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Vanishing sacred groves of Meghalaya

Shillong: Patches of forest measuring anywhere between 0.1 hectare to 1200 hectares and which are bio-diversity hot spots have been unique to Meghalaya for centuries, but now they are falling into disarray owing to reasons as diverse as poverty, cultural change and migration.

Local Khasi tribes consider the forests as "sacred groves", some of which have even little streams criss crossing them, but yet poverty of their owners is forcing them to sell the exotic varieties of trees and other resources found there.

"There are hundreds of tribal clans whose forests have not been documented and they are diminishing due to harsh economic circumstances and unplanned human activity," the chairman of the Grand Council of (tribal) Chiefs, J F Kharshiing, said.

Calling for urgent attention of the government to the dwindling forests, Kharshiing said, "In view of the global concern on climate change, the government should take immediate steps to engage with the owners of the rare forests in the state."

Kharshiing, who is also the co-chairman of the Meghalaya State Planning Board, said the government should institute some sort of incentive and award system to preserve the forests.

Surrounded by Castanopsis Kurzii trees, the forests are considered "nature`s own museum" with a treasure trove of unique flora and fauna including plants seldom seen in other parts of the world. Aroids, pipers, fern-allies and orchids are found in abundance in these groves.

So far 115 such "sacred groves" have been documented in the state even as researchers engaged in the study believe that there are many more which are yet to be documented due to fund constraints.

"We have so far documented and listed 115 sacred groves located in different parts of the state. Most of them are found in Khasi hills (West, East and Rib hoi), Jaintia hills and a few in the Garo hills," a professor at the North Eastern Hills University, B K Tiwari, said.

"We are moving for getting financial supports from funding agencies for our new projects on sacred groves, but we have suggested to the State Forest Department to get the work done as ours is more for academic purposes," he said.

Tiwari acknowledged that the state government had extended financial help to the Mawphlang grove, located about 25 km south of Shillong, but wanted other groves to be equally paid attention to.

The researcher said that the NEHU has decided to propose to the government to explore the possibility of providing incentives to all those community-preserved forests to help them continue to manage and preserve them.

Research scholars at the NEHU have documented a total of 546 vascular plants, both flowering and non-flowering, from the five groves in Jaintia hills alone.

Angiosperms with 515 species were the dominant component followed by 28 species of pteridophytes and 3 species of gymnosperms. A total of 110 angiospermic families, 15 pteridophytic and 3 gymnospermic families were identified from the five sacred groves.

While more than 3100 species of flowering plants have been documented in Meghalaya, the five sacred groves alone contribute to about 15 per cent of the total flora of the state and 32per cent of the total flora of Jaintia Hills, Krishna Upadhya, one of the researchers, said.

He said, 91 species recorded in the five sacred groves are either rare, endangered. Out of 91 species, 60 species are endemic to Northeast or eastern Himalayas.

Upadhya said that the distribution of these species shows that 88 species are found in the Indian subcontinent, 45 species are exclusive to Northeast and 26 species are exclusive to Meghalaya. Many plants are medicinal too.

Among the other threats that scientists felt could impact these small forests are the change in people`s attitude and socio-cultural practices, erosion of religious beliefs and traditional values, increased population pressure, encroachment and destruction of primary forests.

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