case study:

Towards Best Practices in Managing Religious Pilgrimage to Sacred Sites in Indian Tiger Reserves

Photo above: Ranthambhore Fort in RTR

Chantal Elkin
Wildlife & Forests
Programme Director

In India, there is a proliferation of sacred sites within protected areas and tiger reserves. In recent years, visitor numbers to these sites and their impacts on biodiversity have escalated significantly. The National Tiger Conservation Authority has thus mandated that every tiger reserve develop plans to manage religious tourism. However, balancing community visitation rights and nature protection has hindered implementation. Here, we discuss the management model developed by ATREE and ARC to address these challenges. This model is the first in India that assesses the impacts of religious tourism in tiger reserves, and broadens top down management by state authorities to engage multiple stakeholders. In Ranthambore and Kalakad Mundanthurai tiger reserves this has yielded encouraging results so far. A major breakthrough has been the reconciliation between park managers, religious authorities and civil society groups, facilitating interventions where responsibility is shared. These interventions, including awareness campaigns highlighting how conservation goals and religious beliefs are intimately aligned, have led to observed shifts in visitors’ attitudes and behaviours. As such, they underscore the potential of faith-based approaches to nature conservation.

Cultural and spiritual significance of nature

In Hindu tradition, God pervades everything on Earth and thus all life is sacred. Trees, forests, mountains and rivers are worshipped as gods and goddesses. It is believed that much of India’s spiritual wisdom was divined by sages in the forest and many holy sites are found at the top of mountains or the mouths of rivers. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people are on pilgrimage to pay homage to these sites. ATREE’s mapping exercise found no less than 50 sacred sites in the 13 tiger reserves [IUCN Category I] of the Western Ghats1 alone.

Ecology and biodiversity

Kalakad Mundanthurai (KMTR) is the southern most habitat of the Bengal tiger and lies in the southwestern Ghats, and Ranthambore (RTR) is one of most famous tiger reserves in India, with 50 tigers and other globally important biodiversity.2 In each reserve there are some natural sites that are revered, such as holy rivers, but the principal sacred site is a holy temple found in the core of the park where tigers and other biodiversity are most vulnerable. Millions of pilgrims visit these temple sites, which can harm rare plantlife and disrupt vulnerable animal populations.


Tiger reserves enjoy the highest protection comparable to IUCN Category I. The National Tiger Conservation Authority oversees tiger reserves and has mandated that local forest departments develop plans to manage religious tourism. Balancing the interests of pilgrim visitation rights and protection of the parks’ vulnerable biodiversity, however, has been challenging for implementation. Waste generated from what has become mass tourism, fuelwood cutting, disturbance to wildlife and plants from unrestricted movement, traffic, and noise and lights from religious festivals are increasing problems. Suggested restrictions to pilgrimage activities have caused friction between the stakeholders including religious groups, district authorities, the FD, local civil society, shopkeepers and visitors.


This project has led to multi-stakeholder management of religious tourism where responsibility is shared between government, religious and civil society actors. Forest departments in both reserves are now integrating this approach into park management plans. Waste management, for example, has been of major concern, especially plastic. Through this process the FD requested help from community stakeholders. Civil society groups are now taking ownership of waste management with temples and local government; volunteers help enforce the plastics ban through a visitor frisking and outreach programme; women’s cooperatives make cloth bags to replace polythene; and religious groups spread messages on the ban linking it with religious beliefs.

Lessons Learned

Reconciling differing priorities related to pilgrimage in the KMTR and RTR tiger reserves has been a major breakthrough and the various stakeholders are currently managing pilgrimage in a more coordinated and participatory way. This, combined with awareness campaigns in both reserves linking conservation with religious values and beliefs are, we believe, responsible for favourable shifts in attitudes and behaviours of visitors in the parks observed during recent pilgrimage festivals.  There is still work to be done to ensure the sustainability of this model but success so far has been a result of the following interventions:

  1. Launching multi-stakeholder committees to create plans for sustainable pilgrimage and to delegate responsibilities to different stakeholders including: local government, the forest department, conservation NGOs, civil society organisations, tourism operators, religious organisations and temple authorities;
  2. Raising awareness in civil society through faith-based conservation messages in awareness campaigns and through the media;
  3. Involving temples and religious groups, who are now greening temple areas and becoming involved in visitor outreach. Bringing them into dialogue in a respectful way that is sensitive to their needs has been critical;
  4. Monitoring the impacts of pilgrimage through socioeconomic and biodiversity surveys has begun but requires more attention. Obtaining more extensive research permissions to monitor the impact on biodiversity in pilgrimage areas will be important going forward.

ATREE/ARC’s research highlights the prevalence of sacred sites inside tiger reserves and suggests the need for conservation policy to incorporate religious partnerships. It is hoped that, given the sensitivity and complexity of modern religious tourism, a multi-stakeholder model to manage pilgrimage in tiger reserves will be adopted widely by forest departments and integrated into annual park management plans. In 2016, this model was extended to three other sites.

1ATREE, Mapping Study of Religious Pilgrimages in Conservation Areas of India: Focus on the Western Ghats, Draft Report (India: 2015)
2 ATREE, Sustainable Green Religious Tourism, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, A report submitted to Rajasthan Forest Department and community stakeholders (India: 2015)
ATREE, God Amidst the Tigers, A report on the impacts of the Sorimuthian temple festival on the ecosystems of Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (India: 2010)

ATREE, God Amidst the Tigers (India: 2015)

Dharmendra Khanda, Time to unite religion with conservation, Tiger Watch, Ranthambore, The Financial Chronicle, India: (India: Jan 22 2014)

Sanjay Rattan, ATREE/ ARC, Sustainable Green Religious Tourism within Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve – An emerging model with multi-stakeholder engagement India, Paper presented at the WHW International Conference  on Civil Society, UNESCO World Heritage and Sustainable Development, Istanbul July 2016