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Oxford to study religious forests in India

London: Scientists from the University of Oxford are preparing a map of the world`s religious forests, including those in India, identifying them as containing some of the richest biodiversity with some of the highest numbers of endangered species.

A research team is now engaged in a project to scientifically measure the full extent of global coverage that religious forests provide and assess their value in terms of biodiversity and land use by the local community, a university release said.

Religious forests are managed through the stewardship of community elders but most receive no formal protection.

Religious communities recently estimated that they owned up to one tenth of the world?s forests.

The researchers hope this evidence-based assessment will be the first step in ensuring these biodiversity hotspots are fully protected through official channels? like regional or national governments.

Dr Shonil Bhagwat, a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment, is one of the experts on the research team and has carried out field studies in India.

His research shows that in some regions there is one sacred forest for every 300 hectares, with the largest being over 100 hectares in size.

In modern-day India, traditional conservation practices have survived alongside modern protected areas in 19 out of 28 states.

The research team will gather information in face-to face meetings with local communities and carry out field studies in the forests and other sacred sites ? with the initial visits already planned to India and Ghana.

The team hopes to build links and gather evidence about the scientific significance of the forests.

An initiative to globally map religious forests was started in collaboration with ARC (Alliance of Religions and Conservation) but until now the efforts have mainly focused on areas owned by mainstream religious groups.

Oxford University has teamed up with ARC and the scientists behind another similar project, SANASI, to spearhead an evidence-based approach that identifies and assesses all religious forests, including those managed by much smaller groups.

Professor Kathy Willis, Dr Shonil Bhagwat and graduate student Ashley Massey at the Biodiversity Institute (part of Oxford Martin School) aim to create an evidence-based database that can inform scientists on how they can work with community groups and religions.

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