Time to unite religion with conservation

Most national parks and sanctuaries in India are full of religious places. I surveyed Ranthambhore national park to find how many temples and mosques exist in it and was amazed to find that in the 400 sq km area of the park, the number of active religious places is not less than 100! All these 100 places are regularly visited by hundreds of thousands of people. As a result, they are dirty and littered as visitors often carry food for themselves as well as to feed the wild animals. What’s more, visitors also sing bhajans at quite a loud pitch, creating further disturbance in the park. The situation seems unquite uncontrollable, really — all naturally dripping places get converted into Shiv temples and all big rocks get painted red and turned into Hanuman or Bhairav temples. We can continue talking about the tourism regulation, but even the law in India seems to have no control over religious issues.

During the survey, I got a mail from conservationist Chantal Elkin about a workshop in Hrishikesh on conservation and religion. She was planning this workshop with the help of the famous Parmarth Niketan Ashram. When I saw her invitation and objective, it set me thinking — if we convert these religious places positively, they could become big support groups for wildlife. I realised that conservationists need to refocus on strategies that reshape ethical attitudes to nature and encourage pro-environmental thinking and lifestyles. Religions are central to basic beliefs and ethics that influence people’s behaviour and should be considered more seriously in biodiversity discourse.

If we look closely, rich cultural and religious sentiments are positively supportive towards the wildlife of our country. Various wild animals are associated with god and goddesses. Many big cats and other powerful animals live in close proximity to human settlements and people too co-exist without much objection to their presence.

I therefore dropped my report which was totally pessimistic and could be interpreted negatively against religion as a whole without solving the primary issue. Our study in Ranthambhore indicated that the majority of temple areas are situated in important wildlife points. Such places appear to have the greatest opportunity to influence discourse on biodiversity, notwithstanding the role of other religious communities in some key biodiversity areas.

Religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world today. If we could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem would soon be solved. By their definition, religions inherently aim to pursue moral good and, have for centuries, guided people with respect to what is right and what is wrong. Though I never tried to talk to a religious leader, I realised that the negative report on the issue would never support the cause alone. We have to think in a broader perspective and make them a partner in saving the last of what we have left. The world without these species will be an incomplete creation of god and it’s time we understand and work towards this.

(The writer is a conservation biologist at Tiger Watch, Ranthambore)

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