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Sacred Sites are Key to Protecting Species

21 March 2006

From Reuters, by Marie-Louise Gumuchian
From skull caves in southern Kenya to Mexico's searing Chihuahuan desert, preserving sacred sites is key to slowing the loss of animal and plant species, environmentalists said on Saturday.
Experts have pinpointed a string of religious sites across the globe as pilot ecosystems where local customs have helped safeguard troves of biological richness.
A new $1.7 million U.N.-led initiative aims to help protect those sites by documenting species, conducting surveys with local communities and assessing potential for ecotourism.
"There is clear and growing evidence of a link between cultural diversity and biodiversity," Klaus Toepfer, U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) executive director, said announcing the plan.
"Sadly, sacred sites are also under threat and there is an urgent need to help local, indigenous and traditional peoples safeguard their heritage which in turn can do much to conserve the biological and genetic diversity upon which we all depend."
The project will look at sites such as south Indian forest groves linked to agricultural and artistic traditions, and the ritual site of Mount Ausangate in Peru, UNEP said.


Brazil Meeting

Also targeted is the Boloma-Bijagos archipelago in Guinea-Bissau, where beaches and mangroves are used for rituals and are home to fish, crocodiles and hippos.

According to strict local community rules, certain areas are off limits and burials, shedding of blood and construction of permanent settlements are banned in some places.

"These traditional practices ... assist in the preservation of the sites for flora and fauna," said Gonzalo Oviedo of the World Conservation Union.

Other sites listed include the Taita skull caves in southern Kenya, where the bones of male members of the tribe are placed. Taboos surrounding the caves have led to small but important relics of indigenous forest surviving.

Wirikuta in Mexico's Chihuahan desert, where locals believe the sun was born, is home to around two-thirds of birds and mammals of the desert.

But it is under threat from uncontrolled tourism, agriculture, hunting and illegal trafficking of wildlife.

Communities managing such sites had made efforts locally but global action had been woefully inadequate, said Oviedo.

The "Conservation of Biodiversity Rich Sacred Natural Sites" initiative will be formally unveiled at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Brazil on March 20-31.

The meeting will review a world goal of slowing drastic acceleration of biodiversity by 2010, set at a summit in Johannesburg in 2002.

"Conserving sacred sites and their biological richness can play a major role in achieving the 2010 target and perhaps act as beacons from where good and sustainable management practices can be exported to nearby areas and beyond," Toepfer said.

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