Sacred forests, protected by traditional beliefs for centuries, may hold the key to effective conservation management. As rich reservoirs of ancient biodiversity, sacred forests are a fascinating cultural practice that marries the spiritual with the natural world.

Sacred forests, or groves, are areas of ancient woodland protected by indigenous communities because of their cultural connection to the spiritual or divine. Widely credited as one of the oldest forms of land management, sacred forests are found randomly across the world in a variety of climates, with India alone home to one million sacred forests.

These forests are protected by strict social taboos, with usual activities like hunting, woodchopping, or cultivating the soils prohibited. The severity of restrictions varies from forest to forest, with some simply limiting access to a specific community, while others regard breaking even a twig as improper.

Sacred forests have been linked to a wealth of benefits, including enhanced biodiversity, increased carbon storage and improved water security. 

The key alignment between these different cultures and sites is the continual respect and reverence given to the natural world.

As you can imagine, these landscapes give us some of the best pictures of undisturbed ecosystems, and many have entirely isolated forest structures. With global biodiversity in rapid decline, finding corners of the world that are untouched by humans is becoming increasingly difficult.

Uniquely pristine in nature, sacred forests consistently present higher tree cover, higher plant diversity and higher volumes of vegetation than non-sacred sites. The taboos associated with environmental damage have protected nature so successfully that at several sites they have become reservoirs of biodiversity, acting as last refuges for locally threatened species.

For example, the Mawphlang sacred grove in India contains at least four species of trees and three types of orchids that now exist nowhere else in the world. In fact, several studies have suggested that most of the world’s biodiversity is not actually held in legally protected areas but in areas protected by indigenous populations

Alongside the wealth of biodiversity benefits offered by sacred forests and indigenous protected sites, they also play a vital role in regulating flows of global carbon. Because these forests are almost entirely untouched, they store huge amounts of carbon in both trees and soils.

This ancient carbon store locks in carbon that may have otherwise been released during land clearing and felling practices, and as these forests grow, they continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere at much faster rates than cultivated land. 

Although the science is a little muddy, there is a general consensus that old-growth, native forests consistently remove more carbon than young, non-native forests.

But I would argue that perhaps one of the most interesting benefits of sacred forests is their effect on regional water availability. A study in India has suggested that ancient forest structures are linked with improved soil moisture during drought when compared to non-ancient woodlands by ensuring water availability downstream of the sacred site in seasonal dry periods.

In the face of climate change-aggravated droughts, the presence of sacred forests is vital if we are to improve upon current water security strategies. 

Despite COP 15’s ambitious 30×30 goal — aiming to protect 30% of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030 — there has been limited tangible progress in the years since. So, what can we learn from such successful conservation practices embodied by sacred forests?

What seems clear is that the blanket application of predominantly western conservation practices is not appropriate. And by that, I mean that the legal designation of protected areas is simply not enough, as is apparent from the numerous instances in which legally protected areas continue to experience environmental exploitation and degradation. 

The key to remember is that these regions have been so successfully managed because there is a deep-rooted connection between the natural world and local culture. In many instances, so-called “parachute conservation” strategies that hold no connection to the landscape are far less effective at preserving biodiversity than strategies that work conservation into the framework of local cultures. 

To ensure longevity, strategies must be site- and culture-specific and allow for the development of a human-nature connection. 

Sacred forests represent the most blindingly successful example of conservation, pervasive throughout the globe, yet their significance in climate and conservation strategies continues to be wildly underrepresented. Perhaps it’s time for that to change?