Against the despairing narrative typical of today’s global conservation scenario, every once in a while we need stories of optimism and hope to inspire us. The world should find solace in the fact that there are places where conservation is not always a race against time – with negative odds for species survival stacked up high – and where a small investment can bring disproportionately large conservation returns. In his keynote address at the IUCN World Conservation Congress last year, E. O. Wilson, the veritable ‘father of biodiversity,’ prescribed that we would have to set aside half of the earth in order to save 80-90% of the remaining species and ecosystems. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has already met Wilson’s charge; over a decade ago, more than 51% of the country was set aside for conservation via its protected areas and biological corridors. Indeed, Bhutan is waiting for the rest of the world to follow!
Wild Cat Diversity
The presence of carnivores in an ecosystem is indicative of the presence of prey species that support their existence, and others that in turn support them. Bhutan has nine confirmed (and possibly eleven) species of wild cats in a country the size of Switzerland, which speaks volumes about its biological richness. It is not simply that Bhutan hosts a rich diversity of large and small wild cats; the fact that they are all thriving is most notable. Numerous camera trap photos of tigers and snow leopards with two or even three cubs imply that conditions are conducive for successful breeding. Time-series photos of some of these cubs provide evidence of cats surviving into maturity and venturing out to establish their own territories. At a time of rapid biodiversity loss in a part of the world where a burgeoning human population stifles the last remaining patches of wilderness, Bhutan stands out as a refreshing anomaly.
In the south near the subtropical foothills of the Indian border, Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park supports an impressive guild of seven feline predator species, ranging in size from tiger and clouded leopard, to marbled cat and jungle cat. To the north near the border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region, alpine felids such as the charismatic snow leopard and Pallas’s cat share their habitat with the occasional wolf, the strange-looking goat antelope known as the Bhutan takin (Bhutan’s national animal), and the endangered wild dog, the dhole. Habitat connectivity and an abundance of prey species allow Bhutan to support a multitude of felid predators that traverse the length and breadth of this topographically complex country.
Nevertheless, the presence of predators means that mountain-based herders and farmers have to live with these intrepid neighbors, often losing precious livestock to large predators. As humans and livestock foray further into important wildlife habitat, inevitable predation incidents occur. This is not a new phenomenon; farming and herding systems in Bhutan have coexisted with wildlife and depredation for millennia. Human attitude and response towards such interactions are ultimately what determine the fate of these endangered predators. Being primarily Buddhists or Hindus, Bhutanese villagers have a general abhorrence towards killing. But for how long will this ethic be sustained in the face of increased economic losses? Why should a herder or farmer care about endangered species if she does not derive tangible benefits from supporting them in their backyards? Measly monetary compensation, often burdened by inefficient bureaucratic delivery processes, may not be the answer. Compensatory responses pale in comparison to the losses that the people suffer. Instead, conservationists must strive for innovative solutions that aim to transform predators from a perceived liability to a realized asset. For instance, as part of the Jomolhari Snow Leopard Conservation Program, the Department of Livestock Services reduced yak calf mortality from 34% in 2013 to 8% in 2016 in the Jomolhari region. The impact of such an intervention is much greater than any compensation program. The potential for wildlife-friendly tourism that would bring economic benefits to local communities is presently untapped.
Livestock officer Namgay looks after veterinary service delivery in the Jomolhari region and is an important member of the team that reduced livestock diseases here. He also seeks out other ways to help the herders he has come to call his family. Last year, Namgay established the first greenhouse in the village at almost 13000 ft with the support of the Agriculture Extension Officer, with funding from the Bhutan Foundation. “What we are trying to do is demonstrate that nutritious vegetables can be grown at high altitudes. The people will soon not have to eat only potatoes and chilies all the time,” said Namgay, as he proudly showed off his spinach, broccoli, and carrots last year. In working with village communities, he realizes that conservation is also about bringing benefits to people who live with the wildlife for their overall well-being. In order to do that, passionate and dedicated field staff like Namgay are vital to the process.
Strong Political Will
In a conservation triage of sorts we rush to save the last patch of rainforest, or the last bastion of biodiversity richness, but often against all odds while racing against time, and with questionable returns on investment of scarce conservation finance. Bhutan’s conservation stewardship is an aggregate of wise leadership by its monarchs, a relatively small human population, and its focus on balanced development that forgoes short-term economic gains for long-term societal well-being. This is further supported by the growing scientific expertise within the country. A commitment to remain carbon neutral (while it is presently carbon negative), a constitutional mandate to retain at least 60% of the country under forest cover in perpetuity (present forest cover stands at 71%), and its extensive protected area system are testimony to its resolve and conservation leadership. It is the first country to have already completed nationwide tiger and snow leopard surveys as commitment to international efforts to establish baselines that would help guide their conservation. Government reports indicate healthy populations of both large cats and their prey.
Next Generation Conservationists
The dedication of young field staff willing to improve science and acquire the necessary field and theoretical knowledge to understand Bhutan’s natural systems is crucial to take Bhutan’s conservation efforts to the next level. The Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment Research (UWICER) plays a vital role in injecting rigorous science into Bhutan’s conservation efforts while providing a platform for the next generation of Bhutanese conservationists.
National Geographic Young Explorer Tashi Dhendup works on tiger research in Bhutan with another National Geographic Explorer Tshering Tempa. They have been instrumental in supporting the government’s national tiger survey. Presently undergoing graduate studies in Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana, Tashi says, “I very much prefer to be in the field, collecting data and learning about tigers and other wildlife. There is no fun in having someone else do the hard job for you.” At the moment he enjoys immersing himself in academic discourses with fellow graduate students and professors and catching up on the latest techniques to study wildlife. Both Tashi and Tempa work at UWICER.
Letro is presently doing his graduate studies in Landscape Ecology and Nature Conservation at the University of Greifswald, Germany. “I enjoy learning theoretical concepts,” Letro explains, “ but I cannot wait to be back in the jungles and mountains of Bhutan.” As a staff of the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, Letro was also an integral part of the tiger survey team. “I have literally traversed the whole park many times, on or off established trails, and those days have been some of the best ones for me,” he adds.
Tashi Dendhup and Letro will learn new skills and return to Bhutan to help colleagues further advance Bhutan’s conservation initiatives. This is typical of most Bhutanese – they venture out for education or training, and they almost always come back to Bhutan. Skills training and capacity building of field staff remain a priority of the government.
Invest in Success
For a region as rich in biodiversity as the Eastern Himalaya, Bhutan’s healthy population of wild cats, including snow leopard in the north and tiger elsewhere, can serve to repopulate adjoining landscapes as long as the habitats are protected. Bhutan can function as the ecological heart of the Eastern Himalaya, sustaining rural people as well as unique species of wild cats in this large mountainous landscape. For these reasons, investing in Bhutan’s conservation efforts is beneficial to the world!
Tshewang Wangchuk, the first Bhutanese National Geographic Explorer, works as Executive Director for the Bhutan Foundation in Washington, DC. He also serves on the board of the Snow Leopard Conservancy.