South Asia is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Home to almost 15.5% of the world’s plant species and 12% of the world’s animals, its ecosystems range from low-lying coastal wetlands and semi-arid areas to the evergreen forests and temperate-alpine zones of the Himalayas. This mosaic of ecosystems supports iconic species such as the tiger, one-horned rhinoceros, Asian elephant and red panda. What’s more, most of the population of South Asia depends directly or indirectly on biodiversity, through activities such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
But South Asia also has one of the highest rates of habitat destruction in the world, and thousands of its native species are threatened with extinction. This is driven by a set of complex and interrelated factors including population growth, rapid urbanisation, infrastructure development, over-exploitation of resources, land use change, pollution, and extreme weather events. By threatening South Asia’s ecological security, these factors also increase the region’s vulnerability to climate change.
Cooperation essential for biodiversity in South Asia
In December 2022, representatives from 188 countries gathered in Montreal, Canada, for the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15). There, they adopted the historic Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. This saw nations commit to four goals and 23 targets to be achieved by 2030 for the conservation, management and sustainable use of biodiversity. The targets included protecting 30% of land and sea, reducing harmful subsidies by USD 500 billion a year, and halving food waste. But countries – including those in South Asia – must work together if achieving these goals is to come within reach.
Many countries in South Asia share biodiversity-rich transboundary ecosystems. These include the high-altitude rangelands of Nepal, Bhutan and India; the Terai forests of India, Nepal and Bhutan; the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh; and the multiple river basins that flow from the Hindu Kush Himalayas. The benefits of cooperation across borders to preserve these essential and unique ecosystems are well recognised, and this is promoted in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. But the potential of policies and practices that promote regional collaboration to sustainably manage nature has not yet been fully explored.
Building on successes of existing agreements
Past experience has shown that cross-border cooperation can help to protect biodiversity in South Asia. For example, the Bangladesh-India Sundarban Regional Cooperation Initiative, signed in 2011, led to a joint tiger census between the two countries. A bilateral agreement between India and Nepal signed in 2019 led to intensified joint patrolling in transboundary habitats, and capacity building of officers engaged in wildlife conservation. These agreements have facilitated the use of monitoring and reporting tools (such as MSTrIPES – Monitoring System for Tiger Intensive Protection and Ecological Status), and the organisation of ministerial meetings to review the status of tiger conservation.
A 2012 World Bank-funded regional project to build capacity in wildlife protection in South Asia led to the establishment of the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN), headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal. Efforts are underway through SAWEN to develop protocols on sharing data relating to illegal wildlife trade, and to develop regional capacity in wildlife forensics. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has developed a transboundary landscape approach to manage biodiversity by ecosystems rather than administrative boundaries. Using this approach, Bhutan, India, and Nepal signed a Regional Cooperation Framework in 2015 to manage the transboundary Kangchenjunga Landscape through strengthened partnerships and cooperation.
However, these opportunities have not been used to their full potential. For instance, the potential for sustainable regional trade in biological commodities, such as herbs, has remained untapped. The World Heritage Convention could also be leveraged to help manage transboundary areas of outstanding ecological value through regional cooperation.
Making the most of the outcomes of COP15
The recent adoption of the Global Biodiversity Framework at COP15 provides an opportunity for South Asian countries to strengthen regional cooperation on biodiversity. Now is a pertinent time for countries to revise their National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAPs) – national policies which members of the CBD must adopt under the Article 6 of the Convention to align with its goals and targets.
Analysis of the NBSAPs of the eight countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas confirms there is little in the current policies on conservation action at the regional scale. These could be significantly strengthened by the addition of a dedicated section on transboundary conservation and cooperation, covering points such as:
- Cooperating in the management of transboundary protected areas and wildlife corridors across the Hindu Kush Himalayan region;
- Implementing the Ministerial Declaration on the HKH Call to Action, a 2020 commitment signed by the eight countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas to manage mountain ecosystems and support livelihoods in the region;
- Actions to address human-wildlife conflict, especially focusing on wide-ranging species such as elephants which range across international borders;
- Jointly developing capacity in border control and other law enforcement agencies to better combat transboundary illegal wildlife trade;
- Conducting joint and coordinated surveillance for early warnings of emerging zoonotic diseases;
- Supporting and working with existing regional arrangements, such as regional transboundary landscapes, while exploring new and innovative channels to promote regional cooperation.
There is an urgent need for South Asian countries to identify and agree on joint conservation actions in their respective NBSAPs. Improved cooperation on biodiversity at the regional scale is particularly important for achieving the target to effectively conserve and manage 30% of Earth’s land, oceans, marine areas and inland water by 2030, since transboundary ecosystems will be counted towards this target. This can include collaboration in the planning and implementation of Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures (OECMs) – areas outside legally defined protected areas, where biodiversity could be effectively and equitably conserved alongside other forms of land use.
Finally, aside from the direct benefits of improved regional cooperation in terms of biodiversity, ecosystem services and climate resilience, the strengthened regional integration that would result between South Asian countries would be felt widely across other geopolitical spheres in the region.
This work is part of a collaborative editorial series between the World Bank, ICIMOD and The Third Pole that brings together climate experts and regional voices on “Regional Cooperation for Climate Resilience in South Asia”. The views and opinions expressed by the author are their own. The series has been funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office through the Program for Asia Resilience to Climate Change – a trust fund administered by the World Bank.