A tiny Himalayan country, landlocked between India and China, has become one of the first – perhaps the first – to meet calls for “nature needs half” by setting aside over half of its land into protected areas and biological corridors. As Bhutan develops, after centuries of isolation, exactly what this commitment means is a focus of both national and international attention.
The country has many natural advantages: Bhutan is extremely mountainous, with a small population (780,000 people) and is overwhelmingly Buddhist, where people put high value on the sanctity of all life. Discussions about human-wildlife conflict in Bhutan are unusual. As happens everywhere, people do grumble: there has been a population explosion of wild boar and many farmers guard their crops 24 hours a day, but the idea of killing nuisance animals is still largely rejected. So protected areas are not merely an abstraction and the concepts of conservation are understood. The constitution of the kingdom of Bhutan mandates the country to maintain at least 60 per cent of Bhutan under forest cover for all times to come and to maintain the country as carbon neutral, in other words as a net carbon sink over time.
Bhutan has ten protected areas, along with the Royal Botanic Gardens of Lamperi located an hour outside the capital Thimphu (and probably the only botanic garden in the world where wild tigers roam). They cover, in total, an area not much less than Slovenia or El Salvador.
Massive altitudinal differences create dramatically different habitats: sub-tropical forests, temperate forests, mountain pastures, deep gorges, high altitude lakes and peaks over 7,000 metres. In the north, Wangchuck Centennial Park, the newest protected area, stretches to Tibet (China), in a region so remote that even the location of the international border is poorly understood. In the south, Royal Manas National Park borders Assam, India, consisting of dryland plains and scattered forests.
According to the latest nationwide tiger survey 2014-2015, Bhutan has an estimate of 103 tigers with the world’s greatest altitudinal variation in occurrence. At heights of over four thousand metres tigers share range with snow leopards, which were recently the subject of a national survey. The more than 200 mammal species in Bhutan include blue sheep, Tibetan wolf, takin (the national animal of Bhutan), Asian elephants, guar, musk deer and the golden langur, and many more. There are also over 700 bird species, including the globally endangered white-bellied heron. Perhaps more important than any of the above is that Bhutan, by virtue of its history, contains some of the most pristine forest habitats in the region: extraordinarily rich ecosystems with many other species still waiting to be discovered.
Bhutan’s national parks follow the European model more than the North American: most contain settled communities and mix conservation with various forms of traditional use. Of critical importance in many parks in Bhutan is the collection of Cordyceps, a fungus with enormously high value for traditional medicines. Much of the acceptance of park management from residents is because it helps to maintain sustainable harvest and restricts collection to local communities, thus maintaining a highly lucrative form of income.
At the same time, pressures are mounting in parts of the country and these will impact protected areas. India is bank-rolling a tripling of hydropower potential in just five years, damming a series of hitherto wild rivers and creating a plethora of infrastructure. A national road-widening project is ongoing. Poaching is increasing, partly from cross-border raids.
Conversely, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest and Park Services is launching a multi-million dollar Bhutan for Life project, which aims to strengthen and alleviate the existing protected area management. The first nation-wide protected area management effectiveness assessment is ongoing.
Bhutan has shown global leadership in setting an inspirational target and establishing its protected area system in the face of development pressure, before worrying about every aspect of management. Actions over the next few years should help to consolidate the system and maintain its unique role in Himalayan biodiversity conservation.
Article written by Nigel Dudley, chair of the WCPA Specialist Group on Natural Solutions, and co-founder of Equilibrium Research.
- Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O Wilson – review
- The High Ground: Sacred natural sites, bio-cultural diversity and climate change in the Eastern Himalayas