Beautiful Bhutan

Print edition : September 10, 2004

A village on the left bank of the Toeb Rongchhu. The steep mountains of western Bhutan are covered with dense forests, interrupted only by scattered villages. -

One of the biodiversity hotspots of the world, Bhutan is adopting a new conservation plan to make its abundant wildlife and varied ecosystem more secure.

THINLEYGANG village, located at an altitude of 1,850 metres in western Bhutan, was our base for two weeks in the summer of 2004. Through the window of our office, the deep valley of Toeb Rongchhu leading to Punat Songchhu (the Sankosh river, which flows into the Indian State of Assam) was visible. The steep mountains were covered with dense forests, interrupted only by scattered villages, each with a few houses surrounded by a belt of cultivation. The forests are home to the sambar, the barking deer, the wild pig, the Himalayan black bear, the leopard, the dhole or the Asiatic wild dog and an occasional tiger. The villagers grow paddy, wheat and vegetables, and rear a small number of cows to make dairy products, oxen to plough fields and equines to transport agricultural produce. These livestock, when left to feed in the jungle, sometimes for weeks on end, fall prey to predators such as the dhole and this causes considerable economic loss to the villagers. (The average annual per capita income in Bhutan is between $400 and $600.)

Our stay at Thinleygang was related to the depredation caused by dholes to livestock. We were training a team of 15 wildlife personnel from the Nature Conservation Division (NCD) in various methods to survey and study dholes. The NCD is under the Ministry of Agriculture of the Royal Government of Bhutan. The wildlife experts had come from different parts of Bhutan and interaction with them in the field brought forth details of the conservation situation in the tiny Himalayan country.

A village with its agricultural fields.-

Serenity pervaded Thinleygang, as cotton-white clouds drifted across the valley. The monotonous, incessant and far-reaching piko piko calls of the great Himalayan barbets, mixed with those of migrant cuckoos and cicadas, were heard almost throughout the day. At night, when it was not raining, toot-too, a repeated double whistle by the mountain scops owl was the most common call heard. Often village dogs barked, and occasionally the barking deer raised an alarm and the sambar bellowed.

The Punakha monastery on the bank of the Ma river.-

Situated on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is a landlocked country with an area of around 40,000 square kilometres, of which 72 per cent is under forest cover. The land of the "thunder dragon" is also aptly nicknamed the "oxygen tank" or "carbon sink" of the world. Bhutan is one of the most rugged countries in the world. Its mountain slopes are steep and the altitudes vary from 150 m to 7,500 m within a distance of about 150 km. The famous Indian ornithologist Salim Ali found during surveys for his book A Field Guide to the Birds of the Eastern Himalayas that Bhutan was supremely fascinating but logistically difficult.

A trout stream. The streams of Bhutan are abundant with introduced populations of rainbow and brown trout.-

The great range in altitude and topography produces a similar range in climatic conditions. There are three climatic zones: subtropical, mid-mountain and alpine. The subtropical zone begins along the Indo-Bhutan border and extends to 1,800 m, the mid-mountain zone is between 1,800 m and 3,000 m, and the alpine above 3,000 m.

The Jigme Dorji memorial, or chorten.-

The dominant factor that influences the climatic conditions of the country is the southwest monsoon, which brings heavy rainfall from June to September. The southern foothills get as much as 5,000 mm of annual rainfall while the northern regions receive as little as 500 mm. Numerous streams arise from the mountains, eventually forming six major rivers, which subsequently flow into India. As a result of this diversity of terrain and copious rainfall, the eco-system of this small nation supports at least 7,000 species of plants (including medicinal plants, orchids and 50 recorded species of rhododendrons), 165 species of mammals and 700 species of birds. The rivers are reported to have well-protected populations of golden masheer and the streams are abundant with introduced populations of rainbow and brown trout. Bhutan is rightly called the Jewel of the Eastern Himalayas and is one of the 18 biodiversity hotspots of the world.

A bedecked forest floor.-

The lives of the members of the royal family and the people of Bhutan are closely linked to nature, which is reflected in the flora and fauna they have chosen as their national symbols. The raven (Corvus corax), which is embossed on the crown of the King, is the national bird. It is believed to safeguard the kingdom from adversity. The comic-looking takin (Budorcas taxicolor), a rare bovid of the ovine-caprine family, is the national animal; cypress (Cupressus corneyana), the wood and leaves of which are burned as incense, is the national tree; and Blue poppy (Meconopsis grandis), a medicinal plant that grows in the high-altitude Himalayas (3,650-4,200 m), is the national flower.

Coelogyne corymbose, an orchid at Dochu La.-

Nature conservation in Bhutan began with the establishment of one protected area each in the south and the north in 1964. In the 1960s, the government evaluated the coverage of the protected area system and found that the existing network did not have a rational biological representation of the country's priceless ecological diversity. Therefore, in 1993, the protected area network was revised to establish the present nine areas (four national parks, four wildlife sanctuaries and one protected area) covering a total area of 10,513 sq km (26.28 per cent. of the country's land spread, which is higher than the ratio for any other Asian country).

A monastery between Thimphu and Paro in western Bhutan.-

The Royal Manas National Park spread over an area of 1,023 sq km, is the abode of the golden langur, the wild buffalo, the elephant and the tiger. The Jigme Dorji National Park (4,200 sq km) may be one of the few places where the black bear, the dhole, the leopard, the snow leopard and the tiger prey on the takin. The Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary (1,300 sq km) is the wintering ground of the globally threatened black-necked crane. The Thrumshingla National Park (768 sq km) is the prime habitat for the red panda and the satyr tragopan and may have the only population of the newly discovered deer species, the `Bhutan shou'. Further, Lobelia nubigena, a medicinal plant endemic to Bhutan, is found in only one location in this park.

The Cheri monastery, with the goral in the foreground.-

The Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (650 sq km) has the largest number of the rhododendron species in Bhutan. The mythical Yeti is reported to haunt the northern parts of this sanctuary. The Jigme Singye Wangchuk National Park (1,400 sq km), previously called the Black Mountain National Park, is the habitat of the clouded leopard and the tiger. The Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary (278 sq km), bordering West Bengal, is the only habitat in Bhutan with sal forests and the chital. In November 2000, Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk declared a network of biological corridors as "a gift to the earth from the people of Bhutan". These corridors cover a total area of 3,804 sq km, over 9 per cent of the country's area, connecting key tiger habitats and supporting 115-150 tigers. Thus, protected areas cover over 35 per cent of the total area of the country.

A rhododendron species.-

It is apparent that Bhutan is one of the few biologically diverse countries that have the best opportunity to maintain this wealth largely intact in the coming decades. The Royal government, which is committed to conservation, is aware of this and is determined to maintain a minimum forest cover of 60 per cent for all times to come. However, one should be concerned that with a reported population growth of 3.1 per cent, this is going to be a challenging task. The firewood and timber needs of the growing population can gradually disturb and decimate the forest cover. Given the decimation and decline of fish stocks the world over, even the reported abundance of the golden masheer and the trout may prove to be a myth if their abundance is not established and monitored by catch per effort under the angling permits given. Corrective measures need to be taken if the river stretches are found to be empty.

A rhododendron species.-

The document "Vision and Strategy for the Nature Conservation Division 2003" prepared by Karma Tshering and Sangay Wangchuk, outlines the conservation plan of the government. The authors of the document have realised that conservation can succeed only with the support of the local communities, the document has many well-thought-out Integrated Conservation Development Programmes.

Biptanthus nepalensis, with its golden yellow flowers.-

The assistance provided by the Government of India to Bhutan is manifold. However, one area where India should render active and immediate support is in controlling the smuggling of timber along the porous southern border into India. Similarly, the Chinese government should step in and prevent the large-scale entry of Tibetans into Bhutan to collect critically endangered but valuable medicinal plants such as Chinese caterpillar (Cordyceps sinensis) and the herb Picrorhiza (Picrorhiza kurroa). According to Dr. George B. Schaller, eminent wildlife biologist, who has studied wildlife in Tibet for more than a decade, the Chinese caterpillar is almost extinct in Tibet as a result of unregulated collection.

Rhododendron falconeri, common in Dochu la.-

Interestingly, the Vision Document does not mention any conflict between the leopard and the people in this mountainous terrain. This could largely be because the Royal government's policy of banning hunting and the possession of guns by the local people, which enables species such as the barking deer, the sambar and the wild pig to survive. When natural prey is available, leopards do not prowl in the villages located on the edge of the forests to snatch dogs, sheep and goats, or for that matter, children.

Rhododendron griffithiana/Dalhousie.-

The Indian States of Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh, which have more than 40 per cent of their land area under forest cover, have a valuable lesson to learn from this. Leopards killing children is a common phenomenon in these States. This conflict can be related to the general lack of prey in the forests of these States, where a large fraction of the population indulges in poaching.

A female goral (mountain goat)-

Towards the end of the training session, one foggy and cloudy morning, we walked through an incessant drizzle from a location close to Dochu La (3,050 m) to Lumitsawa (2,250 m). The path, with a dense mat of rain-soaked litter, led through old growth forests with various species of oak, rhododendron, maple and birch, which stood adorned with copious growth of mosses, algae, ferns and other epiphytes on their trunks and branches. Except for an abandoned cattle camp, there was no human habitat along the trail. We carefully looked for signs of wildlife. A sambar had rubbed against a Taxus baccata tree, leaving a bunch of hair.

The domestic yak, which, like other livestock, is vulnerable to predation.-

This tree species is rare throughout its range as it is heavily harvested for its curative properties. It is believed to cure cancer. A sapling of hemlock (Tsuga dumosa), another protected species in Bhutan, had been thrashed by a male barking deer in the process of cleaning the velvet from its antlers. There were signs of the black bear, the leopard, the dhole and the wild pig. Feeding signs on the ground indicated that hill partridges and khalij pheasants occur in the area. The trainees said that there were hundreds of such trails, even outside the protected areas, which speak volumes for the abundant wildlife in Bhutan.

A male goral.-

One can be optimistic that with the various well-planned conservation programmes, Bhutan is bound to make this biological wealth more secure in the decades to come.

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