Sacred groves are communally-protected forest fragments with significant religious connotations. These
community lands attain significance due to biodiversity conservation and provide ecological services in
local landscapes. However, it has often been found that interests related to sacred groves are often concentrated
towards the groves with conspicuous presence, i.e. in terms of expanse, economic importance or presence
of charismatic species, etc. This undermines the role played by the small groves (mostly < 1 ha) and
also lead to degradation over time. This commentary analyses the role and need for conservation of small
groves in local landscape scenario.
Sacred groves are ‘natural areas of special
spiritual significance to peoples and
communities. They include natural areas
recognized as sacred by indigenous and
traditional peoples, as well as natural
areas recognized by institutionalized
religions or faiths as places for worship
and remembrance’(1). They are characterized
as relics of past vegetation and remnants
of large ancient forest lands(2).
Studies substantiate the presence of rich
endemism and biodiversity in grove
areas apart from highlighting their ecological
services and their role in livelihood
development(3-8). Present day groves
are the epicentres of ecological research,
conservation policy and management
planning at state and national level(9,10).
However, in recent times sacred groves
are threatened due to unplanned developmental
activities apart from various
biological (invasive species, soil erosion,
land-use change, etc.) and social (loss of
belief, violation of social taboos, change
in religious and cultural life, population
increment, etc.) threats.
Sacred groves vary in size from < 1 to > 100 ha, depending on their location
and management profile. Larger groves,
which are usually part of reserve/protected
forest or under strong community
management, are usually in conservation
and management agenda for their
expanse, rich biodiversity, heritage and
cultural values. Nevertheless, changing
social and cultural perspectives have
altered the grove management system,
thus influencing their existence. The fate
is severe for the smaller groves or cluster
of trees (especially < 1 ha) at sacred
places, due to either disturbances (biological/
social/developmental) or indifference
because of their negligible spatial
extent. Often, these are considered as
vegetation patches without any biological
and ecological significance, and provide
meagre monetary benefits. In this
context, question arises whether these
small degrading groves or sometimes
clusters of a few trees are really insignificant?
Do they have any role to play in
the local landscape? Whether or not conservation
is necessary to protect them
from further degradation?
Seeking an answer to these questions
would be easier if we consider/conceptualize
grove as a small fragment of
forest or remnants of a past forest landscape.
Forest fragmentation is the process
whereby a large, continuous area of
forest is both reduced in area and divided
into two or more fragments. The decline
in size of the forest and the increasing
isolation between two remnant patches of
the forest have been cited as one of the
major causes of declining biodiversity(11).
Once a vast forest tract is fragmented,
organisms have to face many adverse
situations. These include opening up of
habitat to the outer world, exposure to
harsher climatic conditions, resource
crunch, immigration of new members/
competitors, etc., which ultimately lead to
migration or extinction of a good number
of species from the area. Therefore, ideally
fragmentation is not desirable at any
level. However, practically fragmentation
is an obvious fact and is gaining
momentum day by day all over the
world. Therefore, how the species survive
in a fragmented landscape, what are the
adaptations taking place to the community
due to fragmentation and conservation
importance of fragmented landscape,
are some of the burning issues in fragmentation
Fragmented patches serve as an integral
part of the local landscape matrix(12).
Amidst the agriculture field and monoculture
plantations, forest patches maintain
the local biodiversity by increasing
the likelihood of the survival of the
indigenous members. For a sacred grove
which is nothing but a fragmented forest
patch nowadays, this biodiversity value
is more significant as they contain many
primary forest species due to their antiquity
in origin(5). Although secondary forest
species as well as introduced species
are also available due to higher order
effect, primary members are noticed
because of their longer life span. However
small a grove could be, it influences
the local biodiversity by providing shelter
to a large number of small organisms
such as arthropods, insects, microbes,
amphibians along with the charismatic
larger ones. It is evident that a couple of
trees or even a single tree can support
other life forms efficiently(13).
Scientific literature and reports from
India suggest that groves support a variety
of plant and animal species among
the heterogeneous landscape matrix.
However, documentation pertaining to
small groves (< 1 ha) or a cluster of trees
is either scanty or rare. Studies on selected
groves in West Bengal show that
groves within a size range of 0.04–1 ha
harbour 114 species of flowering plants
distributed in 52 different families whose
ethnobotanical usage is noteworthy(14).
Similarly, 30 species of medicinal plants
have been reported from three small
groves (0.6–0.8 ha) in Midnapur district
of West Bengal(15). Sukumaran et al.(8,16) highlighted the floristic richness of 201
(13.1 ha area) and 11 (2.6 ha) miniature
sacred groves of Kanyakumari district
in Tamil Nadu. Collectively, these
groves represent a good number of endemic,
rare, endangered and economically important plants of the region. In Kerala,
Sujana and Sivaperuman(17) have reported
the presence of rare threatened flora in
small sacred groves (0.08–0.33 ha) with
an emphasis on their conservation importance.
The strategic locations of small fragments
and their connectivity in landscape
have paramount importance for maintaining
ecological activities as well as local
biodiversity. Ecological services like
pollination and seed dispersal are mostly
dependent on available faunal diversity
whose survival is controlled by availability
of favourable habitat. Bodin et al.(18) studied the importance of small patches
(which are mostly preserved by local
taboos) and the consequences of their
sequential removal on pollination and
seed dispersal in agricultural fields of
southern Madagascar. Simulation models
have shown the consequences of the removal
of small patches (≤ 3 ha) thus,
affecting overall pollination activity in
the study region. Similarly, seed dispersal
by ring tail lemur was also affected
by the removal of small patches as it
affected their habitat/resting places or
transport corridor. Moreover, result also
shows that it is the position rather than
size of the patch which plays an important
role in pollination and seed dispersal
services. Tambat et al.(19) studied the
effect of grove area on seedling mortality
of two species Artocarpus hirsutus (Moraceae)
and Canarium strictum (Burseraceae).
It has been found that, seedling
fitness decreases as the grove area reduced
which could be due to inbreeding
among the fewer individuals and accumulation
of lethal characters. The distance
between the groves (average of 6.5 km)
imposes constraint on pollination activities
and also leads to inbreeding depression,
reducing the survival capacity of
individuals in the long run. This emphasizes
the need to protect groves against
fragmentation to ensure the conservation
of threatened flora and fauna.
For faunal populations it has been
found that, despite the absence of large
predators, small mammals and other
groups adapt to sustain the impact of
fragmentation(20-22). Gascon and Lovejoy(23) reviewed effects of fragmentation in
Amazon. The study showed that edge
effect is species specific – the diversity
of birds and ants was found to decrease
after fragmentation whereas frogs,
small mammals and butterflies showed
increase in diversity. Studies also indicate
that survival of species in a fragment
is more dependent on fragment
quality rather than size. Fragment quality
includes better management of fragment
vegetation and its surroundings(24). Considering
avifauna, groves are already
established as refugia for them(25,26). In an
agriculture-dominated landscape they
provide the necessary microenvironment
required for the local avifauna.
There is a need to explore and understand
the role of these small patches in
ecosystem services like carbon sequestration,
temperature control and water
conservation. Few studies in this direction
however endorse the role and potential
of groves. Being a part of relic
forests, groves are repositories of ancient
trees and undisturbed soils which play a
pivotal role in sequestering considerable
amount of carbon, which is evident from
a study in Nagoni sacred grove, Garhwal
Himalaya(27) . It is seen that carbon stock
in vegetation and in soil is significantly
higher in grove area compared to other
forest ecosystems. Isolated small fragments
may not have greater impact on
temperature control in large scale but
their role in local level cannot be ignored.
Studies on scattered trees in African
savanna have shown that due to interception
of radiation and precipitation, they
offer cooler microclimate in their surroundings(28),
which act as shelter for
many small organisms. Similarly in Australian
woodland, it has been pointed out
that, through stem flow and water uptake
by root system and infiltration, water
concentration is higher near the given
tree as compared to the surrounding dry
environment(29). Considering the extreme
small populations in degraded groves (as
seen in many places of central and eastern
India), these studies on temperature
and water control could be useful to find
out the local ecological importance of
these scattered vegetations in an area.
It is important to remember that present
day grove is a part of the local landscape
matrix. Its unique biological
diversity and ecological services are
dependent on the complex interaction of
organisms and environmental factors for
which entire landscape matrix is involved.
Fencing the grove for protection
against grazing or cultivation of rare species
for saving biodiversity may fulfil the
short-term objectives but for long-term
achievements landscape level management
planning is necessary. It is an obvious
fact that most of the surrounding
landscapes in grove are economically
productive areas (agriculture, plantation,
construction, etc.). Therefore, any decision
or planning towards landscape level
conservation is extremely controversial
and difficult to materialize(30). However,
concepts such as retention harvesting,
agroforestry and green tree retention can
be considered for this purpose as these
are dealing with sustainable utilization of
resources and integrated management of
different land use forms. It is a common
perception that large groves are worthy
of conservation because of their species
richness, probable ecological significance
and their magnitude. On the contrary,
smaller groves or cluster of trees at
sacred places are often neglected due to
their smallness and lack of knowledge
about their potential. Although few studies
have already pointed out their role in
biodiversity and ecosystem maintenance,
more detailed study is yet to be done at
national and local levels. It should be
kept in mind that these small patches can
serve at a local level in a more efficient
way in terms of management, cost and
acceptance. For conservation purposes,
these small patches usually require good
monitoring to prevent further degradation
and a certain minimum resource input
for maintenance. In recent years,
peoples’ participation in conservation activity and planning is increasing positively.
In fact the most important inherent
law of successful conservation
planning is how much it is acceptable to
the local inhabitants. For a sacred grove,
this issue is pivotal one as the concept is
intermingled with peoples’ cultural and
religious life. Although sacred grove
conservation is a known issue now, there
is a possibility that the maximum positive
effects could not come out due to
some misconceptions. It is a popular idea
that unless there is some minimum
threshold size, the vegetation patch has
no special significance in terms of biodiversity
and ecology which eventually
leads the farmer or villager to remove the
patch(20). For a single event or at a very
small scale it may not have much impact
but repeated occurrence of the same
incidence gradually leads to altered landscape
and ecosystem functioning. Alternatively,
if the local people are informed
about the biological/ecological significance
of these small patches and are
encouraged to protect them, conservation
activity would be more accepted and
widespread than the current extent.
Biodiversity encompasses a wide spectrum
of life forms, from microbial to
large vertebrates and giant trees, all contribute
significantly to make our planet a
hospitable place. However, it is our better
understanding of some members and
their magnificent presence (e.g. tiger,
elephant, etc.), conservation activities are
often inclined towards them at the cost of
comparatively silent less charismatic
members. An ideal conservation approach
should treat every organism with
same importance which we may find
difficult to follow in reality but the goal
must be set in that direction. The
increment of fragmented forest lands in
recent times compels ecologists and conservationists
to reorient their thinking
towards maximum utilization of minimum
lands available for biodiversity and
ecosystem conservation in a heterogeneous
landscape. The importance of small
groves or a cluster of trees in protecting
various life forms outside the forest has
already been established. The need of the
hour is to generate awareness among
people and proper planning to conserve
these small patches at a local level. Ideas
such as ‘community reserve’ as mentioned
in the Wild Life (Protection)
Amendment Act, 2002 can be utilized for
favourable policy development to provide
legal framework for these small
patches apart from usual social protection
from community. The timely
acknowledgement of their invaluable
services may help us to preserve biodiversity
at humanized landscape.
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