Conservation of biodiversity in sacred natural sites in Asia and Africa: a review of the scientific literature

Dudley, Nigel; Bhagwat, Shonil; Higgins-Zogib, Liza; Lassen, Barbara; Verschuuren, Bas and Wild, Robert (2010). Conservation of biodiversity in sacred natural sites in Asia and Africa: a review of the scientific literature. In: Verschuuren, Bas; Wild, Robert; McNeely, Jeff and Oviedo, Gonzalo eds. Sacred Natural Sites: conserving nature and culture. London: Earthscan, pp. 19–32.



Sacred natural sites are frequently better protected than many officially protected areas, but an overall understanding of their role in conservation strategies is lacking. Over the last few years, scientists have assembled quantitative data from sacred natural sites, comparing their biodiversity values
with those of the surroundings, officially protected areas and other management approaches such as forest reserves. This chapter draws on information from over a hundred studies throughout Africa and Asia, which provides concrete evidence that many sacred natural sites have great importance to biodiversity conservation, in addition to their spiritual value to one or more faith groups. Sacred natural sites appear to be extremely common in some countries, although much remains to be learned about their global extent, as research reported in the scientific literature tends to be focused on a few countries. Sacred natural sites are often the only remaining patches of natural or semi-natural habitat in cultural landscapes (see Figure 2.1) and can contain rich biodiversity, sometimes exceeding nearby protected areas and forest reserves. However, a number of problems have been identified threatening the role of sacred natural sites in long term conservation strategies. They are often too small to support a full complement of expected species and many sites are suffering from increased anthropogenic pressure, in some cases exceeding the capacity of the ecosystem to maintain its integrity. Sacred natural sites are sometimes heavily modified or even planted; a proportion of these may nonetheless retain a rich complement of biodiversity at local level. Sacred natural sites are often recognized and used by local communities for their secular values, including medicinal plants, non timber forest products and other ecosystem services such as tourism or watershed protection. Unfortunately, many sacred natural sites are now under threat or have already disappeared in recent years. The pattern of loss has not been quantified but it is recognized to be increasing. Integration of sacred natural sites into conservation strategies can be complex but provides an important way of preserving these unique places and the biological and cultural values they represent. Where appropriate from social and conservation perspectives, the conservation of sacred natural sites should be included in national conservation plans.

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