Conserving sacred groves through community participation

Himanshu Nitnaware | Sep 20, 2019 | 7 min read


While global warming is on a rise, a man and a group of environmentally conscious citizens are trying to protect the species of forest trees with the help of a seed bank and by recreating sacred groves.

Sacred groves play an important role in ecosystem services such as clean environment, flora and fauna conservation, and temperature control, according to a study

To build that, Pune-based Raghunath Dhole, 64, has collected over 150 seeds of tree species from forests in various parts of Maharashtra. He highlighted that a forest has single species of trees over acres of land, but the sacred groves have more biodiversity in a small area. 

Dhole compared the sacred groves to an open library of trees. “People can visit, see it and experience the tree species to study and understand. They are habitat for birds, reptiles and a range of biodiversity,” he added.

The seeds are collected, germinated into saplings and then distributed for free to whoever requests him. When asked why he gives away the saplings for free, Dhole said, “The cost of a tree sapling cannot get evaluated in terms of money. The amount of carbon sequestration [removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to slow pollution and mitigate global warming] it does, the huge amounts of oxygen it releases to purify air over its lifetime and other environmental benefits would make it worth millions of rupees.”


Dhole, who is a landscape gardener by profession, has been preparing saplings since 2012 and estimates that he has helped grow 10 lakh trees across the country.

He wants people to avoid going for aesthetic plantation and conserve the native species and forests, for which, awareness is necessary, he mentioned. Apart from conservation, it’s important for people to know the seeds of plants, how they look, where are they seen on a tree, the season during which they can be retrieved and how to collect and germinate them, he commented.

In the last four years, he has taken conservation efforts to establish the sacred groves lost in urbanisation and helped bring up 17 sacred groves on private land belonging to individuals with 7,000 plants of forest tree species in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

Speaking about the process, he mentioned that the sacred groves are set up in a planned fashion. Four species of trees are clubbed together in a square or a line. This way, when the canopy forms, the seeds of one species fall between the canopies and becomes easy to collect them, he explained.

Ecology and economics of sacred groves

Sacred groves are thousands of years old forests, largely untouched by humans, and are highly productive ecosystems, stated Gurudas Nulkar, an ecologist and trustee of Ecological Society, Pune.

Sacred groves have a thriving population of insects, lichens and microorganisms, and the abundance of vegetation offers various habitats, which attract birds and animals, and creates a robust food web, Nulkar added. 

By observing sacred groves, one can estimate the composition of species that existed in that region before the human settlement came in, he explained. “This knowledge can guide afforestation and conservation programs in that region since it is critically important to allow only native trees, and that too specific to that habitat, in plantation programmes," he added

Sacred groves have potentially high economic value, and it often gets disregarded. These forests, Nulkar mentioned, are gene banks and don’t cost us even a rupee. They safeguard important flora and fauna, which have ecological, medicinal and nutritional value for humanity. As the ecological productivity of sacred groves is high, it helps maintain the micro-climate, and helps enable seed germination of rare and endemic flora, he added. 

Artificially made gene banks are expensive, consume enormous energy and are vulnerable to natural and human-made disasters, Nulkar said.

Sacred groves contribute to the carbon sequestration capacity of the country and provide critical ecosystem services, which do not have any market value, but are an invaluable contribution to the life-sustaining capacity of the planet, he commented.    

Community-driven conservation

Taking a cue from Dhole’s efforts, many people have started establishing sacred groves and they receive seeds via courier, transport and even personal visits. 

A retired army officer, Suresh Patil, from Pune, has taken an acre of reserved land from Pune Cantonment Board (PCB) area to create a sacred grove in the heart of the city. He underlined that care has been taken to ensure that plants are native to the geographic area and weather conditions and the diversity of plant species ensure that they complement each other’s growth.

Birds and other ecosystem linkages will follow suit as the trees grow, he added. 

Another Pune resident Nayanatai Nargolkar has taken 10 acres of land in Sipna near Pune with a group of like-minded people to develop it into a sacred grove. They have put fencing and are monitoring the activities like grazing and creating awareness among villagers, she mentioned.

Experts push for local conservation 

According to a study, local participation is essential for any conservation effort. However, the study also noted that it’s not possible to conserve forest genetic resources unless technical expertise is combined with an understanding and consideration of the underlying political and cultural processes. 

Jui Pethe, who has documented over 100 sacred groves in a stretch of about 130 kilometres from Kalsubai to Bhimashankar in Maharashtra, told Mongabay-India that the concept of sacred groves is embedded in the culture of communities as can be observed in Dhangars, a pastoral community.

Pethe, a biodiversity expert at The Rural Energy Enterprise Development, added that there is more sentimental connection to the sacred groves from these communities as they interact, seek resources and depend on them for their livelihoods.

She mentioned that many practices, considered as superstitions in terms of taboo or restrictions, have a logic of sustainable lifestyle ingrained in them. 

“The British era resulted in disrespecting and exploitation of these sacred groves and its perception has changed over time. Over the past 200 years or five generations, we have repeatedly lost the value and importance of these resources. It is important for more scientific research to percolate and increase the meaning of conservation,” she commented.

Yogesh Gokhale, a senior fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi, stated that private sacred groves are a common feature in coastal parts of Karnataka and Kerala and almost every household has one portion of land dedicated to sacred groves at the family level, left untouched.


With degraded land around sacred groves, these small habitats often serve as ecological resort to the flora, fauna, particularly to the birds and small mammals, Gokhale said. 


Creating a sacred grove should have the purpose of and perspective of providing ecological refuge to endangered, locally extinct species and help in restoring the local biodiversity to establish the broken ecological link, he added. 


“For example, having trees that will support a roosting of many birds, nesting sites for woodpeckers, etc. by creating a safe habitat, may be considered. They can act as live museums of biodiversity in the area,” Gokhale said adding, “These patches can serve as seed banks for local vegetation and natural afforestation along with establishing the important cultural linkage of local people with nature.”

The founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences and noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil said that local communities are the most crucial elements in conserving these habitats.

Pushing for the involvement of local communities in conservation, he stated that in the villages of Mendha (Lekha) and neighbouring Marda in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, the community opposed the stone quarry and thus protected the natural forest. 

The locals are the true custodians of these habitats and steps should be taken to empower the local communities in the conservation effort and mere forestation of such unique entities will not suffice the purpose, he added.

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