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Special to the tribune
India’s global eco warrior
He mapped network of sacred forests
Shyam Bhatia in London

Dr Shonil Bhagwat
Dr Shonil Bhagwat

An Indian researcher at Oxford University has emerged as a global eco warrior for his role in helping to create the first ever world map of religious forests revered by millions.

Dr Shonil Bhagwat’s field studies show how some parts of India have one sacred forest for every 741 acres. He has expert knowledge about threatened tree species in the religious forests of Karnataka, home to ‘poison arrow’ trees (Antiaris toxicari), and some unusual types of fig (Ficus microcarpa) and myrtle (Syzygium zeylanicum).

He has taken a particular interest in the Kodagu district of Karnataka where devarakadus or sacred groves have been damaged by illegal cutting, grazing and fires. Some of these devarakadus are also home to rare types of macrofungi not found in any other part of the world.

A graduate of the University of Pune, he obtained his Ph.D from Oxford before accepting his job as a Senior Fellow at the Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.

Commenting about his work, Dr Bhagwat said: “We know so little about these sacred sites and how they should be managed and what biodiversity they hold. There are many different studies. We are trying to bring all the information on to one platform.

“We urgently need to map this vast network of religious forests, sacred sites and other community-conserved areas to understand their role in biodiversity conservation. Such mapping can also allow the custodian communities, who have protected these sites for generations, to secure their legal status.”

Bhagwat and his fellow researchers have calculated that India may have more than 100,000 sacred forests and that some 15 per cent of the world’s land is ‘sacred land’. Examples of sacred sites that are not necessarily forested include Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

In a jointly authored academic paper published last year, Bhagwat explained how India has the largest number of sacred forests in the world, how many are associated with a god or gods and are typically named after deities. He and co-author Alison Ormsby also documented traditional forest conservation practices, such as the sprinkling of saffron water around a piece of land that needs protection.

“Globally, sacred forests often have associated myths and taboos on the use of specific plants and hunting of certain species of animals within the area,” said the paper published in Environmental Conservation. “The traditions can serve a conservation role because some of the sacred forest fragments represent the sole remaining forests and the last remaining locations with potential for conservation of flora and fauna.” 





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