Significance of Sacred Groves in Conservation of Biodiversity
Kannan C.S. Warrier
Scientist E and Coordinator ENVIS Forest Genetic Resources and Tree Improvement
Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding
Coimbatore – Tamil Nadu – India
Patches of vegetation protected on the basis of religious faith are called sacred groves. Apart from India, they occur in other parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, America and Australia. In India, sacred groves are mainly distributed in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and the Union Territory of Puducherry. Their ecological, biological, cultural and historical values are invaluable. According to the National Environment Policy of India, ancient sacred groves should be treated as possessing “Incomparable Values”. Many valuable medicinal plants and wild relatives of cultivated species are present in the groves which may have definite role to play in the future species improvement programmes.
It is estimated that the total number of sacred groves in India is likely to be between 100,000 and 150,000. However, very less number of them are enumerated, documented and studied. Sacred groves are known by different names in different regions as Than or Madaico in Assam, Matagudi, Devgudi or Sarana in Chattisgarah, Dev Van in Himachal Pradesh, Jaherthan or Sarana in Jharkhand, Devarakaadu or Kans in Karnataka, Kaavu in Kerala, Devrai or Devgudi in Maharashtra, Umang Lai in Manipur, Law Kyntang or Law Niam in Meghalaya, Jahera or Thakuramma in Orissa, Orans in Rajasthan, Kovilkaadu in Tamil Nadu, Bugyal or Dev Van in Uttarakhand and Garamthan or Jahiristhan in West Bengal. They may vary in size from a few trees to dense forests covering extensive tracts of land. Though there are many references to the sacred groves and sacred trees of India in early literature, the scientific study of them was initiated by Gadgil and Vartak.
Presence of wild cultivars of crop plants like turmeric, ginger, rice, pepper, nutmeg etc. which have better pest resistance and productivity has been documented from the sacred groves. A new genus and species of climbing legume, Kunstleria keralensis was identified from a sacred grove in Kerala. Many tree species of importance have been rediscovered from sacred groves. The role of sacred groves which function as resource forests, offering both livelihood sustenance and ecological security is also of considerable importance. Such larger groves are present in many states in India.
Changes in religious beliefs, socio-economic scenario, increasing human population uncontrolled inflow of visitors, soil excavation works and other developmental pressures have resulted in deterioration of many sacred groves in the recent past. Invasion of exotic weeds is also a major threat. We all should understand the importance of the sacred groves and join hands to avoid further deterioration to these invaluable resource pockets of biodiversity.
A view of a sacred grove in Kerala