Saturday, May 25

Making a difference in the biosphere


The Crocker Range Biosphere Reserve is composed of mountains, foothills, and deeply dissected valleys. – Photo by Toni Wöhrl and Sang Cai

HOW often do we see the words ‘making a difference’ trotted out by this or that company advertising this or that? In my mind, these words imply that we not only need to protect ourselves but also the environment in which we find ourselves living. We, as humans, have already created an almighty mess of our planet.

It was the English chemist, James Lovelock, in the last century, who suggested the concept that our Earth functions as an interactive system in which living things have an influence on their physical characteristics and vice versa.

What is the biosphere?

English geologist Eduard Suess first introduced this term in Victorian times as the sum total of all ecosystems, emphasising that the biosphere is one of the four layers surrounding Earth and the one on which life dwells. The other three layers are the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, and the atmosphere; rock, water, and sky respectively.

A mangrove area at the Malindi-Watamu Biosphere Reserve.

Today, biospheres should be seen as self-regulating systems, or ecosystems, to include even artificial domes as seen at the Eden Project in England and at Marina Bay Gardens in Singapore. The former replicates the Bornean rainforest, the latter forests of northern latitudes. In short, lifeforms on Earth range from the highest points in our atmosphere to the deepest abysses of our ocean trenches.

There are nearly 700 Unesco-registered Biosphere Reserves in the world. I just want to touch on three in the UK, Kenya, and Sabah. The first two are on coastal sites and the last one is located on an inland mountain range.

North Devon’s Biosphere Reserve

For many a year, I used to take my senior Geography and Biology students to this site to study sand dune and pebble beach profiles, and to observe how plants had adapted to sand and saltwater conditions. Little, then, did any of us know that some years later this area, covering 1,300ha of sand dunes and beaches, would become a biosphere reserve.

The Braunton Burrows-North Devon area had until recently been used by the military as a firing range. Previously, practices for World War II D-Day landings on the French beachheads had been held there. On the school fieldtrips, the day was broken up by a picnic lunch on the beach and an end of work swim in the Atlantic Ocean.

The sand in the dune system has been and still is blown inland from a wide expanse of beach between high and low water marks. The sand itself had been shifted onshore from the gradual rises in sea level since the end of the last Ice Age about 11,000 years ago. The pebble ridge on another nearby beach on the Rivers Taw-Torridge estuary is thought to have originated at the same time, with some pebbles washed downstream from the Exmoor National Park hill chain.

Within the next 20 years or so, thanks to climate change and the resulting rise in sea level, important intertidal habitats will be drowned. Currently world sea levels are rising at a rate of 2.5mm per annum. Multiply this figure by 10, 20, 30 years, let alone forecasts of greater acceleration of sea level rises, and the sum total soon adds up.

Very few people appreciate the urgency of the need to act now both to reduce the effects of climate change and to mitigate its results. Making difficult decisions, such as leaving nature to take its course as the sea level rises, causes people to react with their hearts rather than their heads. In some cases, land needs to be abandoned to the sea. If, however, the timeline for such an impact goes just beyond the life of present coastal communities, issues become more depersonalised, thus giving people the space they need to formulate adaption policies for the benefit of their grandchildren. Interestingly, extensive research has shown that schoolchildren have a better understanding of the effects of climate change than do their parents and grandparents.

Malindi-Watamu Biosphere Reserve

Since 2008, this reserve has been twinned with the North Devon Reserve, so that communities several thousands of kilometres apart can share their often common experiences. In 2006, I spent a glorious week at Watamu, Kenya, snorkelling and sailing in an Arab dhow up the nearby Sabaki River. In this reserve, bays lined with mangrove forests provide the same function in absorbing wave energy as the saltmarshes in North Devon.

The Braunton Burrows-North Devon Biosphere Reserve covers 1,300ha. – Photo by Kate Weld

The Sabaki River, like many Bornean rivers, carries soil eroded silt downstream to gradually stifle offshore coral reefs. Add to this a rise in sea temperature and the acidification of our oceans then corals are under constant stress.

The Kenyan government took a bold step by legislating that a 30-metre strip of all beaches above mean high water mark must be totally preserved. Alas, this strip is being eroded by ever-increasing heights in sea level, together with unregistered developments on land leading to further encroachment onto beaches. Sea level rises have meant that sea turtles now have a smaller strip of beach in which to lay their eggs in nests. Their nests are now often swept away on high tides.

Here, as in many parts of Borneo, the mangrove swamps are threatened in some areas by poverty, forcing people to cut down trees for building materials and overfish for food. In some sections along the Kenyan coastline land clearance for tourism, agriculture, housing, and salt-producing factories has occurred.

Just like Sarawak, adults and children replant lost mangrove areas with saplings so that, in the fullness of time, the destructive forces of wave energy are absorbed and beach erosion curbed. Here in Kenya, as in the North Devon Reserve’s tidal marshes and in Sarawak’s wetlands, the stopover of migrating birds has proved a focal point for the development of ecotourism.

Sabah Biosphere Reserve

The first Malaysian Biosphere Reserve was established in 2009 in Tasik Chini in Pahang. There, a very large freshwater inland lake is fed by numerous streams and rivers with a unique flora and visiting migratory birds in an area covering 7,000ha.

The Crocker Range Biosphere Reserve is composed of mountains, foothills, and deeply dissected valleys. Home to a wide variety of flora and protected fauna, such as orangutans, sun bears and clouded leopards, it boasts species of over 100 mammals, 260 birds, 47 reptiles, 63 amphibians, and 42 varieties of freshwater fish. Within this vast area of 360,000ha encompassing a total population of 100,000 people, there are 400 villages.

The core area of this reserve is used mainly for scientific long-term research programmes, educational matters and ecotourism ventures. Here, there are 30 Kadazan-Dusun families who fully support the concept of a biosphere reserve. They are principally engaged in rubber, cocoa, hill padi, coconut, fruit, and temperate (because of the altitude) vegetable growing, selling their produce to Kota Kinabalu’s city markets. As part of their cultural heritage, and rightly so, they may hunt deer, wild pigs, squirrels, and some bird species for personal consumption only.

Only a few years ago, I was privileged to view, in full bloom, one of the two different rafflesia species growing in the middle area of this reserve. Suffice to say, the Sabah Forestry Department together with Sabah Parks and the Sabah Biodiversity Centre keep a close rein on this reserve.

In harmony with nature

All the Unesco approved and registered Biosphere Reserves are for learning, scientific research, and often ecotourism hotspots. They show us how we can live and work harmoniously with our natural world. Such reserves function thanks mainly to the local and national governments and NGO assistance but primarily to the goodwill and wellbeing of the local people.

Governments and local governments, working in cohesion, need to develop 25-year environmental plans, which will help our natural world to regain and retain good or better health in order to deliver cleaner and air and water in our cities.

Rural dwellers, too, must be encouraged to protect threatened species by preserving wildlife habitats. Such plans will require a new approach to agriculture, forestry, fishing, and land use which, wherever we may live, will put our environment first.