Yangyel Lhaden | Tsirang

In the depths of the forest, where walking trails are nonexistent and remote settlements remain shrouded in obscurity, a group of gallant individuals embarks on an extraordinary mission. They traverse untamed terrains, encountering fresh tiger paw prints, camping in the wild for days on end, scaling treacherous rocks, and relying on meagre provisions like Parle G biscuits for sustenance.

The Royal Society for Protection of Nature’s (RSPN) staff, dedicated to monitoring and studying the white-bellied heron (WBH), find themselves engaged in a real-life “man vs. wild” series. Terrifying yet undeniably exhilarating, these expeditions test their mettle and reaffirm their passion for the work they love.

“We are all accustomed to risk,” says Thinley Phuntsho, a research officer with RSPN. “We genuinely enjoy what we do.”

Undertaking various surveys related to the WBH’s nesting, breeding, population, and habitat inventory, the team’s anecdotes range from life-threatening encounters to joyous and humorous escapades.


Wilderness becomes home

Their belongings are modest: a sleeping bag, a few changes of clothes, essential items, a tent, and electronic gadgets. These are the provisions carried by the all-male survey team as they set out to study the WBH. Trekking for hours on end, they often set up camp along riversides or, when available, temporarily lodge in settlements, occasionally taking a refreshing dip in unfamiliar waters.

While breakfast and dinners are hearty affairs, with the team ensuring a delicious meal, lunch takes a backseat. For eight consecutive hours, the officials diligently monitor the WBH through binoculars, meticulously noting data and capturing photographs. Their midday sustenance consists of a mixture of Parle G biscuits with water, accompanied by the occasional serving of Maggi or Koka noodles.

Come dinnertime, they gather together, celebrating their accomplishments with a wild party under the open skies.

However, it’s not all triumph, sometimes the team returns disappointed, having failed to catch a single glimpse of the elusive WBH.

Sonam Tshering, a senior research assistant, speaks of the team’s unyielding dedication. They persistently monitor the bird throughout the day, observing its movements for signs of mating, roosting, and incubation. “We remain vigilant until the heron takes flight.”

In 2018, Thinley embarked on his first WBH survey, venturing into the remote village of Balwani in Tsirang. Despite his towering stature, he struggled to navigate the rocky terrain, slipping perilously close to the swollen Punatsangchhu River.

“I may have shed a tear witnessing the river’s mighty flow beneath me,” Thinley recalls. “Thankfully, my colleagues came to my rescue.”

In another instance, while surveying in the village of Malbasik in Tsirang, the team stumbled upon a colossal python measuring nearly 14 metres in length. Thinley explains the local belief that the python might have been a deity of the area.

“The experience was utterly extraordinary and almost surreal,” he says.

Encounters with dangerous wildlife, such as wild boars and solitary elephants, also feature prominently in their thrilling exploits.


Explorers at heart

“I relish the opportunity to explore new territories and discover species I’ve never encountered before,” Thinley admits. “Thanks to the majestic WBH, we venture into uncharted realms where few have trodden.”

Sonam shares a similar sentiment, recounting a sense of nostalgia washing over him when he stumbled upon a remote village in Dagana. The village, with its few abandoned houses and orange orchards, had once been a notorious hotspot in the 1990s.

“I even discovered a beautiful ox-bow lake and a two-metre-long Asian water lizard in Baragumti,” Sonam says with excitement. “We also spotted the WBH there.”

Thinley, who harbours a special interest in reptiles, has now added Baragumti to his bucket list of destinations.


Navigating the perils of the unknown

On one occasion, Thinley, along with his colleagues Tshewang Lhendup and Tenzin, embarked on a WBH survey trip to Gelephu. With their survey site estimated to be a mere two to three hours’ hike away, they set off lightly, foregoing a substantial breakfast in hopes of returning to Gelephu for lunch.

Crossing the Maokhola and hiking for approximately 2.5 hours, they successfully completed the survey. However, during their return, while chained together to traverse the Maokhola once more, Tenzin nearly slipped and risked being swept away by the swelling river. It was only because of Thinley’s swift action and timely intervention that disaster was averted.

Realising the danger, they retreated and sought an alternative tributary to cross. Despite trekking uphill for what seemed like an eternity, the river remained elusive, and heavy rain intensified their predicament. Hunger gnawed at them, with only a meagre supply of cigarettes and dollay pickle to sustain them.

“We survived on smoke,” Thinley recalls. “Dehydrated and desperate, we stumbled upon a small section of exposed pipe. We dug into the soil, unearthed the pipe, and used it to find our way to the nearest settlement while quenching our thirst.”

Following the pipe, they arrived at a place enveloped in towering bushes. Suddenly, Tenzin cried out, “Tiger! Tiger!” In a panic, they took cover, hiding behind obstacles and scaling a rock. To their immense relief, they discovered that the tiger they had mistaken for a real threat turned out to be a stuffed animal used as a scarecrow.

“Breathing a sigh of relief, we reached a nearby village by 6pm,” Thinley says. Ragged and worn, their clothes torn, soaked to the bone, and covered in mud, they bore the marks of their arduous journey. Bloodied from numerous wounds, they had also become host to a horde of leeches and ticks.

Tshewang alone had eight leeches and four ticks on him; Tenzin and Thinley were infested with 13 leeches and about two ticks each.

Tshewang’s health deteriorated, succumbing to illness. The following morning, a local informed them of their incredible luck in finding their way back, as those lost in that jungle rarely returned.


Rescuing the WBH

Tshewang Lhendup, the officer-in-charge of the WBH conservation centre, and Thinley were slated to go to Malwani when they received an urgent message about an injured WBH in Nichula. Without delay, two officials from Thimphu, Indra Acharja and Jigme Tshering, set out on a rescue mission. Accompanied by veterinary officer Samten Leki and Sonam, the team of four journeyed to Nichula. The WBH quarantine facility was still under construction, necessitating the stay of Tshewang, Thinley, and other staff members to complete the facility.

Amid heavy rainfall and treacherous road conditions following the recent completion of road construction along Dagapala and Lhamoizhingkha bypass, the team braved the elements. Back at the centre, the remaining staff anxiously awaited news of their colleagues’ safety.

“We feared the worst,” Tshewang admits. “But there was an unwavering determination to save the injured WBH from the entire division. Everyone experienced an extraordinary adrenaline rush during this rescue mission.”

At 2am, to the immense relief of all, the rescue team arrived at the centre with the injured WBH. A collective sense of accomplishment and gratitude filled the air.


Unusual campsite

In 2019, the team embarked on a WBH survey in Kholongchhu, Mongar, where a lone sighting of WBH had been reported. They decided to camp by a picturesque riverside, oblivious to the true nature of their chosen spot.

“We stumbled upon burnt wood and beer bottles and mistook it for a picnic spot,” Thinley recalls. At about dinner time, an official who had ventured to a nearby village to charge his electronic gadget delivered a startling revelation—the team had camped at a cremation ground.

“The burnt wood we had come across was the remains of an elderly woman’s cremation earlier that afternoon. Even the bamboo we had used to stir the curry had been used to puncture the woman’s body,” Thinley recounts.

Despite the eerie revelation, the all-male group managed to keep their composure.

However, during dinner, disaster struck when someone accidentally knocked over the curry pot, causing the contents to spill. Fearing the presence of a vengeful spirit, the team huddled together in their tent, seeking solace in each other’s presence for the entire night.

“We shall pause our story here for today,” Thinley says. “But rest assured, we have countless more field stories to share.”

With an unwavering commitment to their work and a thirst for adventure, the RSPN’s WBH survey team continues to navigate the untamed wilderness, uncovering the secrets of Bhutan’s natural wonders one expedition at a time.