Working in Conservation in Bhutan

Bhutan is well known for its Gross National Happiness – and for being carbon negative, as suggested by former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay in a TED talk, that has millions of views on Youtube. But how does it achieve that?

One important factor is that over 50% of Bhutan is under protection. And not only that: The National Parks, Nature Reserves and Wildlife Sanctuaries are all connected biological corridors that aim to provide free mobility to wild animals. Furthermore, the constitution of Bhutan demands that 60% of the country needs to be under protection at all time. As of now forest cover is at 71%. As Bhutan does not have a history of industrial logging as most Western countries, most of these forests are untouched and home to species such as Royal Bengal Tigers, Leopards and Red Pandas.

All of this made me curious to see how nature conservation works in practice in Bhutan and led me to apply to work with The Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) in 2018/19. My academic background lies in ecosystem-based forest management. Seeing a country that has managed to protect its forest ecosystems at such a large scale is inspirational.  

RSPN is a citizens-based NGO, that was founded in 1987 with the goal to conserve Bhutan’s unique environment. In its mission to protect Bhutan’s nature RSPN tries to involve local communities; e.g. through workshops, community projects and the support of local businesses involved in nature tourism. Its headquarters are based in Thimphu but it has project areas all over Bhutan. It has been involved in the establishment of several protected areas and is now especially concerned with the conservation of the Black-necked Cranes (Grus nigricollis) and the White-bellied Heron (Ardea insigs).

Phobjikha Valley & The Black-necked Cranes

Bhutan is one of the winter habitat of the near threatened Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis). About 600 birds migrate to Bhutan every year, arriving in November and staying until February. The Cranes are an important part of Bhutanese culture; them circling around a valley is seen as a blessing and their arrival each year is highly anticipated by the local people.

In Phobjikha – one of the main wintering habitats for the Cranes – their arrival is celebrated with a festival at Gangteng Monastery every year in November. It is a day full of songs and dances and is celebrated by both local people and international visitors.  The valley itself is located in Cental Bhutan – several hours drive from Thimphu. It is a beautiful place to visit: Once you leave the forests on the outskirts of the valley, it opens up and reveals the wetlands in its heart; surrounded by small farms and overlooked by Gangteng monastery. At an altitude of 3000 m it is one of the few high-altitude wetlands in this world and home to about 4,500 people who mostly live off agriculture.

Catching Cranes

As development is also rapidly moving forward in Bhutan, we need to learn more about the Cranes in order to protect them. This is what RSPN aims to do with its research project on Cranes: to improve e.g. the knowledge of the migratory routes the Cranes take every year and identify threats, map the breeding sites in order to protect them and to strengthen local capacities in monitoring and communication about the cranes.

One important aspect in this research is to tag cranes – both with rings to identify them in the future and with GPS tags to be able to track their routes. However, catching cranes is not easy!

The Cranes in Phobjikha follow a daily routine: During the day they are in the fields; eating potatoes or whatever is left of the harvest. During the night they roost in the wetlands. For us that meant that during the day we would observe them and prepare for the night: Since the Cranes in Phobjikha are adults and thus can fly the way to catch them is to lay traps.

During the day we would make slings and position them in the roosting places – hoping that a Crane would step into one of them.  Then all we could do was wait – for hours, watching the Cranes carefully, always ready to run to them, if one would be caught.   It took a lot of patience, hot tea and swearing – evenings during that time of the year are very cold in Bhutan. Then finally! One night two birds stepped into our traps! There were screams of joy as we rushed down to the roosting area. Of course the catching process is stressful to the Cranes, so we did our best to be as quick as possible. The birds were measured, weighted, got two rings on each leg and a little GPS tag on their back. Then they were released again. Now they help us understand how the Cranes travel, where they rest and what we can do to make sure, that they will have enough habitats in the future – because Bhutan has the great opportunity to steer its development in a way that does not destroy the environment but includes both people and nature.   

Of course there are also conflicts when it comes to the Cranes: The wetlands in Phobjikha are protected and the valley has been zoned so that the wetlands are not encroached by settlements. This of course

restricts the local people, so RSPN regularly meets with them to discuss the challenges and make sure that the concerns are addressed. Furthermore it has established a visitor centre in Phobjikha and promotes homestays, which give visitors the opportunity to stay with a family in Phobjikha instead of a hotel and experience traditional Bhutanese hospitality – while offering an income opportunity to local people. Because after all nature can only be protected together with people.

What we can learn from Bhutan

Bhutan has a treasure that many countries have already lost: Vast untouched areas with thriving ecosystems as well as an already established network of protected areas. It is also at a crucial point in its history: Development is rapidly increasing and while it is important to thrive in order to make peoples’ lives better and easier through development it is also important to not make the same mistakes countless other countries have made by achieving this development at the expense of the natural world.

Here lies the challenge and the responsibility of organisations such as RSPN: to guide the country during the process, help it to adapt to the challenge climate change poses and constantly lobby for nature so that it will not be destroyed.

During my time in Bhutan I got to see great initiatives towards environmental protection led by RSPN and others; especially concerning the Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) and the White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis). While creating protected areas incorporating the most important habitats of these two species one important factor has never been neglected: Protecting the environment can only work if the local people are included in the process, if they are acknowledged as important stakeholders, who are at the frontline of protection efforts. It is vital that local communities feel that they benefit from protecting the nature around them, that their voices are heard and that they share parts of the responsibility. Only then can projects succeed.

RSPN has repeatedly proven that it acknowledges this vital role communities play by inviting leaders to stakeholder meeting, organising environmental education workshops and setting up sustainable tourism programs that are meant to benefit locals financially. These are great steps and I firmly believe that grassroot initiatives like these will be crucial in the future, not only in Bhutan but worldwide, by giving people the opportunity to protect and care for their environment and to make decisions that lead towards a sustainable future. We in the West have much to learn from countries like Bhutan when it comes to nature conservation – it outshines us in terms of protected areas and intact old-growth forests.

I feel grateful that I got the chance to work with RSPN, to learn more about Bhutan and bolt approaches towards environmental protection and I hope to return soon.

Annalena Lohaus from Germany came to Uppsala in 2020 to do a Master in Environmental Communication and Management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Cranes feeding in fields after harvest
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