Photos by Lincoln Potter

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Flora & Fauna

Flora and Fauna

Bhutanese celebrate Losar, New Year in February, almost the time when the glories of Bhutan’s flora slowly begin to unfold. At the Dochula Pass (40 minutes drive from Thimphu), you will see the bold magenta and purple varieties of Primula Gracilipes, commonly known as Prim Roses adorn the steep banks of the road where snow has just begun to melt. These early flowers not only precede the more spectacular blooms that will soon follow, it also marks the time when the Yaks migrate to higher pastures. By early March, the first rhododendrons begin to bloom.

One of the ancient names given to Bhutan was ‘Southern Valleys of Medicinal Herbs’, essentially indicating a botanical paradise. The country ranks amongst the top ten percent of highest species density (species richness per unit area) in the world, and it has the largest proportion of land under protected areas.

With over 70% of forest cover, approximately 26% of the country’s area is protected through National Parks. In addition, a further 9% has been declared as Biological Corridors, connecting protected areas, and there are a series of Conservation Areas intended to protect important conservation sites outside the formal Protected Areas system. More than 35% of the country’s area is under the protection of some form of conservation management, as a result. This system serves as a globally unique system for in situ conservation of biodiversity.

Inventories have indicated the existence of more than 5,500 species of vascular plants, more than 770 species of avifauna and over 165 species of mammals, with many species being endemic to Bhutan. Also over 300 types of medicinal plants have been recorded.

The Eastern Himalayas is renowned for the wealth of their flora and Botanists from around the world have traveled to this region to study. Over 60 percent of the common plant species of the Eastern Himalayas are found in Bhutan. The forest type consists of mixed conifer forest, fir forest, chirpine forest, bluepine forest, broadleaf mixed with conifers, tropical lowland forests, lowland hardwood forest and upland hardwood forest. To name a few floras in Bhutan- rhododendrons, junipers and magnolias several meters high, carnivorous plants, rare orchids, blue poppy (national flower), edelweiss, gentian, medicinal plants, daphne, giant rhubarb, high-altitude plants, tropical tress, pine and oak etc.

Bhutan is paradise to a variety of animals. In the south tropical forests among others, tiger, clouded leopard, elephants, one horned Rhinoceros, water buffalo, golden langur, gaur, swamp deer, hog deer horn bills are found. Temperate zone is inhabited by tiger, leopard, goral, gray langur, Himalayan black beer, red panda, sambar, wild pig, and barking deer. In the high altitude animals like red panda, tiger, takin, marmot and musk deer, snow leopard, and blue sheep are found.

Rare and exotic faunas found in Bhutan are Golden Langur, Red Pandas, Black-necked Crane, Snow Leopard, Takin, Musk Deer, Himalayan Brown Bear, Himalayan Marten, Tiger, hornbills, pheasants, mountain goats and timid blue sheep. Among others, water buffalo, elephants, one-horned rhinoceros, gaur, sambar, wild pig, goral and barking deer are also found.

Birds of Bhutan

While most of Asia’s bird habitats (forests) are being and have been decimated, Bhutan is very special because of its lack of deforestation and the government’s commitment to preserve wildlife. Few developing countries have the cultural and environmental interconnectedness that Bhutan has always promoted. 60 percent of Bhutan is now forested and, by law, will remain forested. Bhutan has the highest percentage of ecological preserves in the world; over 26 percent of Bhutan is designated for environmental conservation. While all of this makes economic sustainability tougher but a more needed policy, it provides the bird lover with the world’s best viewing opportunity.

Birds in Bhutan can be found from the glacial alpine regions of the north to the sweltering tropics of the south. The geography and altitude is also the most diverse areas of bird habitats ever found in a single country. The endangered Black Necked Cranes winter in the temperate Phobjikha valley highland marshes, while the Rufous-Necked Hornbill hides out in the lush tropical rain forests of the south. With an area the same as Switzerland, Bhutan seems much bigger because of its remoteness and extremely rugged terrain. Bhutan’s reverence for birds is even exhibited on the Royal Raven Crown of the Druk Gyalpo. The national bird is the Raven, and it was once a capital crime in Bhutan to kill one. Ravens are even known to nest in the walls of the nation’s monasteries and dzongs.

Wild Jungle Fowl are the same birds that were first domesticated thousands of years ago. There have always remained wild chickens in Bhutan. These birds are often seen running along a road ahead of a vehicle and darting into the bush just as it approaches. You might be inclined think that it was just some farmer’s bird, when in fact there are no farms in the area. Be on the lookout for these wild fowl.

Imagine one of these Violet Cuckoos coming out of your clock to announce the hour. Cuckoos are common in Bhutan and the Asian highlands, but are difficult to approach. Just as you think you are near them, their call comes from another direction. Be patient and move slowly, keep low and wait. You will be rewarded by sighting this rare Cuckoo.

The Great Pied Hornbill is the pride of Asian Jungle and is most unique among birds. At nesting time the male bird uses mud to seal its lifelong mate inside the trunk of a tree to incubate their eggs. This male chauvinist bird (just kidding) must then constantly feed his mate through a small hole until their eggs hatch, then release his new family.

The Asian Hoopoe is known for its very amusing walk and call. Hoopoes bob and weave as they walk and freeze as they search the ground for worms and insects. Their “Hoo-Poe” call is unmistakable.

The Thrung Thrung Kharm is the Black Necked Crane. Wintering in Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley each year, the Bhutanese celebrate this endangered Bird with its own festival in November. The cranes return each spring to Siberia to hatch their young. Visit Bhutan during this festival season and antics of this lovely bird.

Phobjikha, located in western Bhutan and Bomdeling in the east are two major winter habitats of the Black Necked Cranes. The Blacked Necked Cranes have always been a part of the scenery in these valleys and the locals know them well. They are reflected in local culture, tradition, and beliefs. However, while rules and regulations for conservation are implemented, the need for modern development also becomes pressing. This tension leads local people to believe that environmental protection and conservation is an obstacle to their economic prosperity. Places like Bajothang, near Wangdi, which had Black Necked Cranes in the past do not have them anymore in the wake of economic development. It is not difficult to imagine the continued presence of these birds had conservation been integrated into the development of this area.

Phobjikha, located some 3000 m above sea level, is an important ecological area inhabited by subsistence farmers struggling desperately to catch up with modern development. A socio-economic study conducted found that in the past, people’s respect for the Black Necked Cranes was embodied in their culture and traditions. The birds are referred to as “heavenly birds.” However, people’s priorities are changing. Although they still attach religious values to the cranes, as they are becoming more aware of the economic opportunities foregone as a result of their conservation, there is a feeling that moral benefits are not enough. This changing attitude will affect the long-term survival of the cranes if not tackled appropriately now.

Ultimately, the goal for conserving and protecting the endangered Black Necked Cranes and their habitat can be obtained only if people see economic benefits resulting from conservation activities. Therefore effort must be made to establish clear link conservation and the material well being of the people.

These concerns have stimulated RSPN to initiate various conservation activities that integrate conservation and development such as a weaving program for the women and other income generating activities. The annual Crane Festival has been started to convince the local people of the economic benefits of these cranes.

The first Crane Festival in 1998 was entirely financed by RSPN. However, RSPN is a non-profit organization and its own budget constraints means that it cannot continue to finance the festival.