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Vol. 24 No. 4 - October 2018

Assessment of ecosystem services from sacred groves of India

By: SK Barik*, Rashmi Rekha Gogoi, Saralyn Kharbhih,
Blessing Suchiang, Ibadahun Mary Nonghuloo,
 D. Adhikari, K. Upadhaya, KC Malhotra, RS Tripathi#


Sacred groves are forest ecosystems maintained by traditional communities on the ground of religious beliefs. The pan-Indian presence of sacred groves is a testimony to the religious belief-based biodiversity conservation practice among the traditional communities across the country. The rich diversity of cultural practices and biodiversity conservation interface manifested in the form of sacred groves that exist in India since time immemorial is indeed an important natural heritage. Each community has a unique set of deity, belief system, and rituals associated with sacred groves that helped conserving diverse plant, animal and microbial species in different eco-regions of the country. Most often, sacred groves represent the original floral and faunal diversity of a particular eco-region. Although sacred groves did exist in the past in many other countries including Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Laos and many African and South American countries, today most of these nations have lost these islands of biodiversity due to modernity, weakened belief systems and developmental pressure. Fortunately, in India despite these pressures, an estimated three lakh sacred groves still exist, although a large portion of these sacred groves are partially or highly degraded (disturbed). It is realized that in the present day scenario, religious belief alone can no longer save these vanishing sacred groves. Unless the people who manage these groves are convinced of the value of these ecosystems it would be difficult to protect them. In addition to the biodiversity and cultural values, ecosystem services (i.e., the benefits derived by the humans from these ecosystems), are the greatest benefits that sacred groves provide to the society.

Ecosystem services as defined in Millennium Assessment(MA)-2003, include, "provisioning services such as food and water; regulating services such as flood and disease control; cultural services such as spiritual, recreational, and cultural benefits; and supporting services, such as nutrient cycling; that maintain the conditions for life on Earth". Unfortunately, most ecosystem service assessment studies in India have not used rigorous scientific methods for quantifying various ecosystem services provided by different ecosystems. Therefore, there is a need to standardize the field data collection protocols and methods for quantifying different ecosystem services in different ecosystems. Keeping these twin objectives in mind viz., (i) quantifying ecosystem services so that the people who are custodian of sacred groves realize and appreciate the tangible and intangible benefits that sacred groves provide, and (ii) standardizing field data collection protocols and methods for a robust quantification of ecosystem services, an all India coordinated project was undertaken during the period 2012-2017 in 15 eco-regions of the country involving 15 different institutions/universities (Box 1) with a goal to achieve sacred grove conservation through realization/appreciation of ecosystem service values by the conserving communities.


Box 1: Participating institutions/universities in the All India Coordinated Project on "Sacred Grove Ecosystem Services Assessment"

  1. North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Meghalaya (Coordinating Institution)

  2. Manipur University, Imphal, Manipur

  3. North-Eastern Regional Institute of Science and Technology, Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh

  4. Goa University, Goa

  5. Pondicherry University, Pudducherry

  6. Andhra University, Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh

  7. Jiwaji University, Gwalior

  8. GB Pant National Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development, Kullu Centre, Himachal Pradesh

  9. Transdisciplinary University (FRLHT), Bengaluru, Karnataka

  10. Sambalpur University, Sambalpur, Odisha

  11. Kerala Forest Research Institute, Nilambur, Kerala

  12. CPR Environmental Education Centre, Chennai

  13. HNB Garhwal University, Srinagar, Uttarakhand

  14. Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, Karnataka

  15. Abasaheb Garware College, Pune, Maharashtra

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, sponsored this mega-project with the following objectives:

  • To identify and characterize ecosystem services provided by sacred forest ecosystems of the country;

  • To develop a framework, set of indicators, and methods for quantification of sacred forest ecosystem services including the mapping of flow of ecosystem services;

  • To assess the quantity and quality of various ecosystem services attributable to sacred forest ecosystem;

  • To identify and characterize various drivers impacting ecosystem services in sacred forests;

  • To study the change in quantity and quality of ecosystem services due to varying degree of product extraction and other disturbances in sacred groves; and

  • To value ecosystem services and suggest practical recommendations for their inclusion in conservation decision making process.

  • The following ecosystem services under four categories as per MA classification, were quantified:

  • Provisioning: Fresh water

  • Cultural: Recreation/Spiritual

  • Regulating: Carbon sequestration and local hydrological balance

  • Supporting: Biodiversity and Nutrient cycling

In total, six ecosystem services viz., biodiversity conservation service, cultural services, water quality and improved hydrology, carbon sequestration, and nutrient conservation provided by more than 100sacred groves located in different ecological regions of the country were quantified.

The eco-regions were: Central Himalaya (Kullu, Himachal Pradesh), Western Himalaya (Srinagar, Garhwal), North-eastern India (Meghalaya and Manipur), Eastern Himalaya (Arunachal Pradesh), Central India (Madhya Pradesh), Eastern Ghats (Odisha and Andhra Pradesh), Western Ghats (Kerala and Karnataka), Deccan plateau (Tamilnadu), and Coastal Tamilnadu/Pudducherry. Ecosystem services were assessed along the size of sacred groves ss and disturbance gradients as well as under different management regimes. Disturbances in sacred groves were characterized, and impact of disturbance on sacred grove ecosystem services was assessed. A uniform method for quantification of each of the ecosystem services was developed and was followed for all the sacred groves. The quantification exercise was undertaken in close collaboration with the people associated with the sacred grove management. This helped them realize the importance of sacred grove conservation.


The amount of data collected through this initiative on six ecosystem services from 100 sacred groves was enormous. The magnitude of data varied based on geographic location, size, management regime and disturbance level of sacred groves. Although all the identified ecosystem services got depleted with increased level of disturbance, and decreased size of sacred groves throughout the country, the management regime did not show any definite trend, which varied according to the management structure that is in place in different states/regions. The data pertaining to selected sacred groves of Meghalaya in respect of certain ecosystem services are presented in this article as a case study.

Sacred groves of Meghalaya selected for the study

The study was conducted in six sacred groves viz., Mawnai sacred grove, Nongkrem sacred grove, Mukhla sacred grove, Nongbah sacred grove, Muthlong sacred grove and Ialong sacred grovesituated in different districts of Meghalaya. Out of the total six sacred groves studied, four are located in JaintiaHills district viz., Ialong sacred grove, Mukhla sacred grove, Muthlong sacred groveand Nangbah sacred grove. Ialong sacred grove, managed by Raid (community management under Elaka Chief) is located about 9 km from Jowai, the headquarters town of Jaintia Hills district (latitude 2527.45'N, longitude 9215.21'E).Mukhla sacred grove, managed by Lyngdoh (priest) is located about 15 km from Jowai (latitude 2529.84'N, longitude 9211.34'E).Muthlong (latitude2527.80'N, longitude 9219.00'E), managed by Lyngdoh is located 17 km from Jowai, and Nangbah sacred grove (latitude 2531.58'N, longitude 9215.26'E) managed by Doloi (Elaka chief of Jaintia Hills), is about 13 km from Jowai (Figure 1). The sacred groves managed by Doloi and Raid are called as KhlooBlai(literally meaning 'forest of the God') and those by Lyngdoh or priest are known as KhlooLyngdoh. These groves are well protected for a long time based on strong religious beliefs of the Jaintia tribe and they generally represent the climax vegetation of the region.

The other two sacred groves are located in East and West Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya. Both these forests are known as Law lyngdoh (forest taken care by the Lyngdoh or Priest). Mawnai sacred grove is located in West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya (latitude 2534.95'N, longitude 9136.00'E) at a distance of about 65 km from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya state. The other sacred grove is known as Nongkrem sacred grove and is located in East Khasi Hills district (latitude 2529.67'N, longitude 9152.65'E), which is about 23 km from Shillong.

Plant diversity in sacred groves under different management institutions

Sacred groves managed by Lyngdohs (priest clan) had greater species richness than those managed by Raid (Elaka chiefs in Khasi Hills district) and Dolois (Elaka chiefs in Jaintia Hills). The species richness as well as the number of endemic and threatened plant species was far greater in the sacred groves than the adjoining unprotected community forests (Figure 2). All the plant community attributes likewise, were adversely affected due to disturbance.

Tree biomass/carbon in sacred groves and adjacent unprotected community forests

Tree biomass values, an expression of carbon stock ,in the three sacred groves viz., Mawnai, Nongkrem and Nangbah, and their adjacent unprotected community forests revealed significant (p<0.05) variation in biomass content among the groves as well as between the sacred groves and adjacent unprotected community forests (Figure 3). The adverse effect of disturbance was evident from the lower tree biomass values as obtained in adjacent community forests compared to the undisturbed sacred groves.

Other ecosystem services

Although data is not presented here due to space constraint, water quality in the undisturbed sacred forests was far better than the disturbed community forests. Water-use data showed that more households draw water from the undisturbed sacred forest for different purposes as compared to the disturbed community forests. The soil nutrients showed significant decrease in concentration with disturbance. There was a flow of nutrients from the sacred forests to the adjacent agricultural fields, which contributed towards the soil fertility in the adjacent agricultural field. This contribution of nutrient flow towards the soil fertility in the agricultural field resulted in increase in the annual crop yield of the agricultural field adjacent to the undisturbed sacred forest as compared to the agricultural field adjacent to the disturbed community forests. The data on tree biomass carbon validated the hypothesis that undisturbed sacred groves with dominance of higher girth class trees are better carbon sinks than the disturbed forests. Cultural importance of each sacred grove was also documented. Level of cultural importance and religious belief associated with the sacred grove was a major determinant of disturbance intensity in the sacred grove (Figure 4).


Management of grove did vary among the sacred groves, and the ecosystem services varied with management regime. Large sacred groves provided greater ecosystem services per unit area than the medium and small sized groves.

Multiple ecosystem service-based conservation area prioritization

Remote sensing imageries and geographic information system duly supported by adequate field sampling were used to map the spatial distribution of these ecosystem services. The flow of different ecosystem services was mapped and areas providing maximum ecosystem services in a landscape were identified for future protection (Figure 5).


The sacred groves are the remnants of climax vegetation of the region, and have been protected by the tribal communities and their traditional institutions since time immemorial on religious ground. They provide several benefits to the people. They maintain clean environment, protect water sources and offer suitable ecological niches to a number of endemic and threatened species. However, the decrease in number and size of sacred groves, and their degradation caused by erosion of religious beliefs, and increasing anthropogenic pressures are a matter of grave concern. The quantitative data collected on ecosystem services will generate added interest in the tribal communities to conserve these forest patches. The realization of immense value of ecosystem services that these sacred groves provide,is expected to enhance conservation efforts by the local communities, which in turn, would ensure continuous flow of ecosystem services. Thus there is a strong need to undertake quantitative assessment of ecosystem services provided by the sacred groves representing diverse ecosystems in order to convince all stakeholders to protect these groves from disturbance.


Financial support from Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India is gratefully acknowledged.


Centre for Advanced Studies in Botany, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong-793022

*Present address: CSIR-National Botanical Research Institute, Rana Pratap Marg, Lucknow- 226001 (Corresponding author: [email protected])

#Present address: International Society for Environmental Botanists, CSIR-National Botanical Research Institute, Rana Pratap Marg, Lucknow - 226001 ([email protected])

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

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