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

Posted 06/2/16

Sacred forests are an integral part of Tibetan culture in northwest China's Yunnan region. The majority of these sacred forests are not big enough to be relevant for wildlife, but they do harbor high bird diversity. The question is if sacred forests should be incorporated into conservation strategies? Teri research work shows that in fact the opposite may be true: leaving them alone may be the best way to ensure that the sacred forests are preserved.

Hillside of village sacred forest with view of valley below

In northwestern Yunnan, China, certain patches of forests are considered sacred. What does that mean? It means that people go into the forest to pray or to offer gifts to their same gods because they believe their lives will be blessed and successful if they do so. Jodi was interested in the biodiversity of sacred forests and inventoried which bird species occur there. Jodi end up publishing a bird field guide both in English and in Mandarin as a result of her work (Birds of Shangrila PDF).  Later on, Teri conducted interviews with locals because she was interested in understanding how local people see sacred forests, but also to understand if an extra conservation status was necessary in order to preserve these little patches.

Conducting survey about sacred village forests

As a result of the interviews, Teri came to the conclusion that people do not see the forest as a wildlife habitat or as an area that provides other ecosystem service such as clean water or soil protection. Instead, the sacred forests serve the single purpose of pleasing the gods and thereby ensure that people’s lives go on smoothly. This perception of the forest is the same across genders and age groups, which indicates that unless there is a major shift in the local belief system, there is no immediate danger of losing village sacred forest areas.”

Story by Patricia Alexandre