Bhutan: a Frontier for Culture, Biodiversity, and Adventure

About a century ago, John Claude White, political officer of the British Empire posted in Sikkim, unveiled Bhutan to most Westerners for the first time through an elaborate account of his visit to this mysterious kingdom in a National Geographic magazine article in 1914. Readers were treated to images of fortresses, monasteries, villages, and people from this little-known mystical country tucked away in the Himalayan mountains.

Toward the end of his article, White quotes another officer of the British Raj who had visited Bhutan in the late 1800s and had stated rather dismissively, “Adventure looks beyond Bhutan. Science passes it by as a region not sufficiently characteristic to merit special exploration.” White hoped his article would dispel such ill-informed notions.

Indeed, it did. One of the most direct impacts of his article can be seen today on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), in the foothills of the Franklin Mountains. The article was the source of inspiration for Kathleen Worrell, wife of the then university dean Stephen Worrell, who influenced the university to be redesigned in Bhutanese architecture (after a fire destroyed the older building on campus).

There is a flourishing relationship between UTEP and Bhutan, with the most recent resulting in the staging of George Handel’s opera, “Acis and Galatea,” performed by Western and Bhutanese artistes. The colorful extravaganza was performed in Bhutan last year and in Texas this year. Goen Tshering, Vice Principal of the Royal Academy of Performing Arts in Bhutan, summed up his recent visit to El Paso as an “expose of Bhutanese culture in the American South – a fusion of East and West.”

In September this year, Bhutanese architect Karma Wangchuk and a team of Bhutanese carpenters completed finishing touches on the Bhutanese temple they rebuilt on the UTEP campus, which was a gift from the people of Bhutan.


Bhutanese master craftsmen in front of the temple they assembled on the UTEP campus. (Photo: Karma Wangchuk)
Bhutanese master craftsmen in front of the temple they assembled on the UTEP campus. (Photo: Karma Wangchuk)
Bhutanese master craftsmen putting finishing touches to the interiors of the temple. (Photo: Karma Wangchuk)
Putting finishing touches on the interiors of the Bhutanese temple. (Photo: Karma Wangchuk)


Tigers and Snow Leopards Thriving in Bhutan

Biologically, Bhutan straddles an area with high biodiversity richness—the Eastern Himalayas. Precipitation from the monsoons, great altitudinal variation, and its location connecting the Indian plains to the high Himalayan peaks on the edge of the Tibetan plateau allow for an amazing assemblage of biodiversity that is still being discovered today. Bhutan is the only place on Earth where snow leopards and tigers share the same habitat. Recent survey results show that both these endangered large cats are not only surviving, but thriving, in Bhutan.

Bhutan is providing new insights on tiger biology. Tigers were once considered a creature of the tropical forests of Asia and the temperate forests of the Russian Far East, but Bhutan has proven to science that one can find tigers even in places above 4000 m. Contrary to earlier assumptions, the middle hills of Bhutan are an equally important haven for tigers. According to tiger biologist Tshering Tempa, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park (JSWNP), in central Bhutan, could have as many as 26 tigers, with a density of 2 tigers per 100 sq km.

This park further connects with the rich Royal Manas National Park to the south and Jigme Dorji National Park to the north, that extends to the Tibetan border. Tigers have been recorded from all three parks.

Tempa is head of the Department of Conservation Biology at the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) and part of a team of government researchers currently conducting the national tiger survey for Bhutan. Tempa’s tiger surveys have been supported by the Bhutan Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Karuna Foundation, and the University of Montana. World Wildlife Fund-Bhutan and the Wildlife Conservation Division of the Department of Forest and Park Services are other partners in the national tiger survey.

“Results from our study have changed the way we view our forest. We documented seven species of wild cats in JSWNP and for the first time, recorded tigers with cubs at 2500 m,” states Tempa with excitement. “This is huge for tiger conservation—with adequate prey and contiguous habitat, tigers can adapt to varying landscapes, even high mountains.”


Golden cats in Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. (Photo: UWICE/DoFPS)
Tiger in Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. (Photo: UWICE/DoFPS)
Characteristic white socks (feet) of the gaur at 4100 m in Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. (Photo: UWICE/DoFPS)


The tiger survey also recorded gaur, a large wild bovid, at 4100 m—a new record for this tropical and subtropical ungulate. “The forests of Bhutan continue to fascinate us through such findings. Our data indicate that the future of tigers and many endangered species in the region will benefit from the pristine and contiguous forests of Bhutan. Imagine, in Bhutan, a tiger can travel all the way from the foothills on the Indian border to the high Himalayas. It is the tremendous prey biomass and habitat contiguity that allow this,” Tempa concludes.

Nawang Norbu, Director of UWICE, posits that Bhutan is a vital link for the survival of true wilderness in Asia today:

“When we think of the Himalayas, the image which is most familiar is that of the high snow-clad mountains. But the Himalayas are more than that. Given that habitats rise from sea level up to alpine meadows within a vertical climb of less than 100 km, biodiversity in all its glory, encompassing sub-tropical to alpine species, can be experienced within a narrow stretch. This diversity and richness of birds, plants and other biodiversity are imperiled across much of the Himalayas due to land-use change and a burgeoning human population. Having maintained a forest cover of over 70% and with more than half of all its land under protected area status, Bhutan remains an exception and continues to provide safe habitats required for most of Himalayan biodiversity. Endangered bird species such as the charismatic Rufous-necked hornbills are common sightings in Bhutan. In Nepal and surrounding areas, such birds are believed to have gone locally extinct. Bhutan still maintains a human population of less than a million thereby exerting minimal pressure on natural habitats. In my mind, there is no doubt that Bhutan is the last refugia for Himalayan biodiversity.”


Bhutan's protected area and biological corridor network covers more than half of the country. (Source: DoFPS)
Bhutan’s protected areas and biological corridor network cover more than half of the country. (Map: DoFPS)


“Bhutan has benefited from far-sighted leadership of our kings and subsequent governments. Our responsibility is to pass on this intact environment to our future generations,” states Chencho Norbu, Director General of Bhutan’s Department of Forest and Park Services.

Bhutan is Carbon Negative

Even as the rest of the tiger world fights large-scale habitat destruction (conversion of tropical rain forests to oil palm plantations, illegal logging and mining, and the pressures of an increasing human population), Bhutan experienced localized expansion of its forest cover. Its constitution mandates that at least 60 percent of the country shall remain forested at all times to come.

The country has also committed to remaining carbon-neutral; in fact, it is currently one of the few countries that are carbon negative, sequestering more carbon emissions than they are emitting. Its network of protected areas and biological corridors accounts for more than half of the country included for conservation.

Environmental stewardship has been at the core of Bhutanese statesmanship and citizenry. With the nascent democracy, however, it will be tested as to whether the same rightful principles will be upheld or compromises made by giving in to wanton development. Already, pressure to dam every major river system in Bhutan and to build roads deep inside national parks is a stark reality. The very fabric that makes Bhutan unique globally could be at threat.

Tour of the Dragon

Adventure tourism has gained popularity in Bhutan, and each year tourists come to Bhutan to experience its unspoiled culture and nature. After export of hydropower, tourism is the next biggest source of revenue for the country. World-class challenges—such as the one-day Tour of the Dragon bike race, alleged to be the toughest one-day race in the world; the 28-day Snowman Trek; and many class IV and V whitewater rapids—attract thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies from the world over. Bhutan boasts the highest unclimbed peak in the world, Gangkar Puensum (7570 m). Despite offers of large sums of money, scaling of most peaks is still not permissible in Bhutan. Many high peaks are considered the revered abodes of sacred deities.

A century since White’s article, Bhutan remains an exciting frontier for culture, biodiversity and adventure. I revisited many places where White took photographs for his article. Much have remained the same while change certainly has come. Cars have replaced mules and trails have made way for roads. Yet, it is widely known that Bhutan is now a coveted destination for scientific exploration and adventure. John Claude White would be pleased.

Tshewang WangchukTshewang Wangchuk, the first Bhutanese National Geographic explorer, works as Executive Director for the Bhutan Foundation in Washington, D.C. He also serves on the board of the Snow Leopard Conservancy


Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Tshewang Wangchuk, the first Bhutanese National Geographic Explorer, works as Executive Director for the Bhutan Foundation in Washington, DC. He also serves on the board of the Snow Leopard Conservancy.