In 1986, former president of WWF International, HRH Prince Philip, invited leaders of five major religions of the world — buddhism, christianity, hiduism, islam and judaism — to discuss how faith could help in the conservation of biodiversity and nature.
Every member was given an extraordinary invite: “Come, proud of your own tradition, but humble enough to learn from others”. All leaders shared their concerns and the responsibility for protecting the earth. The successful event saw huge attendance and, as a result, many journalists and wildlife groups became associates to help link nature and religion and to face the newer challenges of the developing world. They formed a new, integrated, global organisation and called it Alliance for Religion and Conservation (ARC).
Today, this organisation is working in many countries and recently I got an opportunity to work with them, too. The ARC has joined hands with India’s science organisation ATREE to support them in improving the condition of religious practices in and around tiger reserves. India has 45 tiger reserves and all of them have many religious places inside and around them. These religious places are visited by millions of people every year.
However, of late, this trend is changing. Along with pilgrims, many picnickers have also started visiting these restricted areas. They blend with pilgrims but, unlike pilgrims, are more leisurely in using the space and time within the restricted areas of the tiger reserve. The impact and the burden of the picnickers are big on the ecosystem, as they bring plastic waste and are noisy.
ATREE co-ordinator Soubadra Devi, along with ARC, started the first project at Ranthambhore. She believes that the locals understand the negative impact of their acts of waste disposal and believes that with guidance and aid, they will correct these practices that harm the ecosystem. ATREE has similar experience in Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), which is India’s southernmost tiger reserve. The KMTR has a temple inside the core of the forest that millions of people visit, leaving a major impact on nature. They stay in the reserve, use water streams for bathing and use open areas for defecation. They also throw filth in the forest and wild animals consume stale food, sometimes along with the wrapper made of paper or plastic.
There is no study on the impact of such practices, but surely it cannot be positive. Uncontrolled crowd and their trash are just the tip of the iceberg. Many other issues come crop up with such unrestrained religious processions. We need not shun away and think of this as a taboo subject, because this concerns our very rare and valuable wildlife species. We need to speak about this religious issue as openly as we speak about tourism and other issues concerning the health of forests and its inhabitants. With awareness and assistance, we may be able to bring a positive change.