a major convergence zone of North, Central, and South America. It is because of this very reason that the Park offers a startling variety of flora and fauna. Spanning hills, tropical and humid forests, alluvial plains, swamps, and marshes, it has an unusual ecological setting that nurtures more than 600 species of vegetation, including palms and several others endemic to the region. It shows exceptional biodiversity in terms of fauna too, with many threatened species calling the place - their home.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, the Park was placed on the Danger List in 2009 due to the severe damage it suffered because of illegal poaching, fishing, and logging. However, continued patrolling and engagement with local communities in preserving the habitat paid off, and the Park was removed from the list in 2015.

Wildlife

The Park is part of one of the most species-rich lowland forest areas in the world. Small wonder it nurtures a wide range of fauna. The area is said to have more than 550 species of vertebrates, excluding fish and including more than 400 species of birds. It is believed to be the only region on the continent where many Central American species are found. This includes the threatened American crocodile, giant anteater, and Central American tapir also known as Baird's tapir. Among other species that can be spotted here are the jaguar, west Indian manatee, bush dog, deer, rodents such as coypu and wild mouse, fox, bear, monkey, and marmoset. Among the birds that can be seen here are tinamous, New World passerine birds, shrikes, quails, humming birds, warblers, doves, macaws, pittas, and puffbirds, in addition to the harpy eagle, northern screamer, and the great currasow.

Threats

The region requires close monitoring even today since concerns in the form of illegal and development activities remain. In fact, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's latest assessment (2020), the conservation outlook for this site is of "significant concern". Placing the park on danger list all those years ago did help improve the situation in the region, and some of the efforts continue to be in place. But of utmost concern is the illegal and excess use of legal natural resources. The continuous unsustainable depletion of resources could affect both flora and fauna of the place in the long run. This includes fishing and shellfish harvesting on a scale that may not be sustainable in the future. Security of the property was a concern earlier, and steps were initiated to improve that. However, despite that, illegal activities around the property and the presence of armed groups within it have been reported. Though they do not appear to pose any threat right now, it could later on, if left unchecked. Proposed developmental projects such as roads and power transmission corridors do not suggest "acute threat" yet, but "adequate environmental and social assessment are required to ensure that the natural environment of the property are not damaged in any way if and when these projects are executed.

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What is Wood Buffalo National Park known for?

Spread across more than 40,000 sq km along the boundary between Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada, the Wood Buffalo National Park covers large swathes of forests, wetlands, and prairies. The Peace-Athabasca Delta located within the Park is one of the world's largest freshwater inland river deltas. It attracts several thousand birds, in addition to many animal species. Canada's largest national park, this UNESCO World Heritage Site nurtures the world's largest population of wood bison, numbering a few thousands. This makes the population the largest free-roaming herd left in the world. And not just that. The Park is the last remaining natural nesting site for an endangered bird species - the whooping crane. Also, two of the wetlands within the region are wetlands of International Importance under the RAMSAR convention. The Park's large size and low concentration of humans have played a role in the protection of the ecosystem to a certain level, but it is said that the lack of political will to conserve it is of grave concern.

Wildlife

Though the Park is most noted for its population of wood bison and whooping crane, it nurtures a variety of birds and animals. The region is home to more than 40 species of animals, including black bear, wolf, moose, fox, beaver, lynx, marten, and snow-shoe hare. Among the several species of birds in the area are falcons, sandhill cranes, hawks, eagles, and owls. The place also falls in the migratory route of several thousand ducks and geese.

Threats

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the 'conservation outlook for this site has been assessed as "significant concern" in the latest assessment cycle (2020). Way back in 2016, UNESCO researchers had cautioned that industrial development around the region was progressing at a great speed without its impact being studied properly. Further, upstream projects, two dams, and a relatively new hydroelectric project have together threatened to weaken water flow in the delta. In addition, "oil and gas operations in the northern reaches of Alberta continue to draw large amounts of water to sustain their operations". With mining sanctions too joining the list, the pressure of development on the water resources increased, with concerns that it could affect both wildlife and the indigenous people of the eco-sensitive region. This also means threat to the wood bison and whooping crane populations.

Following this, UNESCO gave Canada a year "to develop a solution to stem the rapid deterioration of the park", and warned hte government that 'inaction would "constitute a case for recommending inscription of Wood Buffalo national park on the List of World Heritage in Danger". After this Canada was given a December 1, 2020 deadline for submitting "a progress report on conservation efforts" in the region, which the country missed. It sought an extension and submitted the report by 21 the same month, addressing "specific UNESCO concerns and 14 pages outline whether each of the 142 items in the action plan are completed, underway, not started or not due yet". Meanwhile, earlier this year reports said "Canada has pledged an extra $59.9 million" to save the place, though many conservationists and indigenous people are concerned and sceptical of the promise due to what they see as the government's lack of commitment to the cause.

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What is the conservation status of Srebarna Nature Reserve?

Located almost on the edge of Bulgaria in Europe, the Srebarna Nature Reserve is a freshwater lake and wetland, just a couple of km south of the famous Danube River. Spread across more than 600 hectares, the wetland falls on the route of birds migrating from Europe to Africa. It is said to be the breeding ground for nearly 100 species of birds, including some rare and endangered ones. In addition, it is a temporary habitat for over 75 species that migrate. The floating reed islands (called "kochki" locally) and flooded willow woodlands in the Reserve are important areas for birds to breed. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was placed on the danger list in 1992, due to loss of water and pollution in the lake, resulting in the disappearance of many bird species. However, upstream activities such as housing and farming were halted, bringing about positive changes in the region. Eventually, in 2003, the Reserve was removed from the danger list. The region is also protected as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention and designated as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.

Wildlife

The Srebarna Nature Reserve is said to host the only colony of Dalmatian pelicans in the country. It is also believed to be home to the largest breeding populations of four more globally threatened bird species, namely pygmy cormorant, ferruginous duck, white-tailed eagle, and corncrake. Among others birds that can be spotted in the region are night heron, purple heron, glossy ibis, white spoonbill, little bittern, squacco heron, little egret, great white egret, and ruddy shelduck. Three species of terns can also be found here. The globally threatened red-breasted goose winters in the reserve. The wintering populations of whitefronted goose, greylag goose, and fieldfare are considered notable. The lake and the areas around it also support more than 20 species of reptile and amphibian species, and 40 mammal species.

Good conservation status, but...

While globally a lot of natural wildlife habitats face several threats-both natural and human-made, Srebarna is one of those rare spaces that enjoys a good conservation status, "with some concerns", according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to IUCN's 2020 Conservation Outlook, there "is an overall trend of improvement of the conservation status of most of the bird populations". Given that the region is very important for birds, it is heartening that the population of some species has increased since it was removed from the danger list.

However, the place is not without concerns. For instance, the conservation status of species such as squacco heron and black tern has deteriorated. Also, "additional information is needed to make reliable assessments of the conservation state" of a few other species. Other concerns, including hydrological management, may not be a severe threat right now, but it is felt that with issues such as climate change looming large, these could affect Srebarna in the future.

Climate change is likely to decrease the water level of the Danube, resulting in the disruption of seasonal flooding in Srebarna. This has the potential to change the quality and quantity of nutrients, sediments, etc. in the region, and lead to a drastic ecological change, affecting both the flora and fauna there.

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