Sacred Sites Can Be Hotspots of Conservation


Sacred natural spaces can offer biodiversity and great opportunities for conservation. (Smithsonian)

How do spiritual landscapes differ from other cultural landscapes?

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

The new study was conducted in “sacred groves” near these in Vikos-Aoos National Park, Greece.
Photograph by anas.dimitris, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-4.0

Discussion Ideas

  • A new study examines biodiversity in sacred natural sites. What are sacred natural sites?
    • Sacred natural sites (SNSs) are locations, natural landmarks, or natural geographic features that have spiritual significance to a group of people. Sacred natural sites may include mountains, valleys, islands, caves, or rivers.
      • Although SNSs may have constructed features such as temples and churches, these features are not what make the sites sacred. The physical geography itself is the sacred element.


  • What are some examples of sacred natural sites?
    • Yucatan Peninsula. Our explorer Guillermo de Anda, an archaeologist, describes the “sacred geography” of ancient Maya cities. “The sacred geography of the Maya is important because it’s exactly why we are doing our work. It has to do with caves, cenotes, the mountains, the woods, and the wind.”
    • Mount Fuji. Shinto shrines dot the base of Mount Fuji. The shrines honor kami, supernatural deities associated with the volcano.
    • Sacred Headwaters. “Sacred Headwaters” describes the single source of British Columbia’s Stikine, Nass, and Skeena rivers. The Tahltan and other indigenous peoples have used the glacial basin as a sacred natural site for more than a thousand years, as evidenced by petroglyphs, ancient fire pits, and grave sites.
    • Himalaya. Buddhists consider the Himalayas and their glaciers the “sacred rooftop of the world.”
    • Devils Tower. Honored as Bear’s Lodge by Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Shoshone, and Kiowa peoples, Devils Tower remains the site of summer solstice ceremonies.
    • Uluru. Uluru and its sister site, Kata Tjuta, are the locations of many myths, legends, and traditions of the Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal people.
    • Lindisfarne. This “holy island” off the coast of northwest England was a key center of Celtic Christianity for centuries. (Then the Vikings came.)



  • How did scientists measure biodiversity in sacred natural sites?


  • Epirus’ sacred groves were more biodiverse overall, but were significantly greater in “beta diversity.” What is beta diversity? Consult this article for some help.
    • The study documented species richness in three major categories: gamma, alpha, and beta diversity. (There’s a reason we’re listing them in this order.)
      • gamma. Gamma diversity describes species richness across all sites studied.
      • alpha. Alpha diversity describes species richness at specific sites.
      • beta. Beta diversity compares gamma and alpha diversity as a ratio: the total number of species documented (gamma) divided by the number of species per site (alpha).
    • What beta diversity means is that the sacred groves had more distinct communities of species than the control sites.


  • Most sacred natural sites are relatively small. How could conservation at SNSs help biodiversity on a large scale?



Smithsonian: Sacred Sites Can Also Be Hotspots of Conservation

Nat Geo: What is a landscape?

(extra credit!) Biological Conservation: Quantifying the conservation value of Sacred Natural Sites

(extra credit!) IUCN: Sacred Natural Sites—Guidelines for Protected Area Managers

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