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.

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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).

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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.

The World’s First Environmental Trust Fund (+ “Lost Land of the Tiger”)

As I was doing more reading about the recent announcement that Bhutan is home to 103 tigers, I came across the interesting fact that the world’s first environmental trust fund was established in Bhutan in 1992. The first!

The Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation began as a “collaborative venture” between the Royal Government of Bhutan, the United Nations Development Program, and the World Wildlife Fund. These institutions set up an endowment of $20 million “as an innovative mechanism to finance conservation programs over the long term in Bhutan.” The organization is apparently autonomous of the government, and makes grants ranging from $1,301 to $1.6 million. The fund financially supports the parks system in Bhutan, which I’ll write a post about soon.

On another, related note, if you want to learn more about tigers in Bhutan, I highly recommend the BBC Documentary, “Lost Land of the Tiger.” It follows a group of scientists who, in 2010, went in search of Bhutan’s tigers. They travelled from the temperate south to the Himalayan north to study tigers and see whether Bhutan could indeed, as they hoped, provide the missing link in a potential Himalayan tiger reserve that would link populations from Nepal to Myanmar, thereby preserving genetic diversity and an incredible range of ecosystems. It’s heartening that these scientists, including Dr. Alan Rabinowitz of Panthera, believe so strongly that Bhutan’s tiger population is healthy and that the country can teach us much about tiger conservation.

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Tigers in Bhutan

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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.