Project Report

From Kodagu in India to Esukawkaw in Ghana, sacred sites around the world are considered instrumental in conserving unique species despite economic pressures on forest resources because of their cultural ties with local people.1 Thus, there is growing interest in sacred groves for conservation.2 Holy hills, sacred forests protected by indigenous Dai people, possess great conservation potential in Xishuangbanna – a prefecture spanning two biodiversity hotspots3, as well as containing the world’s northernmost tropical rainforest and China’s richest biodiversity. Though the region covers only 0.2% of China's land area, it contains 16% of China’s plant diversity with more than 5000 plant species.4 However, Xishuangbanna’s rainforests are disappearing at alarming rates due to the proliferation of rubber plantations.5 Natural forest cover dropped from 60% to 27% from the 1950s to 1990s, leading to significant losses of habitat for many species.6 Outside nature reserves, holy hills are often the only fragments of natural forests remaining and have been documented containing endangered species from China’s Plant Red Data List.7 This project investigates the conservation potential of holy hills in Xishuangbanna through a three-part analysis of: 1) plant species richness, 2) land cover change, and 3) local culture. It is crucial to maintain an interdisciplinary perspective when studying holy hills. Because they are cultural relics without government protection, their existence and persistence is entirely dependent on local people and how they maintain their traditions. Thus, this project asks: 1) Do holy hills shelter species during agricultural expansion? Are they species refugia? 2) Are holy hills shrinking and/or being increasingly isolated by surrounding deforestation? 3) How are the local people responding to economic development? Under what circumstances will holy hills continue to be respected and protected? Research Design Trees, shrubs, and herbaceous species in holy hills, surrounding rubber plantations, and nature reserves were surveyed in 10m×10m, 2m×2m, and 1m×1m plots, respectively, in conjunction with botanists from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG). I located ten holy hills, mapped their borders, and used Landsat satellite images to classify surrounding land cover in ENVI. I collaborated with XTBG’s GIS lab to perform historical analyses of land use trends to document how holy hills are shrinking and becoming isolated, which could affect their ability to maintain populations of certain species. I conducted semi-structured interviews with Dai village elders, leaders, and other key informants. The interviews were open-ended, but framed to understand cultural practices, environmental histories, and current lifestyles and attitudes. My Mandarin fluency allowed me to conduct these interviews because the Dai speak both Dai and Mandarin. These data will be used in the NabanFrame8 model to guide management decisions. Preliminary Results I found that holy hills act as refugia that shelter species lost in rubber plantations but show some effects of fragmentation in comparison to nature reserves. I also saw variation in the degrees to which holy hills are shrinking and isolated, which could have varying effects on shifting floristic composition towards pioneer species. It is unclear how cultural changes in the Dai people will affect the species protection currently provided by holy hills, but it seems that dominant factors governing this change include the rubber economy, isolation from economic centers, and political history (e.g. effects of the Cultural Revolution). Intellectual Merit Low-lying forest types contain the highest biodiversity but are also most at risk from development because rubber trees are more productive at lower altitudes.9 Found at low elevations, Dai holy hills play an integral role in protecting vulnerable lowland rainforests not only as valuable caches of threatened forest ecosystems and species, but may also have the synergistic benefit of forming connective "stepping stones" between nature reserves. Broader Impacts Historically, minority groups were regarded as low-ranking in Chinese society. The Chinese government is increasingly supportive of indigenous cultures, but many are still excluded from major land use decisions. To rectify this, I am working with Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve (XNNR) to include holy hills, a product of indigenous culture, in forest management. I fostered many forms of scientific exchange, ranging from institutional partnerships to personal connections with Chinese colleagues and Dai villagers. Especially with the Dai, who see few out-of-country guests, I had an excellent chance to act as a scientific ambassador. I also mentored students from XTBG as field assistants taught teach them valuable field skills for GIS. [1] Posey. 1999. Cultural & Spiritual Values of Biodiversity [2] UNESCO. 1996. Sacred Sites - Cultural Integrity, Biological Diversity [3] Myers et al. 2000. Nature 403: 853–858 [4] Zhang & Cao 1995. Biol Cons 73: 229–238 [5] Qiu. 2009. Nature 457: 246–247 [6] Cao et al. 2000. Seminar on Sustainable Management [7] Liu et al. 2002. Biodiv Cons 11: 705–713 [8] Berkhoff & Herrmann 2009 in Advances in GIScience [9] Jie et al. 2006. Chinese J Ecol 9.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Office of International and Integrative Activities (IIA)
Application #
Program Officer
Carter Kimsey
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Zeng Lily
New Haven
United States
Zip Code