Surge in Tibetan Buddhism may have saved trees

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It makes sense that religious sites tend to be well-conserved. At sacred spots, locals often forbid hunting and logging and sometimes even restrict plant collection. But how do these sites compare to nature reserves that are officially protected by the government?

To find out, a team studied Tibetan sacred mountains. The sites occupy an average of about 25 square kilometers each, and traditions of mountain worship in the region go back for centuries. “Given their considerable extent and long history, there is great potential for them to provide substantial conservation benefit at a landscape scale,” the study authors write.

The researchers located 41 sacred mountain sites in Danba County, part of China’s Sichuan Province. These religious sites cover about one-fifth of the county’s land. The team also studied four nature reserves in the region that had been set up over the last two decades.

Using satellite images, the researchers analyzed forest cover during three phases: 1974-1989, 1989-1999, and 1999-2013. The team compared deforestation rates at sacred mountain sites, protected areas, and “open-access” areas (defined as any other land that did not include homes or farms). When calculating the amount of forest cover, the study authors controlled for elevation, slope, and other factors.

Nature reserves and open-access areas had similar levels of forest cover — about 58 percent — while sacred mountain sites had 66 percent, the team found. The sacred sites may have fared better because they have been protected for a long time, whereas nature reserves were established only recently.

From the first to the second phase of the study period, deforestation at the non-sacred sites rose from 40 to 111 hectares per year. At sacred mountains, however, deforestation dropped slightly. The authors suspect that the decline was linked to a surge in Tibetan Buddhism and the restoration of monasteries in the late 1980s.

Tibetan sacred mountains “augment nature reserves by harnessing the support of local people,” the researchers write. The region’s official reserves are strapped for money and staff, so they could use all the help they can get. Roberta Kwok | 1 October 2015

Source: Shen, X. et al. 2015. Viable contribution of Tibetan sacred mountains in southwestern China to forest conservation. Conservation Biology doi: 10.1111/cobi.12587.

Image © Stefano Tronci | Shutterstock