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Sacred Oases

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The Western Ghats Mountains in India are peppered with sacred forests — places where shrines suggest connections since ancient times to links to animistic and other religious and spiritual  traditions.

© iStockphoto.com/pazham

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In Ethiopia, thousands of Orthodox Tewahido Church forests represent the last remaining fragments of the country’s once-expansive Afromontane woodlands.

© 2013 DigitalGlobe

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Tewahedo Orthodox Christian churches are surrounded by indigenous forests in northern Ethiopia. The church forests serve as sacred sites for the community and church officials.

Photo by Lydia Ball

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With little forested land remaining in the region, church forests conceal a welcome wealth of biodiversity. Local people often believe that church forests bring rain, much needed in the arid landscape.

Photo by Lydia Ball

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In a preliminary analyses of 1,173 Ethiopian church forests and their local bee species, University of Oxford researcher Ashley Massey revealed that the forests support pollination zones spanning more than 300,000 hectares in croplands. Experiments have shown that pollination by bees and other insects found in these forests can boost crop yields up to a 40 percent. The photo here is of a honeybee in South Gondar, Ethiopia.

Photo by Dr. P.K. Wittman

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Tibetan monasteries in the Sanjiangyuan region in Qinghai Province of China are home to Buddhist monks who play a direct role in patrolling the lands surrounding their monasteries and teaching the approximately 76,000 people living in the area the importance of respecting nature. This photo shows the night sky above Suojia Monastery, Tibetan Plateau, Qinghai, China.

Photo by Byron Weckworth/Panthera

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Ninety percent of the monasteries in the Sanjiangyuan region in Qinghai Province, China fall within a 5-kilometer range of endangered snow leopard habitat.

The leopard captured on a camera trap here is part of a study supported by wild cat conservation organization Panthera, Chinese NGO Shan Shui and the Snow Leopard Trust.

Photo by ShanShui/Panthera/SLT

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The Jacksonville cemetery in southwestern Oregon provides habitat for the threatened Gentner’s fritillary, a showy lily distinguished by its yellow and burgundy checkerboard petals. The lily likely thrives there due to the unique landscape the cemetery provides.

Photo by Ryan Woolverton

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Japanese citizens tend to around 58,000 Shinto shrine forests, such as the one associated with the Fushimi Inari-taisha (fox) shrine in Kyoto. These forests often provide residents with their only major connection to the natural world.

Photo by Rachel Nuwer

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Sacred sites also sprout up in urban areas alongside skyscrapers and sprawl. Here, the tranquil moat and whitewashed walls of Tatsumi-yagura shrine stand in stark contrast with Tokyo skyscrapers in the distance.

© iStockphoto.com/fotoVoyager


From the Western Ghats Mountains in India and the Tibetan plateau in China to the Ethiopian highlands and the plains of America, sacred natural sites have stood the test of time — thanks to religious and spiritual communities. These biologically rich oases may play an increasingly important role in the future of conservation.

To learn more, read the Ensia feature story A Match Made in Heaven.

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