Wild Life: Guide to Bhutan

Bhutan’s national development philosophy of Gross National Happiness places high premium on its rich biodiversity and pristine natural environment.

Birds
Pictures courtesy: Ngawang Gyeltshen, UNDP

With about 70% of its geographical area under forest cover and more than 50% of its total land area declared as protected areas, Bhutan is recognized worldwide for its abundant biodiversity. In fact, the whole country is connected by a network of protected areas – five national parks, four wildlife sanctuaries, one strict nature reserve and eight biological corridors, intersecting with boundaries of all 20 districts. In short, we could say, the whole country is a wild flourishing garden of flora and fauna, of species found and yet to be found.

Bhutan’s Rich Biodiversity 

The species diversity includes 5,600 species of vascular plants, 129 species of mammals, 736 species of birds, 158 species of amphibians and reptiles, 750 species of butterflies and 130 species of fish. Given the presence of high endemism and globally significant species, there are opportunities for high-end recreational tourism such as Golden Mahseer fly-fishing (catch and release) in major river systems. The potential for bird and butterfly tourism also remains spread over most of the rural areas.

Swallowtails of Bhutan

Swallowtail butterflies are large, colorful and fork-tailed butterflies that compose the family Papilionidae. They are named after the bird the swallow in the naming of the type species Papilio machaon (Common Yellow Swallowtail). Globally, there are over 550 species, and in Bhutan 42 swallowtail butterflies are recorded. Our national butterfly is Bhutanitis ludlowi (Bhutan Ludlow’s Swallowtail), which is identified as endangered species. Bhutanitis ludlowi is commonly known as Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory. However, since this butterfly falls under the swallowtail family, many people use Ludlow’s Bhutan Swallowtail and Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory interchangeably. It was officially declared as Bhutan’s national butterfly in 2012.

The butterfly is found at an altitude of 2000 to 2500 meters above sea level. It is spotted commonly in Trashiyangtse Valley during autumn season. Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory is listed as endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Not much was known about the butterfly species until recently.

The butterfly was first discovered by plant hunters, Frank Ludlow and George Sheriff at Tobrang, upper parts of Trashiyangtse valley in 1933-34. Commonly seen in Bumdeling valley in Trashiyangtse, Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory was rediscovered after 75 years in 2009 by a Bhutanese forester, Karma Wangdi. Travelers can visit Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary to spot these beautiful species.

Golden Mahseer

Two types of Mahseer are found in the rivers of Bhutan: Chocolate Mahseer and Golden Mahseer. Most Bhutanese informally associate the Golden Mahseer to ‘the Auspicious Golden Fish’, which is one of the eight auspicious signs in Buddhism. It is believed the Auspicious Golden Fish represents the Buddha’s compassionate and clairvoyant eyes, and the agility and swiftness of the Buddha’s enlightened spirit.

In Bhutan, Mahseer is found in almost all the major rivers, present at elevations as high as 1,000 meters during the spawning season in summer. Golden Mahseer is a migratory fish, and so they migrate back to their habitats at the lower elevations in winter months.

Bhutan is working on a national plan in an effort to conserve the Mahseer. Promoting recreational high-end fly-fishing (catch and release) is one of the approaches to help generate income from ecotourism and boost livelihood of the communities living along the Mahseer-rich rivers.

Red Panda

In Bhutan, Red Panda is believed to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist monk, linking its red fur to the red robe of the monk and their sighting in the wild is believed to bring good luck to travelers. The Red Panda feeds on fresh leaves and shoots of bamboo, fruits, roots, succulent grasses, acorns, lichens and occasionally bird’s eggs, insects and grubs.

Red Panda | Pictures courtesy: NEC

The Red Panda is endemic to temperate forests of the Himalayas, with the exception of the tropical forest population in Meghalaya, India. Occurrence of Red Panda in Bhutan has been confirmed in 17 districts, including seven of the 10 protected areas and all eight biological corridors within the altitudinal range of 2,000 to 4,300 meters above sea level.

The Red Panda is globally threatened – listed as endangered on IUCN red list. The global Red Panda population is estimated at less than 10,000 matured individuals over the entire range. The major threats to Red Panda are habitat loss and degradation, poaching and illegal trade, developmental activities, climate change and illegal herbal plant collection. Increasing development activities, livestock grazing and migration, subsistence agriculture and collection of non-wood forest produce also pose major threats to Red Panda conservation in Bhutan.

Golden Langur

Golden Langur

The Golden Langur is one of the world’s most threatened primates – listed as endangered by IUCN. According to recent estimates, there are about 6,000 Golden Langurs in Bhutan and more than 5,000 in Assam, North-East India. However, experts have warned that the population in Bhutan has declined by more than 30% in the past 30 years and is expected to decline further in the near future. Its habitat is increasingly fragmented and limited to a small forest belt in western Assam and Bhutan, between the Manas river in the east, Sankosh river in the west, the foothills of the Black Mountains to the north and the Brahmaputra in the south.

However, in Bhutan Golden Langurs are better protected, with about half the population located inside the three protected areas of the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, Royal Manas National Park and Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary. Travelers in Zhemgang can occasionally spot Golden Langurs on trees along the road.

Birdwatching

Bhutan is a paradise for bird lovers and bird watchers. More than 700 species of birds have been recorded in the country so far. Around 50 species of the known birds are winter migrants. These include ducks, waders, birds of prey, thrushes, finches and buntings. The partial migrants to Bhutan include cuckoos, swifts, bee-eaters, warblers and flycatchers.

Ward’s Trogon | Pictures courtesy: Chencho Wangdi

The country harbors more than 16 species of vulnerable birds. They are Pallas’ Fish Eagle, White-Bellied Heron, Satyr Tragopan, Gray-Bellied Tragopan, Ward’s Trogon, Blyth’s King Fisher, Yellow-rumped Honey Guide, Rufous Throated Wren Babbler, Chestnut-breasted Partridge, Blyth’s Trogon, Wood Snipe, Dark-rumped Swift, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Gray-crowned Prinia and the beautiful Nuthatch – all of which breed in Bhutan.

Bhutan is home to many species of birds that are in danger of extinction, including the Imperial Heron, which is one of the 50 rarest birds in the world and the rare Black-Necked Crane, which breeds in Tibet and then migrates over the Himalayas to Bhutan during the winter months. The Cranes can be spotted in Phobjikha Valley in Western Bhutan, Bumthang in Central Bhutan and in Bumdeling in Eastern Bhutan. They migrate to these winter roosting sites in the months of September and October and fly back to Tibet between February and March.

GEF7 Ecotourism Project

Bhutan’s National Tourism Policy adopts the definition of ecotourism proposed by the Department of the Forest and Park Services, ‘High-value low-impact’ travel that supports the protection of natural and cultural heritage; provides positive and enriching experiences for visitors and hosts; assures tangible benefits to local people, and contributes to Gross National Happiness.

Bhutan’s GEF7 Ecotourism Project seeks to mainstream biodiversity conservation into the tourism development in Bhutan as a long-term strategy for mitigation of threats to biodiversity and to generate sustainable conservation financing and livelihoods.

The project aims to achieve this by establishing Bhutan as a model ecotourism destination, to generate livelihood opportunities, sustainable financing for landscapes within and outside protected areas, facilitate human-wildlife coexistence, and mitigate the negative impacts of increasing tourism on Bhutan’s socio-cultural heritage and globally significant biodiversity.

The project’s flagship species for ecotourism are Red Pandas, Black-Necked Cranes, Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory butterflies, Golden Langurs, Golden Mahseers, and many varieties of birds.

Sonam Dema

Sonam Dema

She is freelance travel writer, former television anchor & producer. She is currently working for biodiversity conservation for GEF7 ecotourism project in Bhutan. During her free time, she likes to paint, read and write about arts and films from Bhutan. You can contact her at sonamdema123@gmail.com