Sacred Forests in northwest Yunnan, China: a conservation priority?

Tibetans in Yunnan, China, protect small forest areas near to their villages. While these areas may contribute to biodiversity conservation across the landscape, should they be incorporated into conservation planning?

Sacred sites around the world are serving as de facto nature preserves for biodiversity conservation. Much attention is focused on mapping them (see, and potentially, incorporating them into conservation planning. However, Teri Allendorf and her colleagues questioned whether the incorporation of Tibetan sacred forests into Chinese conservation networks was appropriate in the case of northwest Yunnan Province.


Study site location
Teri has just the right mix of educational background and research interests to tackle this complex question. She is interested in the human dimension of biodiversity and conservation. She and Jodi Brandt began to work together with Jianme Yang, from the Southwest Forestry University, on a project to complement Jodi's work on bird diversity in Tibetan village-level sacred forests in China Jodi had previously done field work and research that culminated in her PhD degree, in northwest Yunnan region in China. In this part of the world, certain patches of forests are considered sacred and protected by villages. What does that mean? It means that people go into the forest to pray to and light incense because they believe their lives will be blessed and filled with joy and success if they do so. Jodi's interest in these areas was related to their biodiversity and she focused mainly on registering which bird species occur in those sacred forests. Jodi published a bird field guide both in English and in Mandarin as a result of her work ( To complement Jodi's biodiversity study, they conducted interviews with the local residents in the villages who protected the areas. They were interested in understanding how local people value sacred forests and if their relationship with the forests might be changing. Their research found that local residents see this small sacred forest patches almost only as religious areas. They do not value them as wildlife habitat or as an area that provides other ecological benefits such as clean water or soil protection. In fact, the forest serves a single purpose, a place to go to pray for good luck and future benefits.This perception of the forest is the same across different age groups and everyone goes to pray in the forest, which indicates that people's religious appreciation of the village sacred forest does not appear to be decreasing.


A sacred forest in Yunnan, China
While conservationists often call for sacred forests to be incorporated into conservation plans, Teri and her colleagues suggest outside intervention may not always be appropriate. In the case of these village sacred forests, and maybe because of their small size, they do not hold ecological value for people. This lack of ecological value may indicate that a direct approach to assimilating them into a protected area system may not resonate with local residents. As these sacred forests have been resilient to change in the past and do not appear to be under immediate threat now, they do not seem to be in need at this point of outside intervention for their continued existence. These areas may be better protected by letting residents practice their traditions without outside influence.
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