Bhutan is a small country (just over 38,000 km2) in south Asia, sitting in the Himalayas between China and India. It is home to roughly 734,000 people. The population is growing at an estimated 1.13% per year.
Bhutan has a wide range of terrains, from subtropical plains to sub-alpine heights and is regarded as a haven for some of the world’s best-known and rarest species, such as tigers and snow leopards.
The Bhutanese monarchy has promoted the philosophy of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) since 1972. GNH strives to achieve a balance between the spiritual and the material. To assess if this is being achieved, nine domains are assessed: living standards, health, education, time use, good governance, ecological diversity and resilience, psychological wellbeing, community vitality and cultural diversity and resilience.
The environment has always played a significant role in the lives of many Bhutanese people and has therefore been integrated into the GNH. Bhutan pledges to protect 60% of its forests in perpetuity; living up to its promise, 75% of Bhutan’s land is covered by forest. It has twenty protected areas, covering roughly 47% of the country.
It was not until 2008 that Bhutan moved away from an absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy. The government and the King still view the environment as a priority.
The majority religion in Bhutan is Buddhism, which promotes a close connection to the natural world. While not all Buddhists are vegetarians, it is generally believed that it is wrong to harm animals without exceptional and necessary cause. This might explain why hunting and direct persecution are not though to be major threats to most wildlife in Bhutan, though immigrants may adopt different behaviours and there have reportedly been snaring and other killings of wildlife in the country.
Tourism in Bhutan is highly restricted and the main sources of income are hydropower, agriculture and forestry, with hydropower being its largest export product, primarily to India.
White-bellied Heron in Bhutan
There appears to be some local knowledge and pride in White-bellied Heron; some local people even help monitor the species. The positive attitudes of rural Bhutanese to the heron can be seen here.
The government were highly engaged in the 2015 Bhutan workshop and have since signed a memorandum of understanding with RSPN, the main organisation working on White-bellied Heron. The government and RSPN are working together closely on the development of a captive breeding centre for the species.
There are two key sites for WBH in Bhutan (as identified by RSPN): 1) Punatsangchhu basin, Wangduephodrang Dzongkhag and 2) Berti, Zhemgang Dzongkhag.
Annual counts of the species have been conducted since 2003. Numbers have fluctuated between 14 and 30 individuals. The most recent (2015) count was of 28 and 30 individuals.
Formal protection of White-bellied Heron in Bhutan
The Royal Government of Bhutan has recognised the significance of the White-bellied Heron, affording it the highest level of national protection. The order issued by the Cabinet Secretariat in 2007 is as follows:
“ Phochu is declared as White–bellied heron Habitat vide the approval of the Cabinet Secretariat letter No COM/04/07/887 dated March 1, 2007 and 336th CCM Sessions which states:
1. Banning all quarrying operations along Pho-chu namely at Gubjithang, Khawaraja and Samdingkhar and declaring the areas as the Protected habitat of White-Bellied Heron.
2. Enlisting White-bellied Heron in Schedule I of the Nature and Forest Conservation Act 1995 through the National Assembly.”
Threats to White-bellied Heron in Bhutan
Rapid development of the country, including for electricity – in the form of hydropower, Bhutan’s largest export product, is threatening to destroy the birds remaining habitats. Furthermore, extraction of boulders from riverbeds for road construction disturb the birds and cause habitat alteration. Other threats include fishing practices and overfishing, sand mining and other extraction practices; overhead cables and forest fires.