Everest

I have officially left Bhutan and have been in India for about two days. My apologies for the lack of posts – the last week in Bhutan was mostly in transit, and surprisingly there was less reliable wifi in Thimphu than there had been at UWICE.

I think the only thing that could have distracted me from the pain of leaving Bhutan is… seeing Mount Everest up close on the plane ride from Paro to New Delhi!

Everest is in both pictures below, but more identifiably in the second one.

Enjoy, I promise more posts will come soon!

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Suja and Sinchang

The last week and a half have been some of the most rewarding, stressful, and transformative days in my life. I’ve had more cups of naja (milk tea) than I can count, sat on many bamboo-woven mats on wood floors, climbed the stairs of Bhutanese homes, cuddled cats, watched a farmer chop up yak meat, and conducted a total of 73 semi-structured interviews and two key informant interviews. Yesterday I was served a full lunch by a Bhutanese family who were having a puja in their home (a ritual blessing and cleansing). I sat on the floor with my translator, Kinley, and was immediately served naja, a full plate of red rice, and cow’s cheese that was the consistency of cottage cheese, as well as curd, which is actually delicious. So much dairy! Kinley was also served potatoes and meat, which I obviously did not eat. It was an enjoyable, filling meal, and they kept offering more and more – Have some more rice! More cheese! More curd! It’s hard to turn down when they have invited you into their home and have provided more hospitality, unquestioned and un-asked-for, than almost anyone has offered you in America.

(We actually ended up going back to that house later in the afternoon to interview someone else. As you might have guessed, we were offered more – this time suja (butter tea, quite a drink) and sinchang, which is one of the traditional Bhutanese homemade alcohols (the others are ara and banchang). I probably drank two cups of sinchang and three of suja, which was not much, given how forceful the sweet old lady was who kept offering more, almost refusing to accept my protests of No, no, no, karinchela, I can’t drink any more straight butter or homemade alcohol! Karinche but no!)

I am now an expert on Bhutanese hospitality – it’s better than anything else!

The interviews are conducted by my friend Brad and I. We each have our own set of questions, but we ask them during one interview so we don’t bother people twice. During the last two days we conducted 41 interviews (!!!) because we split up with one translator each. We have conducted so many interviews (we will probably have 80 by the time we’re finished collecting data on Tuesday) that faculty and staff have started telling us that people have written theses for Masters programs based on fewer interviews. Whoa! We are both very excited about these data, and have high hopes for the final papers that are due next week.

These last two days we were in Duhr, which is a rather large, sprawling village (meaning a bit more than 80 houses) about an hour north of UWICE. It’s a fascinating place – a community of nomadic yak herders and cordyceps collectors, many of whom only live there for part of the year. Most people seemed a lot wealthier than many of the villagers I met in Tang. Some had couches, many houses were bigger, newer, cleaner… children seemed to have more time to play, and some families didn’t even do much during the entire year except for the very busy few months in early summer when they make the dangerous journey (three days north) to collect the illusive and incredibly lucrative Ophiocordyceps sinensis. Cordyceps is a fungus that grows parasitically on a certain caterpillar, and takes several years to mature. They are found mainly in Tibet, but also Nepal and Bhutan. The market for cordyceps is large and profitable, and continuing to grow. It’s considered to be an aphrodisiac in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and has other purported health properties as well.

Every year, the Bhutanese government gives a certain number of permits to people (especially those who already live in districts that have cordyceps, like Gasa and Bumthang) so they can legally collect cordyceps during the early summer. It is a fairly regulated industry and market in Bhutan, but not so much in Nepal or Tibet. But the financial benefits are obvious – these cordyceps collectors are doing well, even though life is still hard, especially in such a cold and mountainous place as Duhr. The village is nestled on a mountainside and looks out, farther north, at craggy summits that are covered in snow. Highland meadows stretch above the village, which is where the yak herders keep their yaks while they are living in Duhr.

I asked a villager about wildlife in the area, and learned that tigers live a little farther north, but then again, who knows? – He suddenly contradicted himself and said that villagers have seen tiger pugmarks nearby. And there are bear attacks in the village. They are very much living among these animals.

As I said at the beginning of this post – it has been a wild week. More later, once DR fieldwork is officially over.

I will leave you with this photo of my view right now.

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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!

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.

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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

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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.

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

African Elephants are on the Brink of Extinction

Satao, a huge African elephant who was loved by many, was murdered by poachers earlier this year (http://ind.pn/1F5NB15).

Satao, a huge African elephant who was loved by many, was murdered by poachers earlier this year (http://ind.pn/1F5NB15).

As I mentioned in a recent post, the African elephant poaching crisis is reaching a tipping point, where more elephants are being killed each year than being born. Some argue that African elephants may be extinct in the wild within 10 years.

The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is a keystone species, meaning it is an integral part of the ecosystem, and if it goes extinct, the ecosystem will change drastically. Unfortunately, African elephants are threatened by multiple factors, including poaching and habitat loss, and are critically endangered.

Poaching fuels, and is fueled by, the international ivory trade, which is primarily linked to China, the United States, and Thailand. Ivory is coveted all over the world, but particularly in East Asia, as trinkets, jewelry, and religious symbols.

African elephant poaching is incredibly lucrative and, in part, fuels terrorism because terrorist networks control much of the poaching and trade. These terrorist organizations create instability in Africa and have global connections, making this an international security issue.

This is a complex issue and necessitates extraordinary cooperation on an international scale in order to prevent the extinction of this majestic species and continued attacks from terrorist groups funded by illicit ivory.

If you would like to learn more, I recommend these reports as further reading:

Jon Stewart on Elephant Poaching and the NRA

It’s almost Friday! I hope you enjoy this hilarious and incredibly informative video. In this clip, Jon Stewart of the Daily Show explains the dire situation facing African elephants and the shady relationship between the illegal ivory trade and terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram, al Shabaab, and al-Qaeda.

The video speaks for itself. I especially enjoyed it because I am writing a policy brief on the international security implications of elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade for a class called Global Resource Politics. Humor is often a necessary antidote to traumatic topics.

Book Review: Jaguar

Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve (1986/2000), written by zoologist Alan Rabinowitz, is a classic in the field of wildlife conservation. It follows Dr. Rabinowitz’s journey to the jungles of Belize in the late 1970s to study the most elusive and revered cat in the Western Hemisphere: the jaguar.

Jaguar provides the only first-hand account of a scientist’s interactions with jaguars in the wild, and it chronicles them in detail. The book also beautifully weaves in Dr. Rabinowitz’s human relationships in Belize, with local loggers, Maya, and Belizean government officials, police, and citizens. It chronicles Dr. Rabinowitz’s personal journey, alongside his professional one.

As a young boy growing up in New York City, Dr. Rabinowitz suffered from a severe stutter. He basically could not speak to other people, including his own family. The only place he could express his feelings was in his closet, where he was kept company by small pets: lizards, iguanas, snakes. Although Dr. Rabinowitz could hardly speak to other people, he could, like many people who stutter, speak confidently to animals. And, joined together as creatures who were voiceless in the human world, young Alan made his pets a promise. He promised that, if he ever found his voice, he would speak on behalf of his pets, on behalf of all animals, who still did not have a voice. And he followed through on that promise in a big way.

Dr. Rabinowitz, with the help of a speech clinic at the State University of New York, eventually did find his voice, and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1981 with an M.S. in Zoology and a PhD in Wildlife Ecology. He worked at the Wildlife Conservation Society as the Executive Director of the Science and Exploration Division for nearly 30 years, and he is currently the CEO of Panthera, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the world’s wild cat species.

Through Jaguar, Dr. Rabinowitz’s first book, one may briefly inhabit the exhilarating, dangerous, sad, complex, and gritty world of wildlife conservation. Every chapter is thrilling, with tragic stories of snakebites and hilarious accounts of misadventures with Maya Indians in dense jungle. I highly recommend this book. While most of us do not spend our days saving wild cats in the jungles of Belize, this book allows us to fantasize about what we might have done in another life.