Earth Today | ‘The bush is not the enemy’
IF THEIR ecosystem function is anything to go by, Jamaicans need to rethink their perception of lizards, like all other living things in nature and the places they call their natural home.
This is according to Professor Mona Webber, head of the Centre for Marine Sciences at The University of the West Indies, Mona, who has encouraged Jamaicans to spare a thought for the biological diversity, which refers to the total variety of life on Earth.
This, she said, is especially important given the realities of a changing climate that could lead to significant loss of animal and plant life, their habitats and the services they offer to humans – from the provision of food and clean water to medicines, among other things.
“When we speak of biodiversity, we usually mean species diversity, but there is genetic diversity and habitat diversity. When you think of the value of biodiversity in the context of a changing climate, the genetic diversity aspect is what is really important because as the environment changes, having a higher biodiversity gives you greater resilience. The ability of a species to adjust to the changing climate relates to the genetic diversity,” she explained.
“It is like variability within a population. We have different traits. If you collect shells of a particular species, for example, some of them are stripe, some will have a slightly different colour. That speaks to the ability, when they mate, to have different combinations of the same species and with different traits. A high species diversity also gives us resilience because, let’s say you have a lot of different species of plant-eating fish, some may die out as the climate changes, but you won’t lose all of that niche or their ecological function,” she added.
According to Webber, a marine scientist, there is need to reconsider how different plants and animals are valued.
“We have a way of thinking creatures are useless because they can’t be eaten and some of them are not very pretty. We don’t value them on our terms. But there are many creatures that have medicinal properties or compounds in them. Many keep other species in check and those other species can be very dangerous,” she said.
“The take-away is that we don’t know what could be of use when we wantonly wipe out a particular species. In terms of ecosystem balance and potential value to humans, it is not always known how a species provides those things,” she added.
This is brought sharply into focus, she said, as one considers lizards, many of which can be found in some Jamaican homes.
“Jamaicans hate lizards, but they help to control the insect population. They are amazing consumers of insects,” Webber noted.
Conservationist Wendy Lee agreed.
“Jamaica has 27 endemic species of lizards, including six anoles (diurnal reptiles such as the green lizard), nine endemic species of small polly lizards (known to scientists as the sphaeros), seven different galliwasps, and one endemic species each of the croaking lizard (a type of Gecko), ground lizard, skink and the critically endangered Jamaican Iguana,” she said.
“Lizards are valuable animals in the natural environment. Lizards are part of the food web of the forest and garden; they feed on insects and other invertebrates as well as fruits. They play a role in seed dispersal as well as pest control, and are themselves the prey for carnivorous Jamaican wildlife such as the endemic Jamaican boa (yellow snake) and the Jamaican lizard cuckoo,” added Lee, who runs a wildlife sanctuary in St Ann.
“Jamaican lizards are completely harmless to humans, and yet they are hated and often persecuted with great cruelty, such as being sprayed with pesticides or beaten to death. We need to change our attitudes to these unique and useful creatures and recognise them as important elements of Jamaica’s biodiversity,” she said further.
Webber, for her part, said attention must be given to their natural habitats, which are wantonly destroyed to make room for housing developments that they are then forced to ‘occupy’.
“A lot of people in Jamaica feel that a clean environment is one that has all the bush removed. That is an artificial community. I know there are issues like poor lighting and diseases that breed under certain conditions, but the natural habitat is again vilified. The bush is not the enemy, and those natural bush and wild vegetative areas have a lot of diversity that we destroy,” she insisted.
“So it is about valuing the natural systems – marine and on land – and maintaining enough of it. We can’t have bush everywhere, but we have to have priority to say certain conservation areas should remain untouched, and there are ways to do it,” Webber added.
The world recently celebrated International Day for Biological Diversity under the theme ‘Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health’. The goal was to draw attention to the linkages between biodiversity and food and health security, and at a time when a reported 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction.
“The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 per cent, mostly since 1900. More than 40 per cent of amphibian species, almost 33 per cent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened,” revealed a May 6 press release from the UN Environment website, and which was originally issued by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
“The picture is less clear for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10 per cent being threatened. At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century, and more than nine per cent of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened,” it added.