The Guardian just published some beautiful photos of Bhutan’s culture of tiger conservation and its wildlife corridors — i.e. narrow strips of protected habitat that help sustain the free movement, genetic diversity and long-term conservation of many species, including the Bengal Tiger (actually a sub-species). The commitment of Bhutan’s people to protecting and living alongside wildlife is truly inspiring, and they are implementing many innovative ways of sustainably developing their country while respecting and protecting their wildlife that could be mimicked by other countries. A core part of Bhutan’s conservation culture comes from its Buddhist heritage, according to which all beings are viewed as interdependent and each person’s actions should be directed toward helping other sentient beings – which includes animals. This ethic informs their culture and their politics, and it is interesting to see how deeply environmental protection and respect is embedded at every level of their society.
Bhutan is a great example of a country that is doing almost everything right in terms of environmental conservation and enabling the sustainable co-existence of people and nature. The country’s constitution guarantees that at least 60% of its land must always remain forested, and the government includes environmental conservation as one of the four pillars of its Gross National Happiness philosophy (which is a serious thing and an alternative to focusing on GDP). In addition, the government requires most development to enable the long-term protection of the environment -e.g. the country draws a significant portion of its power from “run-of-the-river” hydro projects that rely on and require the protection of watersheds and their forests. The country also has community-based compensation and herd insurance programs to compensate agriculturalists for livestock that is lost to predators (e.g. snow leopards), and these programs are funded by revenue from Bhutan’s “low impact-high value” tourism industry. As a result, today over 50% of Bhutan’s land is included in protected areas and over 80% of its land is covered by natural forests. The area of its land under natural forests actually increased by 7.1% from 1990 to 2010. Importantly, Bhutan also has a network of wildlife corridors connecting all its protected areas, which enables population intermingling, genetic diversity and greater resilience to current and future stressors for many wildlife species.
Above: A map of Bhutan’s protected areas and wildlife corridors. The grey dots are human settlements, many of which are allowed within protected areas. From Rajaratnam, Vernes and Sangay, “A Review of Livestock Predation by Large Carnivores in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan,” Problematic Wildlife – A Cross-Disciplinary Approach.
All this is even more important because Bhutan is a center of biological wealth and diversity. The country is among the top 10% in the world in terms of species density (the # of species per square kilometer), and in 1998 when biologist Norman Myers named his original ten global “biodiversity hotspots” he included Bhutan as part of the Eastern Himalayas hotspot. The country contains an exceptionally high number of plant species (5,400, including 400 orchid species and 300 species of medicinal plants) as well as over 700 species of birds and almost 200 mammals. This includes many charismatic species such as the bengal tiger, snow leopard, red panda, blue sheep, black-necked crane and more. Scientists recently discovered 200 new species in the Eastern Himalayas from 2009 to 2014. It was also recently estimated that Bhutan is one of the top five countries in the world doing the most for the conservation of mega-fauna (i.e. large animals).
Bhutan’s efforts by themselves may not be enough to conserve species whose range covers several countries (e.g. the endangered snow leopard ranges across 12 countries from Uzbekistan to Bhutan), but its efforts are certainly contributing to the health of these species and offer examples that other nearby countries can follow. For instance, due to the conservation efforts of South Asia countries around tigers, the first assessment of tigers in Bhutan in 2015 found there were over 100 tigers there and the tiger’s numbers were found to have increased in India, Nepal and East Russia — although tigers are facing a crisis in Southeast Asia. It is clear though that conservation efforts can pay off in raising the population numbers of endangered species – and even getting them off the endangered list – and a central part of this is finding ways for humans to co-exist and live in cooperation with wildlife.
All in all, it is clear that Bhutan is doing wonders for the world by exploring new ways to protect its rich biological heritage and for people to not only co-exist with, but benefit from, the presence of wildlife and a healthy natural environment.