Mountains are famously cradles of biodiversity – their steep slopes giving rise to a dizzying variety of lifeforms. They have grown increasingly crucial as refuges for nature: covering just one quarter of the planet, they hold 85% of Earth’s amphibians, birds, and mammals. This wealth of nature is reflected in the fact that of UNESCO’s 738 global biosphere reserves, significantly more than half are mountainous.
Worryingly, however, these retreats for such an extraordinary abundance of nature – long protected from human interference by their remoteness or difficult terrain – are shrinking. Nature’s erstwhile cradles, and refuges, are now becoming graveyards. In the Hindu Kush Himalaya, 70% of biodiversity has vanished over the last century. These losses, including species extinctions, are now accelerating, as evidenced in ICIMOD’s major assessment report, Water, Ice, Society, and Ecosystems in the Hindu Kush Himalaya.
Recognition that nature is one of the biggest solutions to the crisis we now face growing – at the public, political, and diplomatic level. The United Nations declared 2021–2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and last year, under the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, more than 100 governments worldwide pledged to set aside 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030 – including all the countries of the HKH. And for the first time this year, nature was put at the centre of discussions at the United Nations global climate conference, COP28.
These efforts, and the ‘ecosystem restoration’ theme for this year’s International Mountain Day provide an urgently needed impetus to revive and protect mountain landscapes. So how close are the eight countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas to meeting the ‘30x30’ target? So far Bhutan is the only country to actually exceed the target, with 51.4% of its land area already under various protected area categories.
Nepal has just under 24% of its land under protection. China is just over halfway to the target, with 16%. Pakistan is at 12%; India at 8%; Myanmar at 7%; Bangladesh at 5%, and Afghanistan at 4%.
Worryingly, across the Hindu Kush Himalaya, critical spaces where nature is still abundant remain outside protection: 67% of ecoregions, 39% of biodiversity hotspots, 69% of key biodiversity areas and 76% of important bird and biodiversity areas all remain unprotected.
Those protected areas that do exist are ‘islands’ in a sea of human modified landscapes, lacking corridor connectivity with other protected sites, insufficient for wide ranging species, and under pressure from poaching, encroachment, and extraction. Existing protected areas are insufficient to ensure the successful conservation of our region’s flagship species including the Asian elephant, the one-horned rhinoceros, and the Royal Bengal Tiger.
One solution, not yet attempted, would be to establish transboundary biosphere reserves, which would allow for conservation at landscape scale. This would take a shared political commitment across nation state boundaries to cooperate on the management of a shared ecosystem. It is a solution ICIMOD will encourage our regional member countries to embrace.
The bottom line, however, is that to reverse nature’s loss we must value and fund it. As long as economists continue to place its value at zero, it will not be considered. Until it is valued, countries with vast natural capital but less developed economies will lack the Triple A Credit Rating required to borrow at lower rates of lending. Cheaper capital to restore nature must be made available for the countries in this region: and this is something ICIMOD will work with our members, multilateral development banks and others to urgently advance. Because it has never been more evident that to prevent Earth systems from completely collapsing, we must give nature a home.