The Guardian just published some beautiful photos of Bhutan’s culture of conservation and its wildlife corridors — which enable the movement, genetic diversity and conservation of many species, including the Bengal Tiger (a sub-species of the tiger). Bhutan’s efforts to conserve its wildlife is directly related to its Buddhist heritage, according to which all beings are viewed as being interdependent and a person’s actions should be directed toward helping other sentient beings (which includes animals). Bhutan is also a great example of a country that is doing almost everything right in terms of environmental conservation and promoting the sustainable coexistence of people and wildlife. 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 used as a serious alternative to Grass Domestic Product). In addition, rather than pitting conservation against development the government requires most development to simultaneously 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 require protection of watersheds and natural forests. As a result, over 50% of Bhutan’s land is included in protected areas today and over 80% of its land is covered by natural forests. The area of its land under natural forest cover actually increased by 7.1% from 1990 to 2010. Importantly, Bhutan also has a network of wildlife corridors (i.e. narrow strips of protected habitat) connecting all its protected areas, which enables the free movement, population intermingling, long-term genetic viability and health of its wildlife populations.
Above: A map of Bhutan’s protected areas and wildlife corridors. The grey dots are human settlements – showing that Bhutan allows many human settlements within protected areas.
In 1998 biologist Norman Myers included Bhutan in his original ten global “biodiversity hotspots” as part of the Eastern Himalayas biodiversity hotspot. Thus its conservation is of importance to the entire world, and it 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 discovered 200 new species in the Eastern Himalayas from 2009 to 2014, including a fish that can live out of water for four days. It was also recently estimated that Bhutan is one of the top five countries in the world doing the most for the conservation of megafauna (i.e. large animals), including by “re-wilding” their landscapes and allowing megafauna populations to increase, by setting aside more land as protected areas or by investing more in conservation. Although Bhutan’s efforts alone may not be enough to protect endangered species whose populations range over several countries, it certainly does contribute to their health. The first assessment of tigers in Bhutan in 2015 found there were over 100 tigers there, and tigers’ numbers were found to have increased in India, Nepal and East Russia — although the species is facing a crisis in Southeast Asia. All in all, it is clear though that Bhutan is doing wonders for the world in terms of protecting its habitats while enabling people to thrive in coexistence with nature.