Green country

Print edition : July 10, 2015

Kuenselphodrang National Park. It was established in July 2006 to protect the forest around the 169-foot Buddha Dordenma statue, one of the tallest Buddha statues in the world. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Bhutanese children in Gasa, where the headquarters of Jigme Dorji National Park is located. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

On the journey to Haa from Thimphu, a scenic view of the ripening wheat fields. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Rosa macrophylla, a common flower in Bhutan’s moist valleys. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

In June, the peak flowering of rhododendrons had come to an end, and yet late flowering species such as Rhododendron setosum adorned the trail. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

In June, the peak flowering of rhododendrons had come to an end, and yet late flowering species such as Rhododendron lepidotum adorned the trail. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A Rosa sericea plant, whose fruits are possibly eaten by pheasants and barking deer. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Euphorbia griffithii, one of Bhutan’s many colourful flower species. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The flowers of cutleaf buttercup (Ranunculus brotherusii) looked like specks of molten gold on the forest floor. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The Mo chu (mother river) gushing out of Jigme Dorji National Park. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Gasa Dzong in Jigme Dorji National Park. It was built in the 17th century. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The fertile Paro valley. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A painting on a wall in a resort in Haa. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The densely forested mountains of Jigme Dorji National Park. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The international conservation community should admire the efforts Bhutan is making to preserve its environment and give it the maximum support possible so that the country can continue to be the biodiversity-rich oxygen tank of the world.

Incessant drizzle, dark rain clouds drifting in the sky and settling on the mountains, and the wet mountains that appear blue from a distance characterised the day in June 2014 when we trekked to the 13,000-foot-high (3,962 metres) mountaintop to the north of Chele La Pass (12,402 feet) in Bhutan. The trail passes through an alpine scrub habitat dominated by rhododendrons, salix species, berberis and dwarf junipers ( Juniperus pseudosquamata). Cattle dung along the trail indicated that grazing was common in summer at that altitude. Although people used the trail, there was no garbage. The peak flowering of rhododendrons had come to an end, and yet late flowering species such as Rhododendron lepidotum and R. setosum adorned the trail. The small golden flowers of cutleaf buttercup ( Ranunculus brotherusii) looked like specks of molten gold on the green carpet of the forest floor.

We accomplished this trek while on our way to Haa (8,750 feet), which houses the headquarters of Toorsa Strict Nature Reserve (609.51 square kilometres), now renamed Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve to commemorate the fifth king’s efforts in conserving the western-most protected area in Bhutan. Our task in Haa was to attend the coordination meeting among the stakeholders of Toorsa Reserve. The journey to Haa from Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, across the Paro valley and the Chele La Pass in June, after the pre-monsoon showers gave us a short but enrapturing picture of the ecological diversity of gorgeous Bhutan. Paddy was being cultivated in the valleys, and the mountains had wheat fields turning yellow, indicating that they were ready to be harvested.

The forests at the lower altitudes had an abundance of blue pine ( Pinus wallichiana), with a profusion of rhododendron ( R. arboreum), walnut ( Juglans regia), poplar ( Populus ciliata) and oak ( Quercus griffithii) trees. In the understorey, there was an abundance of Rosa sericea bushes with small bright pinkish red fruits, possibly eaten by pheasants and barking deer. The mid-elevation was dominated by oak ( Q. semecarpifolia), Nepalese alder ( Alnus nepalensis), maple ( Acer campbellii), chinkapin ( Castanopsis spp), birch ( Betula alnoides), and hemlock ( Tsuga dumosa), and closer to the mountaintop, spruce ( Picea spinulosa), juniper ( Juniperus recurva), birch ( B. utilis) and fir ( Abies densa) were common. Amidst the greenery in the herb and shrub layer, there were colourful flowers of species such as Iris clarkei, Rosa macrophylla and Euphorbia griffithii.

In Haa, we were given a refreshing hot stone bath: large stones from the riverbed are heated in a raging fire and used to heat the water in a wooden trough. After a wash in the warm water, we were asked to sit one by one in the trough as long as we liked. This bath is supposed to be therapeutic for joint pains.

The main point that emerged in the coordination meeting was livestock predation by carnivores: the dhole, the black bear, the leopard and the tiger. Livestock are crucial to the lives of Bhutanese as 69 per cent of them depend upon livestock rearing and agriculture. Currently, the government offers compensation for the livestock killed by tigers and snow leopards, but kills by other carnivores are not compensated. In the meeting, the officer in charge of the livestock department talked about an incident of dholes killing seven yaks in a month. This constitutes a serious loss to livestock owners as each adult yak costs around Rs.40,000-Rs.50,000, and as of 2012, Bhutan’s per capita income was $2,420 (Nu.1,38,132 for 2012; one Bhutanese ngultrum is equivalent to one rupee).

An officer representing the Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation (BTFEC) said that the government was mulling over the idea of giving compensation for all predator kills, which however would be prohibitively expensive. The BTFEC was established in 1992 as a collaborative venture between the Royal Government of Bhutan, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Wildlife Fund. Now several other nations have become partners in this fund. Today, it is an effective conservation grant-making organisation independent of the government and has an all-Bhutanese management board.

If the kills are not suitably compensated for, angered herders could poison the predators and several other carnivores in the area that are likely to scavenge on the kills. One major problem with livestock grazing in Bhutan is that unattended livestock are left in the forest for several days and so are naturally prone to predation. An endowment fund was established with the BTFEC in 2010 for “Human Wildlife Conflict Management” as a viable financing mechanism to minimise human-wildlife conflict. This fund helps in alleviating poverty and empowering the community as conservation partners.

On June 15-16, 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Himalayan kingdom and strengthened the age-old relationship between the two nations by assuring Bhutan support to strengthen education and trade and help it achieve the goal of building a 30,000 megawatt hydel project. Building the hydel power project not only would strengthen Bhutan’s economy and provide India with power but also serve as a small contribution to the fight against climate change, he said.

Cheri monastery

On June 24, accompanied by Namgay Wangchuk, park manager of Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve, and Ugyen Dorji, a former trainee officer of the Wildlife Institute of India, we trekked to Cheri monastery, which is at the southern boundary of Jigme Dorji National Park, named after the third king. The mountains stood shrouded in rain clouds and the Thimphu chu (river), which arises from the park, was flowing full because of heavy rains in the interior parts of the mountains. The banks of the river after it exits the park, beautifully and furiously, were decorated with colourful prayer flags. Many families were trekking up to the monastery, but the trail was spotlessly clean.

Johnsingh first visited the monastery nearly 10 years ago and, at that time, observed lots of garbage thrown by the monks behind the monastery. This was brought to the attention of Ugyen Dorji, who was then looking after the park’s southern boundary. He held a series of meetings with the monks and convinced them of the need to keep the monastery area clean. Now, the garbage is regularly taken down to Thimphu as part of the state’s overall garbage management programme. Five goral were peacefully feeding near the monastery, spotted nutcrackers ( Nucifraga caryocatactes) flew around noisily and the upper branches of a more-than-400-year-old weeping cypress ( Cupressus corneyana), the national tree of Bhutan, gently swayed in the breeze.

While trekking up to the monastery, Namgay briefed us about his study in February-March 2013 for the partial fulfilment of his bachelor’s degree. His study area ran along the Thimphu chu, and he quantified habitat use by musk deer and other ungulates, including livestock, along a 70-km trail. He also recorded the signs of predators such as the dhole, the black bear, the leopard and the tiger. He saw musk deer only once but dung piles were common. He also saw animals such as the takin, the sambar, the serow and the barking deer. He was disturbed by the abundance of nylon rope snares along the trail. Cut vegetation was used to block the animal trails and leave gaps for the snares. Although the nylon rope snare may not be able to kill adult takin and sambar, it can kill their young and all other ungulates. If this could happen in the premier park of Bhutan, we wondered what the situation would be in the numerous unprotected valleys in this country.

King on a cycle

In the same afternoon, accompanied by Ugyen Dorji, we visited Kuenselphodrang National Park (Buddha Park). Spread over 200 hectares, it was established in July 2006 to protect the forest around the 169-foot Buddha statue (Buddha Dordenma), one of the tallest Buddha statues in the world. The altitude of the park varies from 7,775 to 10,000 feet, and the forests support the blood pheasant, the monal, the barking deer and the black bear. It was developed as a recreational area for tourists and the people of Thimphu, which is 4 km away. What was remarkable was the fact that the 60-year-old fourth king (Jigme Singye Wangchuck) frequently cycled to Buddha Park from his humble home in the jungle, which is 7 km from the park. The king is supposed to have a bodyguard, but he performs his duties without being noticed. The king’s eldest son, the fifth king (Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck), is also known for his physical fitness, and he has done the 25-day, 350-km-long Snowman trek, which runs from the Paro valley to Punaka over nine passes, each over 4,500 m high. This is not only one of the highest altitude treks in the world but also one of the most challenging, across a breathtaking landscape that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. He often walks for several days to meet villagers in remote parts of Bhutan. It is said that Bhutanese kings do not do great things like building pyramids but do small things that are great. They have the ability to touch the hearts and lives of ordinary people.

One of the wildlife trails that would gladden the heart of any nature lover is the 50-km road from the forest boundary near Rimchu (4,500 feet) to Gasa (9,230 feet) in Jigme Dorji National Park. The trail runs parallel to the Mo chu, which joins the Pho chu near Punaka to form the Puna Tsang chu, which flows into India as the Sankosh river. Towards Gasa on the right bank of the Mo chu there are many settlements, but the left bank has magnificent mountains clothed in dense forests of broad-leaved trees in the lower regions and conifers in the upper areas. The slopes have extensive patches of ringals, the hill bamboo, which are avidly eaten by the serow, the sambar and the takin. The view of Gasa Dzong, built in the 17th century, against the backdrop of white clouds and blue and green mountains is memorable.

We travelled on this road on June 26 and 27, staying in Tsachu (Gasa hot springs) for a night and spending some precious hours sitting in the hot springs. The hot sulphur water is supposed to have curative properties for skin and joint problems. Therefore, it is a popular place for the Bhutanese, who stay in the basic facilities available, with flush toilets, and spend hours together in the pool. Gasa schoolchildren have placed signage pleading with people to keep the place clean, which is respected by the Bhutanese with utmost sincerity. In winter, there may be lots of snow around, yet the hot springs are extensively used by a large number of people, who pitch tents and stay nearby.

It was disappointing for us not to have sighted mammals along the 100-km drive. We were told that if we drove at night we might see animals such as the wild pig, the serow and the sambar. The takin, which moves to the upper regions of the park in summer, is likely to be seen in winter along this road.

A variety of cats

Large mammal sightings in the daytime may be rare in Bhutan, but camera-trap studies involving 600 cameras have brought out the mammalian richness of the country. Eleven species of cats (jungle cat, fishing cat, leopard cat, marbled cat, golden cat, Pallas cat, clouded leopard, lynx, snow leopard, leopard and tiger) have been photographed in Bhutan. Camera traps have captured tigers in places where they had not been recorded earlier on the basis of surveys conducted using the traditional pug-mark method. If wild ungulate prey is protected from snaring and from free-ranging dogs, then Bhutan has the capability to support nearly 100 adult tigers. On June 24, a sambar took refuge in the Thimphu chu near the royal palace, almost in the heart of the city, to escape free-ranging dogs. The Bhutanese should be extremely proud that Thimphu is the only capital where the sambar and the tiger range within 5 km of the city limits. The number of snow leopards in Bhutan may vary from 100 to 200 and its main prey is the bharal, or the blue sheep (in India, another major prey is the ibex). Marmots and musk deer are hunted by the snow leopard in both countries, but the Himalayan tahr is not available for the snow leopard in Bhutan as the tahr’s eastward distribution stops with Sikkim.

As Bhutan has 70 per cent forest cover, the Bhutanese proudly say that they do not contribute to global warming, but they are aware that they are vulnerable to climate change. They are also aware that their beautiful country can be despoiled by urbanisation, mining, loss of forest cover, pollution of rivers, littering by the growing number of tourists and waste dumping. Their motto is “Clean Bhutan and Green Bhutan”. The use of chlorofluorocarbons was phased out completely by 2009 though there are still old fridges in use in the country. New fridges completely avoid chlorofluorocarbons.

The government has also planned to implement tax incentives to accelerate electric vehicle use and ownership. Efforts will continue to keep the towns, rivers and forest trails clean of garbage. Although Bhutan exports to India electricity worth Rs.13 billion, it imports fuel worth of Rs.7.5 billion. Therefore, switching over to electricity-driven vehicles will help it save money and reduce levels of pollution. There are plans to encourage each household and village to grow their own fodder and firewood in the land available near the household and within the village. This will remove the need for villagers and their livestock to go into the forest. The area around the Buddha statue will be planted with bright-coloured flowering species such as Rhododendron arboreum so that the landscape will look beautiful in summer. The international conservation community should admire all these efforts, and Bhutan should be given the maximum support possible so that it can continue to be the biodiversity-rich oxygen tank of the world.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India. Sonam Wangchuk, Chief Forestry Officer, and Dechen Lham, Senior Biodiversity Officer, are with the Wildlife Conservation Division, Department of Forests & Park Services of Bhutan.