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Sacred sites have a biodiversity advantage that could help world conservation

Since the dawn of history, human societies have ascribed sacred status to certain places. Areas such as ancestral burial grounds, temples and churchyards have been given protection through taboo and religious belief. As many of these places have been carefully managed for many years an interesting side effect has occurred – the sites often retain more of their natural condition than surrounding areas used for farming or human habitation. As a result, they are often called “sacred natural sites” (SNS).

Today, as many other natural habitats have become degraded, researchers worldwide are increasingly interested in the role of SNS in biodiversity conservation. Most of the world’s belief systems, including Christianity, give places sacred status. In Mediterranean Europe, for instance, the grounds of churches – with their associated ancient trees – have become important SNS.

One of the best examples is in the mountainous region of Epirus in north-western Greece. In the municipalities of Zagori and Konitsa almost every village has one or more sacred grove. These places have been protected through religious belief systems for hundreds of years.

The groves are either protective forests that lie uphill from the village, or groups of mature trees surrounding outlying churches, monuments or other works of religious art. Activities such as the cutting of trees or livestock grazing have been either prohibited or strictly regulated in these places (and disobeying these prohibitions sometimes led to excommunication).

The sacred forest of Panagia Aidonolaloussa, ‘Our Lady of the Nightingales’, in Epirus.
Kalliopi Stara, Author provided (No reuse)

Greek investigation

We have recently been studying these Greek SNS as part of our SAGE (SAcred Groves of Epirus) project. Our team wanted to find out, using a rigorous research approach, whether SNS are more biodiverse than other forest areas, and, if so, what lessons conservationists could learn from this.

To do this, our international and multidisciplinary group has recently completed the world’s first replicated systematic investigation into the claims that areas conserved as SNS are more biodiverse for different types of plant and animal.

For our recently published study, we selected eight SNS in Epirus that covered a wide range of environmental conditions. Each was closely matched with a nearby non-sacred “control” forest which had been managed conventionally – sometimes through natural regeneration. We then conducted a detailed inventory in each site, of eight different groups of organisms. These ranged from fungi and lichens, through herbaceous and woody plants to nematodes, insects, bats and passerine birds.

We found that SNS do indeed have a small but persistent biodiversity advantage. This is expressed in a number of ways, most clearly through the existence of more distinct communities of species among the sacred groves than in the control sites (this phenomenon is known as beta diversity).

The group with the most notably higher biodiversity in the SNS than in control sites were the fungi. These often grow in dead wood or old trees, which usually get removed in conventionally managed forests. Of the species of passerine birds (a group that includes many songbirds) that are designated as having special conservation importance at a European level, we found twice as many species present in the SNS as in the control sites.

Because these sacred sites are often quite small it is often said that their conservation benefits are marginal. But we found that the influence of size is relatively weak – even small SNS can play a significant role in biodiversity conservation.

Conserving sacred sites

But Epirus’s sacred sites are now in peril. The rules that linked belief and conservation that once protected the SNS have become difficult to enforce, due to changing population and land-use. The value of forests which protect from landslides and floods is no longer being recognised.

The value of SNS is not just on the land that is sacred itself, these places can act as a nucleus, around which biodiversity can expand. In Epirus, forests have regenerated around many of the sites we studied over the past 70 years – despite humans farming the land. It should be noted that this can increase risks such as fire, as dense young Mediterranean forest is very flammable.

Evidently the already well-conserved SNS are of great environmental importance across the world. So the next step is to link these sites into conventional conservation schemes. But it is vital that such strategies are closely aligned with the cultural status of SNS. Local communities are often highly motivated to maintain their sacred sites and associated belief systems but lack the resources to do so. A fully collaborative approach between conservation professionals and local communities could offer a solution that conserves both biodiversity and local cultural values.

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Planet Earth

What is the real cause of explosions and fires around the world in the past few days?

What has caused all these giant explosions and apocalyptic fires in China, North Korea, Lebanon, India, USA, Iraq, Iran over the past few days?

China

It all began on August 3, 2020 in the Chinese province of Hubei, where an instant explosion at a chemical plant killed at least six people and injured four. The reason is under investigation.

North Korea

This first explosion was followed a few hours later by a giant explosion following a possible “gas leak” in Hyesan, Yangan Province, North Korea, killing 9 people and injuring at least 30 residents. The reason is being investigated.

Lebanon

The next day, the port area of ​​Beirut, Lebanon, was destroyed by a giant explosion, killing more than 140 people and injuring thousands.

India

Also on the afternoon of August 4, 2020, an explosion caused panic among residents living around the Vijayshree Pharma Company plant in the Rambilli Zone FEZ in Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, India. The reason is being investigated.

Great Britain

On 4 August, an explosion occurred again in the middle of a residential street in Birmingham, UK, causing smoke and fireballs to rise into the air and residents fleeing to seek refuge. The explosion was so strong that fire alarms went off in the houses.

United States of America

Finally, on Tuesday, firefighters put out a massive fire in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, that engulfed a building under construction. When the firefighters arrived at about 4:20 am, the flames were flying high into the air, and the glow was visible for miles.

Iran

A fire broke out on Tuesday inside three industrial warehouses east of Tehran. The fire destroyed production materials, including lumber and leather.

Then, on August 5, at least seven ships burst into flames at a shipyard in the southern Iranian port of Bushehr. According to reports, the reason remains unclear, no casualties.

United Arab Emirates

On 5 August 2020, on Wednesday evening at 18:30, a fire broke out in a market in the emirate of Ajman, 50 km from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. The reason is being investigated.

China

A gas pipeline exploded and several roads collapsed after torrential rains flooded parts of Yulin, a city in China’s northwestern Shaanxi province. Local authorities evacuated about 600 people from the area. The reason is being investigated.

United States of America

On the same day in Midland, Texas, an investigation is under way of an explosion and subsequent fire in an oil storage facility. The reason is also unknown.

Iraq

Again, on August 6, 2020, a major fire broke out in over 20 wholesale market warehouses in Najaf, Iraq. The reasons are being investigated.

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Planet Earth

Geneticists have clarified the origin of American slaves

Frame from the movie "Django Unchained" - imdb.com

It is the largest study of DNA from people living in the Americas. It shows where the slaves came from in the United States and reveals the details of their abuse.

The work includes information on 50 thousand people, of which 30 thousand are of African origin. The article, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics , serves as “evidence that genetics can shed light on history,” said Alondra Nelson, professor of social sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

The study began with the work of Joanna Mountain, senior director of research at the company 23andMe. Together with the team, she created a genetic database, which included mainly information about the company’s clients, whose grandparents were born in regions where slavery flourished. Dr. Stephen Micheletti, the geneticist at 23andMe who led the study, compared it to data from the Slave Travels digital project, which contains information about the people brought in: information on ports of embarkation and disembarkation, the number of enslaved men, women and children. He also collaborated with historians to learn more about the plight of African regions, such as contemporary Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the 17th and 19th centuries.

Scientists have found out: the DNA of the study participants from the United States showed their Nigerian origin. This means that there are far more ships that transported enslaved people directly to America from Nigeria than would be expected based on historical records. 

At first, historians “could not believe how many Nigerian ancestors were there in the United States,” Micheletti said. 

Later, after consulting with experts, the study authors learned that slaves were first sent to the British Caribbean Islands, and only then sold to the Americans.

Percentage of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Red denotes the descendants of slaves from Senegal and Gambia, blue - from the west coast of Africa, green - from Nigeria, orange - from Congo / © Stephen Micheletti
Percentage of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Red denotes the descendants of slaves from Senegal and Gambia, blue – from the west coast of Africa, green – from Nigeria, orange – from Congo / © Stephen Micheletti

Experts estimate that more than half of the people were brought into the United States and Latin America from West Africa. The study found that the modern black population is genetically related to six regions, among them Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria and Benin. Moreover, according to historical sources, there were more regions from which slaves were exported.

The work also showed that the brought women made a much greater contribution to the modern gene pool than men, although there were much fewer of them. Scientists have calculated that in the United States there are 1.5 times more descendants of slaves, and in Latin America and the Caribbean – 13-17 times. Moreover, in the United States, European men have influenced the modern gene pool of people of African descent three times more than European women, and 25 times more in the Caribbean.

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Planet Earth

The collapse of humanity is predicted with a 90% probability

A new study by theoretical physicists cites truly horrifying numbers. The results of a great deal of work have shown that if human society continues to move in the same direction, then civilization in the form in which we know it now will come to an “irreversible collapse” in a few decades.

The research findings, published in Scientific Reports, are a model for our future. The work is based on data on current rates of deforestation and other resource use. Scientists say that even the most positive forecasts show a 90% chance of disaster.

Physicists at the Alan Turing Institute and Tarapaki University predict that the last forests on Earth will be cleared somewhere between 100 and 200 years of this century.

Combined with global population changes and resource consumption, this is an incredible blow to humanity. In light of this, scientists say that society as we know it may cease to exist within the next 20 to 40 years. There is good news, the researchers note that from a global perspective, the rate of deforestation has actually slowed in recent years.

However, they are still too large and continue to suffer losses as newly planted trees cannot protect the environment as well as mature forests.

“Calculations show that while maintaining the real rates of population growth and consumption of resources, in particular forest resources, we have several decades left before the irreversible collapse of our civilization,” the article says.

A fundamental transformation will be required to prevent collapse. The authors say that the main driving force behind the collapse right now is that the consumption of planetary resources is not taken seriously because it is driven by the economy.

Our civilization gives preference to the interests of individuals, countries or territories, without caring about the entire ecosystem. Therefore, in order to stop the catastrophe, people need to reconsider the current model of society, and accept the one that puts the interests of the ecosystem above the individual.

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