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European bison bull. © Michael Gäbler/Wikimedia Commons
Dec 2012

Return of the European bison

Since the 16th century, the European bison (Bison bonasus) has been considered extinct in Central Europe. Now the mighty beast which is closely related to the American bison, returns. Over the Christmas period, one bull, five cows and two calfs are being released in a private forest in Germany. It is hoped that the herd will grow to about 25 animals.

The forest belongs to Richard Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg and comprises about 130 square kilometres (32,000 acres) which makes it the largest private forest in the German county of North Rhine-Westphalia. With the release, approved by the authorities, the aristocratic forest manager hopes to prove that an active approach to biodiversity conservation is possible within the framework of modern commercial forestry.

source: Marco Evers, "Nordrhein-Westfalen: Wisent-Herde wird in den Wald entlassen", Spiegel Online, 20 Dec 2012
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sacred grove at Heggala Aiyappa, Western Ghats, India. © Claudia Rutte
Oct 2011

Mapping sacred sites for their protection

'Nature conservationists over the last decade have begun to recognize and document the potential of sacred natural sites for preserving biological diversity. Sacred sites in this context are natural or semi-natural areas protected in the name of spiritual or religious beliefs that also offer special advantages of community-based, long-term resource management.

'While most studies about sacred natural sites have focused on traditional cultures and animistic beliefs, there is growing evidence that such sites located in Western, Judeo-Christian contexts also convey distinct conservation advantages.'

…says Claudia Rutte, a behavioural ecologist based in Switzerland, who in 2010, together with Shonil Bhagwat, an ecologist based at Oxford University, UK, started SANASI (Sacred Natural Sites), a database-project aiming to provide scientific data on sacred natural sites for research and policy making. The database is also publicly available via the website Mapping the Sacred.

SANASI soon gained the support of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and the IUCN's Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (see World tree news Sept. 2003 and Oct. 2010) because it is not just an academic exercise. It is a further strengthening element in the networking of indigenous custodians of sacred natural sites all over the world. 'Sites', by the way, does not only mean relatively small places but can just as well refer to a large forest or an extensive mountain side.

On 25 October 2011, SANASI held its first symposium in Zurich, bringing together scientists that have been engaged with various forms of research on sacred natural sites. The goal of this symposium was to assess the field's state of knowledge, as well as to identify the most promising future research directions.

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cloud forest at the Santa María Volcano, or Gagxanul, a sacred natural site in Guatemala. © Bas Verschuuren
Oct 2010

Protecting sacred natural sites worldwide

'Sacred natural sites provide for the protection of biodiversity but also for the continuation of cultural practices,' says Bas Verschuuren, Co-chair of the Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas, a sub-division of the IUCN (= International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world's largest and oldest conservation organisation), and Coordinator for the Sacred Natural Sites Initiative.

'As most of the threats that sacred natural sites face today, such as tourism, industrialization and urbanization, affect both cultural and biological values, they weaken the special relationship between people and nature that is so typical to these areas and so precious not only to many cultures around the world but also to humanity as a whole."

Verschuuren is also lead editor of a new book, Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving nature and culture, which is being launched by IUCN at the Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Nagoya, Japan. The launch is part of an event organised by ETC-COMPAS and IUCN and is dedicated to promoting sacred natural sites and their crucial role in conserving nature and culture.

Guidelines Cover

Furthermore, the IUCN Specialist Group together with UNESCO is publishing Sacred Natural Sites: Guidelines for Protected Area Managers, an action plan brochure in various language editions. So far, it can be downloaded in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Estonian, Japanese or Korean (translators wanted for other languages).

swimming beaver. © JMP de Nieuwburgh/fotolia.com
March 2009

Beaver is coming back to Scotland

Four beaver families have been transferred from Norway (Telemark region) to a new home in the heart of Knapdale, Argyll, as part of a scientific trial to reintroduce this species.

The scheme started in spring 2009, after the beavers had spent six months in quarantine.

The reintroduction is being led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. The scientific monitoring is carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage.

Keep up to date at www.scottishbeavers.org.uk

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diagram displaying the characteristics of the world's forests. © FRA 2005
Jan 2006

The global forest situation 2005

Since 1946, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has regularly published its Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA). FRA 2005 compares the 2005 data with those from 2000 and 1995. Here are some of the results.

 

Total forest

The total forest area was judged to be just under 4 billion hectares – 30 per cent of the total land area of the Earth. However, this is more than a little euphemistic, as the FAO defines a 'forest area' as being half an acre or more of land of which at least ten per cent is under tree cover. Thus, any small field with a hedge around becomes a forest! Indeed this is a major point of contention and international criticism of the FAO reports and should not be forgotten regarding the following numbers.

Ten countries with the largest forest area (2005)

 

Deforestation continues at an alarming rate, about 13 million hectares per year. On the other hand, landscape restoration, forest planting and natural expansion has increased to about 5.7 million hectares, leaving the total forest area 'net loss' at 7.3 million hectares. Again, there is a hidden euphemism, as the destruction of (dense) primary, old-growth forest cannot just be offset against planting seedlings, creating commercial plantation or even using cloned plants. Africa and South America had the largest net loss of forests. Asia had a net gain, primarily due to large-scale reforestation in southeastern China.

 

Primary forests

On average, 36 per cent of the world's forest area is still composed of primary forests, defined by FAO as 'forests of native species where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities and where the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed'. The rapid decrease continued at some six million hectares annually from 2000 through to 2005.

Characteristics of the world's forests (2005)

 

Protective forests

About 348 million hectares (nine per cent of the total) provide protection, either from erosion, dropping of the groundwater table, drought, flooding, desertification, avalanches or even tsunamis.

 

Tree diversity

The biodiversity levels vary widely between regions – naturally, there are fewer species towards the poles and increasingly more towards the equator. Hence, there are three native tree species in Iceland but about 7,780 in Brazil.

In most regions, the ten most common species comprise more than 50 per cent of the total forest cover, the exceptions are the tropical forests.

Number of native tree species (2005)

 

Conservation

In 2005, eleven per cent of the world's forests were designated for the conservation of biological diversity, an increase by an estimated 96 million hectares since 1990. Conservation has been reported as one of the main targets in forest management plans for more than 25 per cent of the world's forest area. If only illegal – and legal! – logging would show respect for the status of conservation areas!

Functions of forests (2005)

 

The annual report can be downloaded in full from the FAO website.

tree shrine in Nepal. © Lisann Drews
Sept 2003

Sacred Site to be recognised term

WWF International and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) are launching a programme to designate 'sacred site' an internationally recognised term, hoping to give additional protection to the world's environmentally important (but often threatened) sacred places such as mountains, forests, rivers and pilgrimage routes.

To declare a place or an area as sacred (= untouchable, taboo) is the oldest method of habitat protection on the planet, yet these biological and cultural treasures are under threat — as are their appointed guardians who, in fulfilling their tasks, have been following millennia-old traditions. Around the world there are still thousands of places regarded as sacred. Some are carefully guarded by indigenous people and are places for ceremony and prayer, others are national shrines known to millions.

The concept of a sacred place, a sacred natural site, is deeply understood by indigenous people all over the world. Only in Europe this old ecological wisdom got lost when Christian missionaries began in the fourth century to destroy sacred sites all over Europe and the Near East. This was a fatal blow to the ancient type of ecology inherent in human beings because it broke people's living relationship with the land they lived on and replaced it with an assumption that the deconsecrated Earth can be mistreated and exploited. The rest is history – and global warming.

It seems that for humanity, in order to behave not self-destructively but in an ecologically sound way, the sacred needs to have a place in the psyche.

Words have power. The term 'sacred land' makes us stop and think. We recognize that the Earth and the many gifts of the planet that sustain all our lives cannot be taken for granted. It reminds us that all cultures have, or used to have, traditions and ceremonies to give thanks to the land, to express gratitude, respect and joy. Everywhere, the term 'sacred' also meant that the grove or spring or mountain named such was dedicated to Spirit or God, and taboo for development or exploitation of any kind.

To launch this term into the international discussion, to reconstitute its social acceptance (in Christian countries) and make it legally recognised is an important step to advance the protection of many ecotopes and the indigenous groups that guard them.

Moreover, it is a long-overdue step for the rich countries ('the white man') to respect the different world view of traditional communities and tribal peoples.

source: ARC
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Read more: ARC's Sacred Land Project

she-wolf with cubs. © Vibe Images/fotolia.com
Oct 2001

Return of the wolf to Germany

The wolf, 'the friend of the forest' (because it regulates the deer populations which everywhere destroy tree seedlings), is making its slow return into Central Europe. From territories in northern Russia as well as the Carpathian Mountains in Romania and south-western Ukraine it moves via Poland into Germany, while some Italian wolves from the Abbruzo mountains migrate into south-eastern France.

'For the first time [in 150 years] wild wolves have reared their young in Germany,' says Frank Moerschel, biologist of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), referring to the wolf family (wolf pairs mate for life) that made its home on the area of a military training area near the Polish and Czech borders. 'The site is situated exactly on one of the ancient wolf tracks,' explains an enthusiastic Michael Gruschwitz of the Environmental Ministry of Saxony, 'a huge area – absolutely quiet and very rich in wildlife.'

source: Der Spiegel [German news magazine], no. 45, 2001
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