Herald: Where have all the insects gone?

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Where have all the insects gone?

20 Jan 2019 06:18am IST
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20 Jan 2019 06:18am IST

The depletion of the insect population is an early sign that the ecosystem is collapsing

It was around a fortnight ago that an adult male leopard was found trapped in a cable snare in a private property in Shiroda. While the news made it to the pages of all dailies and even on the local television channels the next day, across Goa the news and pictures of the trapped leopard were forwarded through mobile phones within hours of the wild animal getting snared and getting rescued. While this did happen in a forest area, there have been instances of wild animals straying into habitation and endangering people’s lives. A few months ago a man-eating tiger was killed in Maharashtra drawing a huge backlash from animal rights activists. But when the natural habitat of the wild animals is being encroached upon, can the animals be blamed for straying into human settlement areas?

Along the time that the leopard trap story was being circulated, there was another interesting piece of information that popped up through the social media, but this one perhaps was not circulated all that much. It simply stated that older generations would remember that some two decades ago or even less, a car trip would result in the windshield covered with dead insects that smashed against it continuously. But does this happen now? When was the last time that a road trip, especially at night, led to insects continuously hitting the windshield, leading to it having to be cleaned? There were no windshield wipers spraying a cleaning liquid in vehicles in the past, so the glass had to be manually wiped off. Now, just a spot of dust on the windshield and the sprayer is turned on and cleaned. But that is not the point. The point is that there is lesson in this for us, only if we care enough to see it.

That post went on to say, “It may sound great news—after all, who doesn’t like to travel with a clean windshield? But what does it really mean? Doesn’t that tell you anything? Scientists associate the dramatic decline in insect populations with industrial agricultural practices, especially habitat destruction and pesticide use. That decline, besides being a tragedy by itself, also affects the whole terrestrial ecosystems, such as the birds’, reptiles’ and amphibians’ diet, pollination, etc. The collapse of the insect populations may be the foretoken of the collapse of ecosystems.’ 

Let’s not pretend that there is no collapse of the ecosystem happening in our State even as we read this on a Sunday morning. It is occurring, not just by every tree that is being cut, but also by the changing weather patterns (a result of the trees being cut), and in Goa we did experience a monsoon that went from excess rainfall in the early weeks to a less than normal at the end of the season. This was followed by a winter that didn’t set in till late December, with the average temperatures remaining above normal on most days before that. 

Come to Goa and older generations will remember also the insects that appeared before the onset of the monsoon, drawn by the light and next morning having to sweep a carpet of dead insects from the floor below the light bulb. Is it happening now? Perhaps it still is in a few of the villages that are surrounded by forests and fields, but the number of insects would be much less than earlier. In the towns this would be severely reduced, and the appearance of the insects may seem more as an aberration than a certainty. From the urban areas, even the sparrows have flown away, perhaps because they don’t have enough insects to feed upon, leaving behind only the crows and pigeons; the first scavenge in garbage bins and the latter on grains. 

Goa’s forests have got a recent boost by the identification of 69 villages around wildlife sanctuaries as eco-sensitive areas. A decision such as this may appear as bad news to some as it will bring an end to economic activity, especially of the mining sector, in these villages, but in the long term it will protect the land. Goa has the unique khazan lands, created centuries ago and still working perfectly, but they are slowly being destroyed, as development encroaches upon them. Their protection is as important as that of the forests and the rivers that run through the State. It is not just that the khazans are some of the most productive of lands in the State but a wide variety of plant, insect and animal species, including the aquatic ones, are found here.

Goa’s biodiversity and ecosystems vary drastically, influenced by the Arabian Sea in the West and by the Western Ghats just about 60 kilometres, at the farthest extreme, to the East, and they are slowly dying. With this narrow parcel of land, violations of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification on the West and illegal mining on the East have contributed to the weakening of the ecosystem. The ingress of water onto the beaches and the straying of animals into human habitation are indications of this, and yet we are not alive to what is happening. But mining and tourism are not the only examples. The St Inez Creek is a prime instance of an ecosystem that is being allowed to die. There was fish in the creek once, that today do not survive in its polluted waters, and residents of the area still recall the nightly howling of foxes in the wooded area alongside it, which now doesn’t happen. 

Scientists today are still attempting to learn how the changing weather will affect human lives, and there is still no clarity of how the ecosystems will be affected. They are of the opinion that for ecosystems to recover, the pressure on the land has to be reduced, minimising soil erosion, and runoffs due to felling of trees and less of the concrete development. But, there is still no absolute certainty in which manner different ecosystems will react. While some may survive, others will not. The drop in the insect population may be a relief of the pestilence, but it is an indication that there are changes happening which will have lasting effects on the environment. 

Next time an insect buzzes around your ear and you feel the urge to swat it, remember its presence is a sign that the ecosystem is thriving. Their disappearance is one of the first indications that there is a change in the natural balance which needs to be corrected, for there is one thing that the world doesn’t need – the collapse of the ecosystems. 

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