Governments from across the world made grand promises last month at the biodiversity conference in Montreal to save nature by protecting 30 percent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030. But back home many are presiding over the destruction of some of the most ancient and precious protected areas on Earth — sacred groves and places that have long been preserved by religious fervor and strict taboos that are often far more effective than game wardens or environmental statutes.
Nobody knows how many sacred natural places there are across the world. They may number in the hundreds of thousands. Almost all societies have them — from Hindu villages in India to Catholic communities in the hills of Italy, and native tribes of the Americas to African animists. The creation and longevity of these places are testament to the power of religion as a tool for community-based conservation. Sacred natural places are “the oldest form of habitat protection in human history,” says Piero Zannini of the University of Bologna, author of a 2021 assessment of their value. “They are becoming ever more important as reservoirs of biodiversity.”
In many places they are the only refuges for endangered species and rare ecosystems. Church forests are now almost the only trees left in the Amhara Province of Ethiopia, holding back advancing deserts. In Japan, there are few if any ancient lowland forests outside the grounds of Shinto temples, which are estimated to cover more than a quarter-million acres.
Unlike state-supported parks and protected areas, there are few national and no international inventories of sacred groves.
Some have been adopted into national state-funded conservation networks. The Yosemite landscape in California’s Sierra Nevada was, says Zannini, “considered sacred and protected as such by local [Native American] people for many centuries” before being made a national park in 1890. But most remain a “shadow conservation network.”
Unlike state-supported parks and protected areas, there are few national and no international inventories of these sacred places. “They are not getting sufficient attention from conservationists or the scientific community,” he says. “COP15 [the Montreal conference] and similar events are still neglecting sacred natural sites.”
But Zannini warns that protecting these places will require more than simply integrating them into national protected-area networks. Many sacred natural sites, he says, are distinctive precisely because they exist separate from official conservation and may require special protection or designation. Protected areas are mostly large and remote, while sacred sites are smaller and mixed in among farms and people. The “standardized management” typical of protected areas could result in a loss of species that survive through interaction with human activities — for example, species that are cultivated and harvested for medicines or that simply find habitat around farms, homes, or temple precincts.
In Europe, many sacred groves date back to pre-Christian and classical times. Celts, Druids, Gauls, Lithuanians, Finns, and Welsh all have histories of tending sacred groves. Many were wiped out by the spread of Christianity, which has often celebrated mankind’s ascendancy over nature and preferred churches to sanctified nature. But not always.
Fabrizio Frascaroli of the University of Zurich has plotted a network of Catholic sacred natural sites across central Italy, “one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in Europe.” They may have benefited from the continuing influence of a 13th-century nature-loving local, St. Francis of Assisi. But many were inherited from pre-Christian times. The sacred evergreen oak woodland at Monteluco in the hills of Umbria dates back at least to the third century B.C. and was originally dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter.
In rural Estonia, a popular revivalist forest-worshiping movement called Maausk, claims links to pre-Christian pagans. Each village has its own sacred forest, where to this day disciples leave harvest gifts in the groves for their ancestors. Folklorists say the forests of this small Baltic nation have long been seen as bastions against outside influences, whether Lutheran Christians from Germany or Soviet Union invaders during the Second World War, when people sought refuge in the forests and a national resistance movement known as the Forest Brothers sprang up.
Elders in the foothills of the Himalayas say that up to 30 percent of their land was once protected as sacred.
Yet as Christian missionaries spread around the world, their crusades against “pagan” beliefs damaged the natural places those beliefs protected, says Indian ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who has pioneered research on these areas in his home country for half a century. Elders in the foothills of the Himalayas told him that up to 30 percent of their land was once protected as sacred.
Until recently, there were estimated to be more than 100,000 sacred natural sites across India, though only some 14,000 have been described by researchers. The country’s rapid economic development is taking its toll. “Spiritual beliefs [are] no longer sufficient to ensure their survival,” according to Gadgil. Yet just as there are no reliable statistics on their numbers, so are there none on their demise.
But it is happening. In arid Rajasthan in northwest India, sacred stands of trees — known locally as orans, derived from the Sanskrit word for forest — have been protected for centuries as sources of firewood, water, and livestock fodder and for their spiritual and ecological value. Grazing helped maintain their ecology. But now they are being uprooted to make way for huge arrays of solar panels and attendant pylons.
The story is similar In China. Last month’s Montreal biodiversity conference was originally scheduled for Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, until Covid-19 intervened. Had foreign reporters gone to Yunnan, they might have uncovered a story of a catastrophic decline in sacred sites.
The distinctive montane rainforests forests protected on several hundred holy hills in Yunnan were traditionally held to be inhabited by gods of the Yi and Dai people. They were once out of bounds to humans, except when making sacrifices to the deities. According to Pei Shengji of the Kunming Institute of Botany, these trees recently have rarely been found anywhere else but on these holy mountainsides. But they are rapidly being lost as the sacred sites are taken over by rubber plantations.
In Siberia, meanwhile, many Indigenous communities have sacred sites in the boreal forests. Local shaman still oversee a network of them in the Karakol sacred valley in Russia’s Altai Republic, which is home to snow leopards. But the valley’s sanctity — and the leopard’s habitat — is now threatened by construction of a pipeline to supply Siberian gas to China.
In Australia too, the clash between old religion and new economics often plays out over sacred sites. The country’s native Aborigines still recognize “dreamtime” sacred groves, ranging from spiritually significant rainforests in Queensland to woodlands in the arid interior. But threats increase. In 2020, highway engineers in the state of Victoria defied hundreds of protesters and began bulldozing some 200 trees sacred to local Djab Wurrung women.
Danger is often intrinsic to the aura of sacred groves. “The most potent form of sacred grove protection is fear.”
One tree slated for destruction was a giant 800-year-old, hollow at the base, that had been used as a shelter for giving birth by 50 generations of women. At another, Aboriginal women have long planted the placentas of their new-born babies as a connection to their ancestors. One 350-year-old tree was felled. But amid court cases, and the preparation of a new cultural heritage management plan for the area, the outcome of the decade-long standoff remains unclear.
In parts of Africa, traditions remain strong. The Ethiopian highlands have a patchwork of about 20,000 small forests surrounding Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Tewahedo churches and monasteries. They are the region’s only remaining Afromontane forests, according to Travis Reynolds of the University of Vermont, who has studied them with local scholar Mesfin Sahle. But thanks to the protection of parishioners they have survived and extended their range in recent times, even while surrounding agricultural areas have turned to desert.
Often African sacred sites reflect animist traditions. The Kikuyu in Kenya protect groves of a fig tree called the mugumu for prayers, to honor ancestors, and as sites for animal sacrifices; in Ivory Coast, villagers host initiation ceremonies in protected areas; and in Sierra Leone, they grow medicinal plants.
But such sacred groves can be dangerous places, too. In Pondoland, an important region of plant endemism on the eastern coast of South Africa, the tiny damp and shaded sacred groves dotted among grazing pastures may look harmless. But locals told Yale Environment 360 in 2017 that they sometimes contain plants, secretly cultivated by villagers, that make poisons used in local vendettas and could have been used in a recent assassination.
Danger is often intrinsic to the aura of sacred groves, according to Jonathan Onyekwelu of the Federal University of Technology Akure in Nigeria. “The most potent form of sacred grove protection is fear,” he says. At the biodiverse Ogun-Onire sacred grove in southwest Nigeria, which he has studied, the traditional belief is “that nobody enters … and comes out alive,” unless a sacrifice is made to the spirits beforehand.
Secrecy is another characteristic of many animist sacred sites. Sometimes knowledge of their biological wealth is deliberately kept close “as a form of protection or even a tenet of their faith … rendering the site invisible to the eyes of outsiders,” according to Nigel Dudley, a British consultant ecologist and early advocate of sacred sites.
But such secrecy can be their downfall, as traditional knowledge is lost and sacred sites are forgotten. “A century ago almost every village in southwestern Nigeria had a sacred grove,” says Onyekwelu. “Today most of the groves have shrunk to very small areas or abandoned.” He believes that state backing or tourism are the most likely ways to halt the loss.
The latter certainly worked for a network of monkey sanctuaries in Ghana. The Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary in central Ghana was originally protected in the 1820s, after a traditional fetish priest declared that its African colobus and Lowe’s mona monkeys were children of a local spirit. It survived in secret through the colonial era and grew in ecological importance as surrounding forests disappeared. In the 1970s, with animist beliefs fading, some locals asked the government to give the reserve formal protection. Now it is a renowned tourist destination, with its own website and guest house.
But even in the modern world, old traditions may remain important to maintain local support for such sanctuaries, says Gordon Sarfo-Adu, a manager at Ghana’s Forest Commission. “It is now time to recognize the value of traditional sacred grove institutions [for] biodiversity protection,” he wrote recently. But that recognition should include maintaining customary practices for tending and protecting them, and encouraging the preservation of folk knowledge and classifications of plants, “rather than scientific designations, which have little meaning to the local people.”
Much less is documented about sacred natural sites in the Americas than in the Old World. But they undoubtedly existed on a large scale, and some persist.
In the hills of southern Guyana, the evidence for the sacred sites of the Wapichan people is clear. They still swim in sacred creeks, climb sacred trees, and visit ancestral graves in sacred forests. In Shulinab village, tribal official Claudine La Rose described to this author in 2015 how these places had been preserved in the face of opposition from Jesuit missionaries, and explained their continued importance. “The elders told us … about the sacred sites and the spirit grandfathers that preside over natural resources,” she said, “how if you cut down certain trees in the forest you will get sick and die, punished by the spirits.”
The arrival of Europeans in the Americas destroyed many sacred sites and wiped out much of the traditional knowledge they enshrined.
In the Ecuadorean Andes, sacred cloud forests protect the threatened Andean condor. While in neighboring Peru, a proposed spiritual park on land sacred to the Q’eros people is home to pumas, vicunas, and distinctive forests of Polyepsis, a member of the rose family that is believed to be the highest-elevation flowering tree on Earth.
The arrival of Europeans destroyed many such sites and wiped out much of the traditional knowledge they enshrined. But African slaves shipped by the Europeans sometimes brought their own traditions that survive to this day. In eastern Jamaica, the Windward Maroons — descendants of a slave uprising on the Caribbean island in the 17th century — have kept alive reverence for sacred groves in the forests of the Blue and John Crow Mountains.
In the United States, the Menominee people of Wisconsin have practiced a sophisticated system of sustainable logging for more than 150 years in the forest that makes up most of their reservation. The rules are tied to cultural principles and spiritual values derived from the desire to protect the forest habitat of the five animals that feature in the tribe’s creation story and represent its five clans — the wolf, bear, eagle, moose, and crane.
Modern silviculturists and forest ecologists regularly make pilgrimages to the Menominee reservation to find out how they do it. But the answer is at root as much spiritual as technical. Their forests are sacred and treated as such.