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Vol. 11 No. 3 - July 2005

Sacred Groves of North-East India and Their Floristic Richness and Significance in Biodiversity Conservation

By: R. S. Tripathi*

Declaring a patch of forest near the villages as sacred and protecting it on the grounds of religious and cultural beliefs is an age-old practice with the tribal communities in the north-eastern hill region of India. There are a large number of sacred groves in the states of Meghalaya, Manipur and Karbi-Anglong area of Assam. These sacred groves in existence in the region since time immemorial and are considered to be the relic of the original forest vegetation of the region. These are among the few least disturbed forest patches in the region serving as the original treasure house of biodiversity. Over the past one decade or so, a considerable amount of interest has been generated in the studies of sacred groves among the ecologists, taxonomists, foresters, environmentalists and anthropologists. We have documented as many as 79 sacred groves in Meghalaya alone. These sacred groves (called as ‘law Kyntang’, ‘Law Niam’ and ‘Law Lyngdoh’ in Khasi hills, ‘Khloo Blai’ in Jaintia hills, and ‘Asheng Khosi’ in Garo hills) are owned by individuals, clans or communities, and are under direct control of the clan councils or local village Dorbars/Syiemships/Dolloiships/ Nokmaships. They show a wide variation in their size and forest canopy cover. The information collected on the status of 56 sacred groves of Meghalaya showed that 12.5% of them are undisturbed (100% canopy cover), 25% are dense (> 40% canopy cover), 20% are sparse (10-40% canopy cover), while 42.5% of the groves are highly degraded and have even less than 10% canopy cover. The fact that 57.5% of the sacred groves are still in good condition, and some of them are quite intact despite various kinds of anthropogenic disturbances such as shifting cultivation, unregulated tree felling, forest fires and deforestation prevalent in the area, shows that the religious beliefs and taboos have certainly contributed to the protection of the sacred groves. Some of the undisturbed/least disturbed sacred groves of Meghalaya (Law Lyngdoh at Mawphlang, Law Rynkiew Swer at Swer, and Mawiong sacred grove at Mawsmai in East Khasi hills; Law Adong/Law Lyngdoh Mawlong at Mairang in West Khasi hills, and Raliang and Ialong sacred groves in Jaintia hills districts) have been studied in detail by the author and his collaborators at the NorthEastern Hill University, Shillong.

The abovementioned sacred groves are extremely rich in floral and faunal elements. The species content in these sacred groves is very high. The information on floristic richness of the sacred groves of Meghalaya collected from various primary and secondary sources revealed that at least 514 species representing 340 genera and 131families are present in these sacred forests. The sacred groves contain several valuable medicinal and other economically important plants. Some of the endangered taxa are to be found only in the sacred groves. Apart from trees and shrubs, a wide variety of lianas, orchids, ferns, bryophytes and microbes abound in these sacred forests. The sacred grove biodiversity compares favourably with the biodiversity in the core area of some of the biosphere reserves in this region (e.g. Nokrek Biosphere Reserve), which are being managed by the state forest departments. This bears testimony to the efficacy of the traditional forest management systems practiced by the local communities.

Besides being the repository of biodiversity, the sacred forests provide a myriad of valuable ecosystem services, and serve as ideal study sites to address many ecological issues related to forest ecosystem dynamics and management. Extensive researches have been carried out by the Ecologists at NEHU, Shillong on various aspects of sacred groves. They have compared the plant community attributes and tree population structure of Mawphlang sacred grove and disturbed forest stands. Most of the primary (late successional) tree species have much greater density and IVI values in the sacred grove as compared to the disturbed subtropical humid forest stands around Shillong. The populations of several tree species in the sacred grove at Mawphlang comprise relatively higher proportion of older trees as compared to their saplings and seedlings, which is attributable to the regeneration of these trees due to increased shade caused by the dense canopy of the sacred grove. The regeneration in the well protected sacred groves occurs mostly in the gaps created due to natural tree fall. A detailed analysis of the relationship between tre regeneration and gap size and microenvironmental variability has been done by the author and his associates. The studies on the effects of microsites on germination of Quercus griffithii, Lithocarpus dealbatus and Schima khasiana and microsite characteristics-oak seedling fitness relationship indicate that the primary species which are shade-tolerant, perform better in the undisturbed sacred groves than in the disturbed forests, which tend to be favourable for the secondary successional species.

It seems reasonable to assume that proper regeneration, growth and perpetuation of such important trees as oaks in the forests would be possible only when the cultural disturbances are reduced to the minimal level and adequate protection is afforded to the sacred groves. The big trees of these species present in the sacred groves can serve as a perennial source of propagules, which may be dispersed to the newer habitats to initiate successful invasion. The religious beliefs and rituals central to the sacred grove preservation are being eroded fast, and therefore, these biodiversity-rich forests cannot be protected only through religious beliefs. External intervention has become essential for the protection of the sacred groves. The suitable packages of conservational and eco-restoration strategies need to be evolved for the protection of sacred groves with the full involvement and participation of the local communities. It may be mentioned that the protection of the sacred groves in Meghalaya, could be attributed not only to the religious beliefs and taboos, but also to the wisdom of the people residing in the adjoining areas. For instance, the villagers are fully aware of the importance of the sacred groves as perennial source of clean water to them. They also know that sacred groves help in reducing loss of top fertile soil due to erosion caused by heavy rain, and some of the medicinal plants they can get only from the sacred groves.

If the religious beliefs associated with the sacred groves, and traditional wisdom contributing to forest protection could be suitably integrated with the modern scientific forest management practices, these sacred groves could become a very useful model for biodiversity conservation in the region. Evidently, there is a strong need to perpetuate and promote the concept of sacred groves, and to evolve a mechanism whereby the forest departments could provide technical inputs to improve the canopy cover and regeneration of trees in the degraded sacred groves of the region.

* Formerly, Professor of Botany, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong-793022, India.

INSA Senior Scientist, National Botanical Research Institute (Eco-education Division), Rana Pratap Marg, Lucknow-226001, India

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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