[Commentary] Reinforcing open access to biodiversity data in the Hindu-Kush Himalayas

  • There is an unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss largely due to anthropogenic factors. Knowledge about the distribution, occurrence and status of biodiversity is needed to tackle this loss.
  • Biodiversity data from Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) and elsewhere is not easily accessible and discoverable and increased open access to it can fill these knowledge gaps and also contribute to conservation efforts and related decision-making.
  • The views expressed in this commentary are that of the authors.

We are losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment highlighted irreversible loss in the diversity of life on earth 16 years ago. The 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report warned that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. 

The richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for sustainable development. Healthy and biodiverse ecosystems offer many natural benefits and services, popularly known as ecosystem services. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) notes that at least 40 percent of the world’s economy and 80 percent of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources. Yet, we are far from meeting key conservation targets. The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 reports that we have failed to achieve the Aichi targets to protect, conserve, and sustainably use biodiversity. 

Shifting our focus to knowing biodiversity

One of the many reasons we are losing the battle to protect and conserve biodiversity is because we are not highlighting it adequately. In many cases, we are losing species even before they have been studied and described. There is very little emphasis on documenting and generating knowledge about biodiversity that everybody can have access to. The knowledge about the distribution, occurrence, and status of biodiversity is a pre-requisite to addressing any current biodiversity crisis, whether it is extinction, habitat destruction, or loss of genetic diversity. The world needs to embrace this common goal of free and open access to biodiversity data. This shifting of our focus to knowing biodiversity in real-time is essential for informed decision-making at all levels and for greater public awareness and action.  

Healthy and biodiverse ecosystems offer many natural benefits and services, popularly known as ecosystem services. Photo from ICIMOD Archives.

Biodiversity information is required to track the changes in species and their communities in response to global changes. In addition, historic data on biodiversity, particularly on threatened species, holds immense significance and becomes more valuable with time. However, there exists a huge gap in what we know about life on earth, as the biodiversity data that exists is neither easily discoverable nor accessible. Global initiatives such as Convention on Biological Diversity and IPBES have also acknowledged the knowledge gap and have emphasised the need for open access data for conservation science and related policy-formulation and decision making. 

Biodiversity in the HKH is poorly known

The Hindu Kush Himalaya hosts rich and unique biodiversity, with biodiversity elements from two biogeographical realms and four global biodiversity hotspots. The unique biodiversity and assemblages of flora and fauna are also due to the wide elevational gradient, from close to sea level to the highest mountains on earth. This diversity supports the lives and livelihoods of over 240 million people residing in the HKH region and millions more living downstream. The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment notes that land-use change, habitat degradation, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species continue to threaten biodiversity in the region, which then affects the ability of natural ecosystems to support human needs. These drivers collectively act and make habitats and ecosystems vulnerable, change species composition and induce species loss.

A key concern is the loss of endemic species – plants and animals that have evolved in particular elevation and climatic gradients and niches in the HKH. Many habitats – such as alpine and subalpine ecosystems, temperate forests and grasslands, freshwater ecosystems, and riparian habitats – remain underexplored.

While advanced scientific research on biodiversity is an absolute need, our understanding of what diversity exists and where it is distributed is incomplete. The inadequacy of data and information on biodiversity has hindered effectiveness of biodiversity research and decision-making around conservation and sustainable use.

Making biodiversity data globally available 

Open access to biodiversity data can fill this gap. The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), an international network and data infrastructure, is among the pioneers to make global biodiversity data and information freely accessible. Since its establishment in 2001, 1.67 billion occurrence records of species have been made available, with 57,530 datasets published by 1661 institutions as of April 7, 2021. Any researcher, individual, or organisation can share biodiversity information or datasets using standard data formats such as Darwin Core.

Four types of datasets can be published through GBIF – metadata-only, checklists, occurrence, and sampling-event datasets. These have to be supplemented by metadata or information about the dataset. 

Mobilising biodiversity data in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Even though the HKH harbours exceptionally rich biodiversity that is also extremely vulnerable, the biodiversity data from HKH is poorly represented in GBIF. Biodiversity data from this region have been mainly published by contributors from outside the region – especially from herbaria and museums from across the world.

To address this, ICIMOD joined hands with GBIF in 2009 with the aim of facilitating biodiversity data mobilisation in the HKH. It now mediates a publishing platform called the Hindu Kush Himalayan Biodiversity Information Facility (HKHBIF). A number of datasets covering plants, animals, and medicinal plants from the HKH region have already been published through HKHBIF. So far, 22 datasets have been published. ICIMOD also has its own data portal, the Regional Database System which hosts all types of data generated within ICIMOD, including the biodiversity data published through HKHBIF.

Blue Sheep in the Kangchengjunga Conservation Area, Nepal. Photo from ICIMOD Archives.

GBIF, with support from various donors, is now coming forward to encourage researchers and data holders from Asia to publish and promote biodiversity by themselves and enrich the network of data contributors from the region. There are opportunities for small grants and for capacity strengthening that opens up interesting avenues for biodiversity data publishing and mobilisation.

In addition, changes are being made to facilitate publication of molecular data – or genomic data that characterises a particular species. Such ideas widen the prospect of biodiversity research and further its application for monitoring, conservation, and sustainable use.

ICIMOD, GBIF and Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment in the past have also organised a number of capacity development events to reinforce the publication of biodiversity data from the HKH. Nepal has also proactively taken part in those events. This has resulted in the publication of datasets on invasive alien species, endemic flora, and fungi from the country.

Making biodiversity data count

GBIF-mediated data have been widely used for conservation planning, monitoring and policy-making processes. Researchers and decision-makers are now able to access high-quality and geo-referenced data from the GBIF data portal. Each data set is given a unique digital object identifier so that the dataset and the contributor are acknowledged when the data is used. 

The aim of HKHBIF is to motivate individuals and institutions in the eight HKH member countries to take advantage of the platform and publish their biodiversity. This platform presents an opportunity for biodiversity enthusiasts, experts, and citizens to publish biodiversity data and information from the HKH and collectively highlight its richness and vulnerability.

The increased publication of biodiversity data in GBIF from the HKH countries enhances its use for effective biodiversity conservation and management, mainly by creating awareness about biodiversity, expanding the scope for research, supporting decision making, and promoting investments for biodiversity conservation. It opens up avenues for interdisciplinary research – on biodiversity and climate change, biodiversity and habitat restoration, biodiversity and ecosystem services, biodiversity and food security, among others.

In a nutshell, the discovery and promotion of existing and prospective unpublished biodiversity data for open access publication are crucial to fill the extensive knowledge gap that exists in biodiversity information. Knowing the number, the types, and the whereabouts of biodiversity is a prerequisite to interventions that can help in tackling biodiversity loss.

The 21st Century is an age of digital technology, and we need to move beyond the idea of withholding data and information. The open-access biodiversity data platform formalises the way we share biodiversity data and information.

It is time that researchers, conservationists and development practitioners, decision-makers, and citizens, in general, contribute to building biodiversity knowledge by sharing photographs, stories, inventories, checklists, taxonomic monographs, and published research, to build a more complete picture of our natural world.

The authors are researchers from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, Nepal. 


Banner image: Knowing the number, the types, and the whereabouts of biodiversity is a prerequisite to interventions that can help in tackling biodiversity loss. Photo from ICIMOD Archives.

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