Kathmandu, Nepal – The birthplace of Lord Buddha in Nepal, a mountain revered as the centre of the universe in Tibet, long-standing monasteries in Bhutan, and majestic alpine lakes blessed by holy men in India are among the many sacred natural sites in the Eastern Himalayas that have been preserved by traditional belief systems that place a high value on nature, a new WWF report shows.
The High Ground: Sacred natural sites, bio-cultural diversity and climate change in the Eastern Himalayas looks at different examples of how sacred places, beliefs and practices in the Himalayas can aid efforts to conserve places of value in the face of modern-day threats including climate change and the unrelenting pressure human demands place on the planet.
“The Eastern Himalayas is one of the most beautiful and fascinating places on our planet. Its biodiversity and its cultural richness are to be celebrated, and cherished. Nature and culture are intimately linked in the Himalayas – particularly through the deep reverence that the region’s faiths hold for the natural world,” said WWF International’s Director General Jim Leape.
Examining the natural wealth of holy sites
Surveys in India, Nepal, China’s Tibet Autonomous Region and Bhutan reveal that many sacred natural sites (SNS) across the Eastern Himalayas are unusually rich in biodiversity, with high concentrations of rare plant and animal species found in groves and many other areas.
The sacred landscape surrounding Mount Kailash, one of Tibet’s most holy places, houses incredible biodiversity and provides habitat for large numbers of endemic and endangered species including endangered snow leopards and the Tibetan wild ass. Rare flora and fauna also take root here, nurtured by the headwaters of 4 majors rivers1 that provide the livelihood for millions of people that live downstream.
Tariq Aziz, Leader of WWF’s Living Himalayas Initiative, says that combination of traditional beliefs and the application of government-backed modern transboundary climate adaptation frameworks also play a significant role in preserving the Eastern Himalaya’s fragile environment:
“The near-pristine state of sacred sites in East Himalayan landscapes is a testament to how sacred places, beliefs and practices can aid conservation efforts. But frameworks that allow regional governments and civil society to work together offer an added edge that will help stem the impacts of climate change,” Mr. Aziz said.
Mr. Aziz added that the current status of Lumbini, Nepal – the birthplace of the Gautama Buddha, founder of Buddhism – is an excellent example of how long-standing reverence and modern protection plans can work hand-in-hand to preserve sacred sites’ original character.
The other side of the mountain
Although equally revered, it is a totally different story for Bhutan’s prized Punakha Dzong. Located 77km from Thimphu, the national capital, the Dzong and surrounding landscape have been hit hard by climate change.
Built in 1638, the Punakha Dzong and surrounding area has been hit by three disastrous Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) in the past 60 years. These often-deadly flash floods are occurring with increasing frequency as temperatures rise across the Eastern Himalayas due to global warming.
GLOFs occur when increased water volumes or avalanches break the banks of glacial lakes apart, and can cause serious loss of life and property downstream, as well as the destruction of valuable forests, farms and infrastructure.
“Of all the threats to the region’s nature and culture, perhaps the most pervasive and difficult to tackle is that of climate change. WWF is working in partnership with the governments in the region to highlight the immediate threats posed by a rapidly changing climate. We believe that the leaders of communities – many of whom are already engaged in combating climate change at a local level – could also do much to advance the discussions and action at a global scale,” said Mr. Leape.
“Preserving these sites helps build public opinion in favour of nature conservation, and conveys an important message to decision makers on the need to secure key landscape features,” he added. – www.wwf.org.za