Erosion in people’s beliefs in nature worship, religion and social values are posing a threat to the sacred forests (Devara Kadu), that are conserved patches of forests that lay undisturbed, according to experts.
“Religion played a very important role in traditional and informal conservation. An elephant symbolises Ganesha while some types of trees are considered sacred. Fear of Gods and social taboos prevented people from harvesting resources from these sacred forests though there are no physical borders. Change in social and religious values are now posing a danger to these sacred forests,” says Prof C G Kushalappa of the College of Forestry in Ponnampet, Kodagu district.
There are 1,214 sacred groves covering 2,550 hectares in Kodagu alone. “People were afraid to go in, harvest resources, cut trees or live in sacred forests because of their fear of forest deities and beliefs in nature worship. This protected the plants, trees, small animals and therefore, led to conservation of the ecosystem. Currently, due to pressures on land and decrease in religious values, these forests are being encroached or taken over. People in Kodagu are fighting to protect the groves,” Kushalappa adds.
India has the highest concentration of sacred forests in the world. Estimates suggest that there might be between 1-1.5 lakh sacred forests around the country.
Ecologist Smitha Krishnan, who has worked on sacred groves in Kodagu, and is with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich, Switzerland, says, “Sacred groves that are relatively undisturbed are a haven for bees. In addition to the wild rock bees, we also find feral colonies of honey bees (Apis cerana indica) and have recorded more than 70 species of solitary bees. Sacred forests are also home to a wide diversity of trees, some of which are endangered and endemic. Although sacred forests are often very small fragments of forests, they play an important role in conserving biodiversity.”
Noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil writes, “Such a traditional system of refugia in India was the network of sacred groves, ponds and pools in the courses of rivers and streams. These were patches of land or water, which were dedicated to some deity and were kept free of all exploitation. Where the network of sacred groves has remained intact till recent times, as in the Dakshina Kannada district, they formed islands of climax vegetation at densities of 2 to 3 per sq km. This must have been a very effective way of preserving tropical biological diversity, for we are still discovering new species of plant, species which have disappeared from everywhere else, in these sacred groves.”
The big debate is whether many small patches of forests or a large single forest is ideal for conserving biodiversity, feels Dr Kushalappa.