Global SOS: Save Our Sacred Sites

That's the message of a new campaign as some of our rarest species can be found on land and water revered by tribes the world over. Geoffrey Lean reports

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Environmentalists are to campaign for the protection of the ancient sacred sites of tribal religions, as a way of saving endangered wildlife.

The "skull caves" in Kenya, a Mexican desert where it is believed the sun was born, a "spiritual park" in the Peruvian Andes and West African islands where sex is banned are among sites being fought for at a giant intergovernmental conservation conference in Brazil this week.

The million-pound Conservation of Biodiversity-Rich Sacred Natural Sites campaign springs from a recognition that many of the mountains, forests, islands, lakes and groves revered by indigenous peoples contain rare that are threatened elsewhere.

This is no accident. Ancient traditions and taboos surrounding the sites have often commanded respect for nature, prohibited hunting, or simply kept people away.

Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan Indian leader and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner who is backing the campaign, said: "Where indigenous peoples live is also where the greatest diversity of nature exists. The values on which we have built our complex systems are founded in the ethical, spiritual and sacred nature that links our peoples with the whole work of creation."

Many of the sites are now under threat as the old religions fade and pressures from development and tourism increase.

The campaign, which will be launched when the 188 members of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meet in Curitiba, Brazil, will make a handful of sites its priority.

These include Kenya's last remaining tropical rainforest, Kakamega, and the site of the skull caves of the Taita people, which is threatened by loggers. Wirikuta, in Mexico's wildlife-rich Chihuahuan desert, is sacred to the Huichol people but is under pressure from agriculture and hunting, while Peru's glacier-rich Vilcanota Spiritual Park is increasingly visited by tourists, and the Boloma-Bijagos archipelago off Guinea-Bissau is endangered by overfishing.

"There is clear and growing evidence of a link between reverence for the land and a breadth of unique and special plants and animals," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which is backing the campaign. "Sadly, sacred sites are also under threat, and there is an urgent need to help local, indigenous and traditional peoples safeguard their heritage. This can do much to conserve the biological and genetic diversity upon which we all depend."

A similar alliance between religion and conservation safeguards churchyards and other sacred sites in Britain, and the new project builds on this. Conservationists and religious leaders have been working together for 20 years since the Duke of Edinburgh - then international president of WWF - proposed a combined strategy in 1986. That meeting, in Assisi, Italy, resulted in the Alliance of Religions and Conservation which, among other campaigns, conserves sacred areas in Britain.

Its Living Churchyards project has persuaded 6,000 churches to conserve their graveyards for wildlife, banning pesticides, by mowing them only once a year and ensuring that birds, reptiles, insects and bats thrive in an increasingly urbanised landscape. These practices are now spreading to municipal cemeteries and those of non-Christian faiths.

British churchyards also contain several hundred yews old enough to have been alive at the time of Christ, and the alliance is campaigning to preserve them with the Conservation Foundation, headed by the naturalist David Bellamy.

It has also rediscovered and repaired sacred wells in northern Cornwall, helped connect all 17 Cistercian abbeys in Wales in a pilgrimage trail which will open in 2008 as the principality's longest footpath, and established a garden under the priory walls on the holy island of Lindisfarne with plants that grew there 1,300 years ago.

BOLOMA-BIJAGOS

Where is it? An archipelago of mangrove swamps, mudflats and 88 islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, west Africa.

Why is it sacred? The Bijago people hold ceremonies and initiation rites around these holy places. Only the initiated may visit some sacred sites, others are off limits to all. In many sex is barred, as are burials, the shedding of blood and permanent settlements.

What is its importance for wildlife? Palm forests, dry and semi-dry forests, coastal savannah, sand banks, mangroves and intertidal zones are among the ecosystems of the 10,000sqkm area. Rivers discharge fresh water, rich in nutrients, into the sea where Nile crocodiles, hippopotamus and many crustaceans, molluscs and fish thrive. Green turtles nest.

How is it threatened? European and Chinese trawlers are depleting fish stocks. Offshore oil drilling and shipbreaking yards are planned.

KAKAMEGA FOREST

Where is it? Tropical rainforest in the Lake Victoria basin of western Kenya.

Why is it sacred? The Tikiri tribe use a stream in the forest for circumcision ceremonies. The Taita place the skulls of important ancestors in the caves they call "pango".

What is its importance for wildlife? The last large tract of tropical rainforest left in Kenya, it is world-famous for its rare birds. More than 350 avian species have been found there, including rare snake-eating birds. Some of Africa's greatest trees, including Elgon teak and red and white stinkwoods, are among 380 plant species. Mammals include bushpig, civet, clawless otters, ground pangolin, colobus monkeys and leopard.

How is it threatened? Commercial loggers are illegally felling trees and local people are charcoal burning. The forest might be saved by ecotourism.

WIRIKUTA

Where is it? In the Chihuahuan desert of northern Mexico

Why is it sacred? The Huichol revere the area as a vast natural temple where they believe the sun was born and their people created. Every year they make a 400-mile pilgrimage to a holy mountain where novices eat sacred cacti that enable them to communicate with ancestors and deities.

What is its importance for wildlife? One of the world's "most biologically diverse and important natural sites", says the WWF. Its huge variety of plant and animal species include brown bear, royal eagle and 42 kinds of cacti - a third of which are found nowhere else. It is designated an ecologically and culturally protected area.

How is it threatened? Uncontrolled tourism, agriculture, hunting, wildlife trafficking and overabstraction of water all take their toll.

TIBURON ISLAND

Where is it? A large island in the Gulf of California, Mexico, and extension of the Sonoran Desert.

Why is it sacred? The Seri, who have lived there for 2,000 years, believe the mountains and rocks are their bones, the soil is their skin, the air their breath and the waters their blood. Through the island, which they call Taheöjc, they become one with nature.

What is its importance for wildlife? The Gulf of California is home to a third of all the cetacean species on the planet, including blue and fin whales and the endangered vaquita porpoise. Tiburon is the richest island for wildlife in the gulf. The Seri people conserved the wildlife and extracted no resources.

How is it threatened? The Seri are joining the global market economy: the area is becoming overfished and pollution is increasing.

CAYAMBE-COCA

Where is it? A 5,790m snow-capped volcano, part of the Cayambe-Coca ecological reserve in northern Ecuador.

Why is it sacred? Snow-capped mountains are sacred in much of the Andes and are believed to be home to mountain deities who protect local communities. At one site the local people celebrate the cycles of the sun.

What is its importance for wildlife? The 40,000sqkm Cayambe-Coca reserve hascloud forests, tropical forests and alpine grasslands. It is host to 900 bird species, among them the rare Andean condor. The 200 mammal species include the spectacled bear, the mountain tapir, the dwarf red deer and the river otter.

How is it threatened? It is increasingly visited by tourists. Three years ago there was a huge oil spill.

THE VILCANOTA SPIRITUAL PARK

Where is it? An ice-capped mountain area, rich in glaciers, high in the Peruvian Andes.

Why is it sacred? The 6,372m Mount Ausangate, is revered as the most sacred mountain of the southern Andes. Local communities are guided by mountain spirits and by shamanic rituals which protectpasture.

What is its importance for wildlife? Many rare and unique species, including wild vicuñas, pumas and Andean geese, thrive in this bio-diversity hotspot. It is also a key area for genetic diversity of important Andean crops.

How is it threatened? More than 450,000 tourists a year visit nearby Machu Picchu, Peru's finest Inca site, and they are increasingly being drawn to the beautiful mountain landscapes. Mining also threatens the area.

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