Directed Research

DR. It’s started. It’s a staple of every SFS program, and one of the selling points of the whole organization. Even more than our classes, during which we often had field exercises and lectures, DR is when we actually do field studies.

DR is not independent research, it’s directed. That means there are six groups of students, all of whom have a faculty advisor for the whole project (each professor has two groups). The groups are studying the concept of One-Health in Bumthang, avian diversity on the UWICE campus, the current social and ecological status of community forests, biodiversity on the UWICE campus compared to nearby community forests, medicinal plants and cordyceps and rural livelihoods, and a new index (created by the group) to measure wellbeing. Within each group, the students can pick their own topic of interest and design a project complete with their own objectives, hypotheses, methods, and analysis.

About a month ago we were all sorted into DR groups based on our preferences. I am really interested in the history of property rights in Bhutan, and especially the fact that all forests and natural resources were managed through common resource management systems until 1969, when the government passed the Forest Act, nationalizing all forests. Luckily I will be able to conduct research related to that topic. I’m in the community forests group and I’ll be investigating what type of property system community forests are, and how that property system is impacting the livelihoods of local people.

And we start today! After lunch my group is driving to Tang Valley, which is 2.5 hours away. We’re staying there for three days, conducting interviews and collecting data from the three community forests that are in that area. Wish us luck!


Finals Week… (and a little about JDNP)

Hi everyone!

SFS Bhutan has finals this week, so I probably won’t be posting anything until we’re done with that and back in Bumthang (which will be on Sunday).

But I will tell you a little about last week’s trip to Jigme Dorji National Park in Gasa.


A view from our hike after enjoying the hot springs

The moment we entered the park, I could sense that there were tigers here. And not just because I know there are tigers in the park – it was also the right habitat. The dense forest felt like a jungle, and as we made camp near a rocky riverbed, I could imagine a tiger peaking out at us from the other side of the river.

Gasa extends all the way up to the border with China (part of which is disputed territory). (Check out the map below – Gasa is the red district in the north.) On the second day, our only full day in JDNP, we drove three hours north to reach the famous Gasa hot springs, which did not disappoint. The view from the hot springs itself was incredible – we were looking straight up two imposing cliffs from the valley far below. We had a short but steep hike back up to the buses, and then drove to nearby Gasa Dzong. Unfortunately, very unfortunately, it was so cloudy that day that we did not see the snow-capped peaks that everyone had been looking forward to for weeks. But that’s ok – the view was still spectacular from the top of the dzong (just look up Gasa Dzong and you’ll see the view I’m talking about).


We enjoyed milk tea and mushroom soup in the rain, courtesy of our fantastic cooks, and then drove the three hours back to our campsite, mostly in the dark forest, which was peaceful.

It was a terrific camping trip. And I think my heart still is, and may always partly be, in Gasa.

Check Out My Post on the SFS Blog!

Bhutan is one of the world’s top ten biodiversity hotspots. In Bhutan, scientists have cataloged 699 bird species, and expect that a total of approximately 770 species will be found in the country. In the United States, which is 210 times as large as Bhutan, there are a total of 800 bird species – almost the same number! In addition, Bhutan is home to the tiger, the one-horned rhino, the clouded leopard, the red panda, the snow leopard, and the Tibetan wolf, among countless other species…

Throwback Friday…

… to when the first advertisement I saw in Asia (Bangkok, Thailand) was an anti-elephant poaching ad by Yao Ming. After four months of research on the intersections of elephant poaching, the illicit ivory trade, and terrorist groups last fall, this was super exciting! And there were more ads like this one, but with more educational information about the origins of ivory, throughout Suvarnabhumi Airport.


Takins and a Goat

When we were still in Thimphu last week, we went to the Bhutan Takin Reserve! The takin is Bhutan’s national animal, and is a fairly strange looking bovid (pictures below). When we saw on the schedule for that day that we were going to a “takin zoo” we were all very excited. Most takin live in the wild in Bhutan, and one of the Bhutanese kings did not like the idea of having a takin zoo near Thimphu, so he let them go free. But then they became as common as stray dogs in Bhutan and cows in India, and overran Thimphu very quickly. So they decided that they needed to bring the takin back to the preserve, but they made it much larger and feel like a forest. The takin now have plenty of space.


But before we even saw the takin, we had an unexpected addition to our group – a very pregnant mama goat! We met her at the entrance to the preserve, and she decided she wanted to show us around, so she followed us up the steep path! Her ears bounced when she walked and her belly was enormous, so we all thought she was just the cutest.



Then, with our goat friend still in tow, we saw the takin!



One of the large male takin decided that he really did not like this cheeky mama goat, so he rushed at her behind the fence several times. The goat was very calm, though. She didn’t mind.




We then went on a beautiful hike around the takin enclosure, identifying plants and laughing at the mama goat bouncing along the hilly path.


Takins and goats and SFS, oh my!

It feels like the top of the world here

I have arrived in Bumthang at the UWICE/SFS campus! Bumthang has a different ecosystem than the western parts of the country. There are larger valleys and primarily coniferous forests. I wake up every day to a view of the trees, close, outside my window. The windows on our dorm are intricately designed and we also have a view of the laundry facilities – the prettiest laundry building I’ve ever seen. I’ll try to post a picture soon, but the Internet here does not seem to want to upload photos.

At campus we live 500 feet above the town, Chamkar, at a grand total of 10,000 feet. I have to say, I haven’t felt the altitude as much as I thought I would (although I haven’t gone for a run yet – I’ll probably feel it then).

Tonight will be our first opportunity to wear ghos and kiras. We have a welcome dinner with all of the SFS staff, many of the UWICE scholars, and local people as well, who live on campus and in town. I’m sure people will take pictures, and as soon as I can I will show you what a kira looks like.

We officially started classes today, although we had many guest lectures in Thimphu. This morning we had Land Use, Natural Resources, and Conservation, and then Mountain Ecology. The professor for the first class is from Nepal and has a great sense of humor. He is also studying tiger and leopard interactions in a park in Nepal for his PhD, and used to be a forest guard who caught poachers. I am very excited to talk about conservation with him! The Mountain Ecology professor is from India, and also has a great sense of humor, and has studied an amazing amount of megafauna – Asian elephants, crocodiles, whales…

I think I’ve found the perfect program.

It feels like the top of the world here. I feel like I can touch the clouds when it rains, and in the morning cloud wisps are all around. We are surrounded by mountains, with a view of some of the Jakar valley, and birdsong and caterpillars and butterflies all around. There are tales of the yeti in Bumthang, and it feels like this entire country is forested. I keep pinching myself, and reminding myself that I am here. But where is here? What is this magical place?

The Parks of Bhutan

Bhutan Protected Area Map

Bhutan Protected Area Map

Did you know that Bhutan had no cities until the 1960s? That was also the same decade that Bhutan established its national park system.

In the 1960s, the protected areas system covered almost the entire southern and northern regions of the country.  In 1993, the parks system was revised “for better ecological representation and realistic management.” Today, Bhutan has 10 formally protected areas covering more than a quarter of the country.

You can read more about the individual parks here.

Tigers in Bhutan


A tigress in Jim Corbett National Park, India.

Bhutan just completed its first tiger population survey, and found that the tiger population is higher than previously thought. Bhutan is home to 103 tigers, which is an increase of more than a third since the previous tiger estimate of 75. The survey was conducted completely by Bhutanese nationals. Dechen Dorji, WWF Bhutan country representative, said: “The roaring success of Bhutan’s first ever nationwide survey gives us a rare look into the lives of the magnificent tigers roaming across the entire country. This is an incredible achievement with great teamwork and leadership from the Royal Government of Bhutan.”

But this is rare good news for the tiger, which has vanished from 93% of its historic habitat, has lost three subspecies in the past 80 years, and numbers fewer than 3,200 in the wild (there are more captive tigers in the state of Texas than there are in the wild globally). In 1900, as many as 100,000 tigers roamed Asia.

In 2010, tiger range countries agreed to double tiger numbers by 2022. Tiger numbers are unknown in Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia, and are believed to have decreased in Bangladesh and Malaysia (by as much as half since 2010 in the case of Malaysia). The government of Malaysia has just agreed to conduct its first tiger survey.

Mike Baltzer, WWF Tigers Alive initiative leader, said: “There is a tiger crisis in south-east Asia. Countries are not counting their tigers and are at risk of losing them if immediate action isn’t taken. Political support is weaker and resources are fewer, while poaching and habitat loss are at critical levels. Until countries know the reality on the ground they can’t take appropriate action to protect their tigers. WWF is calling on all south-east Asian tiger countries to count their tigers and on the global tiger conservation community to focus efforts in these critical south-east Asian countries.”

But there has been some recent good news about tiger populations, although it’s hard to know what to trust and whether tiger populations are actually recovering in specific reserves and countries. Numbers released earlier this year show that India’s tiger population has increased by almost a third in the last three years. Amur tiger numbers are on the rise in the Russian Far East, according to the latest census, and Nepal’s 2013 tiger survey also indicated an increase. Possibly most surprisingly of all, “there are indications that tigers are settling and breeding in north eastern China,” WWF has said.

Tourism in Bhutan

Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan

Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan

Tourism in Bhutan began in 1974, when the Bhutanese government, in an effort to increase revenue and promote the country’s unique culture and traditions, opened the remote country to foreigners. During that first year, only 287 tourists visited Bhutan. In 1992, the number rose to 2,850, and it increased even more dramatically to 7,158 in 1999.

Bhutan restricts tourist numbers primarily because the government is acutely aware of the environmental impacts of tourism and the unique biological wealth of the country. Travel to Bhutan is highly regulated under the policy “High Value, Low Impact Tourism.”

Tourists mainly visit the capital of Thimpu, as well as Paro, a city in the western part of the country near India, and the Tiger’s Nest, which is a famous Buddhist temple (photograph at end of post). Druk Air used to be the only airline operating flights to and from Bhutan, but the country is now serviced by Bhutan Airlines as well.

Paro Airport, the country's only international airport

Paro Airport, the country’s only international airport 

It is quite difficult and expensive to get a visa to Bhutan. Only citizens of India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives are allowed to enter Bhutan without a visa. Foreign tourists must use a licensed Bhutanese tour operator to arrange practically everything about their visit to Bhutan, including what lodging they stay in, and where they travel and with whom. Outside of Paro and Thimpu, the entirety of Bhutan is considered a “Restricted Area” for foreigners, who need special permits to travel further.

A daily fee of $250 is charged during tourist high season, which is decreased to $200/day during the low season. The minimum daily package required for visa processing covers accommodation, food, guide, and a vehicle with a driver. Part of this fee goes towards free education, free healthcare, and poverty alleviation in Bhutan.

The only way you can enter Bhutan without a visa (and without being a citizen of the countries mentioned above), is by receiving a formal invitation from a “citizen of some standing” or a volunteer organization. In addition, those who come as guests of the Bhutanese government go through a different visa application process. I believe the latter applies to students who study in Bhutan through SFS because we are partnered with a government agency, the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment.

The Tiger's Nest

The Tiger’s Nest, a sacred Buddhist monastery

The Transition Town Movement

Throughout most of this semester I have written about the bad news – ranging from mass species extinction to climate change to elephant poaching. We all know there are many persistent, systemic, and overwhelming environmental problems. That’s a given. However, during the last few weeks of this course (but don’t worry – I hope to continue this blog after the course is over!) I would like to turn our attention to the courageous people finding solutions. And the Transition Movement is just the place to start.

The Transition Town Movement consists of local grassroots projects that aim to increase community self-sufficiency and resiliency. These projects also educate people about climate change and peak oil, and work towards decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels. The first Transition Town was created in Totnes, England, in 2006.

Common topics for discussion within these communities include peak oil and local energy resilience, transportation, food production, waste and recycling, environmental psychology, and economics (including alternatives to the current capitalist system). If you would like to know more about how Transition Towns are structured and some of the underlying theory, check out the Seven Guiding Principles and Twelve Ingredients of the Transition Model from the Transition United States website.

Transition Towns aim to foster community, educate residents about a wide range of topics, from local food to species extinction, and offer a concrete localized solution to the overwhelming climate crisis. Individual families and towns will face the brunt of climate change, which is why the Transition Movement aims to localize and democratize energy and promote climate solutions.

Transition Towns exist across the world, including right here in Massachusetts in Amherst and Hadley. As of September 2013, there were 1,130 Transition Towns officially registered with the Transition Network Directory, which is a UK-based organization that supports the international Transition Movement. There is also a specific website for the Transition Movement in the United States.

The Transition Movement acknowledges that it does not have all the answers, and that this effort alone will not solve all the world’s current problems. However, they firmly believe that:

  • If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late
  • If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
  • But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.