A long-term study to understand ways to balance conservation with religious practices, in three tiger reserves of India, has culminated in a set of comprehensive guidelines that provide concrete suggestions to manage pilgrimages inside India’s tiger reserves. The recently released guidelines are specific to the management of big events such as pilgrimages and festivals at the holy sites within protected areas.

Pilgrims’ visitations to sacred sites in core areas of tiger reserves have been, over the years, resulting in large-scale damages to pristine forests that protect invaluable fauna and flora. A classic example is the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala with the famous Sabarimala temple inside attracting five to six million pilgrims annually resulting in multiple environmental damages to the fragile forest ecosystems.

To curb this problem, the National Tiger Conservation Authority mandates every reserve develop plans to manage religious tourism. The challenges of balancing conservation with community visitation rights, however, have hindered implementation, notes a 2019 study by Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, known as ATREE, and Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

Now, ATREE, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation and WWF have released guidelines based on their research and conservation work, primarily in the buffer zones of Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghats, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Central India and the buffer zone of Corbett Tiger Reserve in the Himalayas. The main case study used throughout these guidelines is from the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, where the project partners have worked on green religious pilgrimage for over 15 years.

Senior fellow at ATREE and one of the authors of the 2019 study and the latest guidelines, Soubadra Devy, said that the study areas were chosen to represent the three important geographies for wildlife conservation in India.

A sign near the Pamba river in Sabarimala. Credit: Effulgence108, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Plastic waste, pollution concerns

Over the period of their work in these protected areas, the most pressing ecological concerns were found to be non-biodegradable waste, water pollution and disturbance to wildlife and plants in the forest. Apart from the sudden increase in noise and use of bright lights in the core areas of the forest during festivals and pilgrimages that disturbed animals, roadkills were also found to increase during festivals and pilgrimages. Moreover, many trees and plants get dislodged to facilitate makeshift camps.

In 2016, 260 kg of non-degradable waste like beedis, cigarettes, matchboxes, tobacco pouches and more, and 550 kg of single-use polythene bags were taken away from pilgrims at the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve main entrance over two days in a green pilgrimage management campaign done with the forest department. The guidelines further notes that at the Garjiya Mata Temple near Corbett Tiger Reserve, pilgrims take a dip in the holy Kosi river as a part of the ritual and they may also draw water, bathe, use the riverbanks up or downstream for defecation, and in some instances, conduct animal sacrifice by the river.

While the free flow of pilgrims into the forest needs to be controlled, sudden imposition of rules could be perceived as barriers which could be counterproductive. “We have to mitigate the issue through co-management with multiple stakeholders like the forest departments, conservation and faith-based organisations as well as the communities,” Devy said.

A tiger at the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Credit: Archit.2006, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Perception change

The researchers say they believe that the shift in perception and behaviour of the pilgrims can be achieved if they are made to see how some of their deeply held religious beliefs underpin environmental conservation. The head of WWF’s Beliefs and Values Programme, Chantal Elkin said that faith-based conservation messages from religious leaders have the potential to galvanise people to protect India’s threatened habitats and wild species as a matter of religious responsibility and devotion.

The stakeholder involvement is paramount to sustainable, long-term results of the effort. For instance, if the pilgrims are asked not to defecate near the river due to water pollution, the concerned authorities in the temple or the forest administration need to provide adequate toilets and washing areas.

Elkin shared an example from Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, where providing free food and drinks for devotees is considered as a noble act. The Green Pilgrimage Management Committee formed there banned that activity for a year due to excessive use of disposable plastic cups and plates and no effective waste collection in the holy site but resumed it a year later when measures were put in place to properly dispose of waste and limit plastic inside the reserve.

Credit: Ashwin Kumar from Bangalore, India, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Faith and conservation

The guidelines, from which relevant ideas can be adapted for upcoming projects, point to five steps in effectively balancing faith and conservation. Understanding the dynamics of religious tourism including the impacts and threats to biodiversity is crucial. This should be followed by making recommendations for improved management of the reserve before, during and after pilgrimages and setting up multi-stakeholder committees to develop and launch co-management plans for conservation-friendly pilgrimage.

Faith-based messaging could be done via dramas and street plays, art, folksong, media messaging from religious leaders, banners and posters featuring religious messages and icons, etc. Devy said that at the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, they made street plays with the local deity Sori Muthu Iyyanar as the central character, showing how he is upset that the pristine forest he once roamed is now littered and messy. “We slowly introduced the statistics of the impact, particularly on the river Thamirabarani. In Ranthambore, we created a jingle in Rajasthani language using certain local contexts connected to the local diet for the right messaging,” she said.

Monitoring impacts and working around challenges are key in ensuring long-term results of the model. Devy sees challenges in getting the proposed green religious tourism model embedded in the forest departments’ management plans and in the allocation of funds. There is also the transfer of government officials that creates setbacks in the implementation that needs addressing, said Devy.

Elkin believes that the model has great potential for application in protected areas. “Our work has demonstrated that it is possible to meet the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s guidelines in ways that are sensitive to the complexities of modern religious tourism and that sustainably change the management of pilgrimage events,” he said. Devy hopes that the model gets accepted by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which would expand its scope to be implemented in multiple reserves.

This article was first published on Mongabay.