Shadow conservation and the persistence of sacred church forests in northern Ethiopia.
Land-use change threatens biodiversity and ecosystem function worldwide. These changes have impacts on weather patterns, carbon storage, biodiversity, and other ecosystem services from regional to local scales. Only 8 percent of tropical forests are formally recognized as conservation areas, however globally, there is a network of sites that are protected because they are sacred and as a result act as 'shadow' conservation for biodiversity. Unlike other types of protected sites (e.g., national parks), these sites are seats of religious ritual that anchor a community's cultural identity, while also conserving biological diversity and other ecosystem services. We studied the extent and status of sacred forests in northern Ethiopia, which are threatened because of their small size (∼5 ha) and isolation, increasing their exposure to edge effects and human pressures. Using historical and modern imagery, we found that over the last 50 yr, sacred forests have increased in area, but decreased in crown closure. We also found that forest ecological status, via ground-level investigation, had high mean human disturbance (e.g., trails, plantations, exotic planting; 37%); and that forests close to markets (e.g., cities) increased in area due to planting of Eucalyptus (exotic), indicating a potential threat to their persistence and value as shelters of the church.