Conservation Experience: The Sacred Natural Sites of Kham

Shaman Kham

The Sacred Natural Site Initiative regularly features “Conservation Experiences” of custodians, protected area managers, scientists and other’s. This time we are featuring the experience of Dr. John Studley who is a Fellow of the (British) Royal Geographical Society. He has spent most of his life in high Asia working as an ethno-forestry consultant. Click here for a full report on “The Sacred Sites of Kham”.


Kham is one of the most distinctive biological regions on earth. It is situated between Qinghai-Tibetan plateau and the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, comprising part of the three regions of ‘Cultural Tibet’. The custodians of bio-cultural diversity in Kham recognise three traditions of sacred natural sites, or ritually protected enclosures. Two are Tibetan Buddhist and include mountains gnas ri  and valleys sbas yul. The third tradition is characterised by pre-Buddhist animistic ‘mountain cults’ who protect ri-r enclosures which are embodied or numinised by a divinityyul-lha with human personality. The yul-lha owns the biophysical resources and the enclosure is characterised by explicit nature conservation. Such sacred natural sites can be unlogged forests, ritual cairns la btsas, various water catchments ri rgya klung amongst others.


Kham’s shamans and priests are often knowledgeable about trees, plants and animals and play an important role in environmental storytelling and topocosmic mediation. The religious paradigms that constitute indigenous life are based on respect for the sources of spiritual life, food, clothing and shelter that nature provides. This instils a sense of gratitude to the spiritual forces in creation and nature. Ritual calendars are based on natural phenomena such as migratory birds, the blooming of certain plants or the movement of the planets. There appears to be a strong tradition of natural resource care among the minority nationalities that is also enshrined in their unique languages.

An animistic cairn la-btsas at Kuluke is typically used to honour territorial spirits yul-lha and situated within a ritually protected enclosure ri-rgya. It is covered with prayer flags depicting wind horses rlung-rta. The wind horse is an allegory for bla or soul and a symbol of well-being.


Animistic and Shamanistic Sites are endangered and Tibetan Buddhist sites are increasingly threatened as external impact such as logging and resettlement by the Han Chinese. These activities have led to climate change, erosion and snow disasters as well as declines in the diversity of flora and fauna and impacts on the survival of the indigenous cultures. Challenges to conquer include:

  • Perverse economic theory centred on materialist values and the cultural elitism of western science resulting into narrowly conceived planning and policy,
  • Cultural Assimilation and the sedentisation of nomads forced by a new enclosure movement (e.g. fencing off historic grazing land),
  • Imposition of a development agenda which is oblivious of the inequalities in power relations,
  • Conflation of “animistic” and “Tibetan Buddhist” experience of sacred place and space.


To ensure the sacred natural sites and bio-cultural diversity of Kham by establishing “cultural mapping” augmented by the employment of “knowledge brokers”.

Read the full conservation experience or visit the archive


Comment on this post