Environment: Wildlife conservation in the region is proving increasingly difficult mainly due to loss of forest to various activities, forest officials said.

“Bhutan is the last Himalayan biodiversity refugia,” Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) director Nawang Norbu said.

“We have a unique opportunity in the 21st century because we protected areas in the north and south and forests that connect all of that,” he said. Forests and connected landscapes allow animals to coexist, he said.

On the same landscape, red pandas, himalayan black bears, tigers are present, he said.

The country lies at the intersection of the Palae-artic and Indo-Malayan bio-geographic realms and is incredibly bio-diverse, forest officials said.

Scientists have found rich and diverse snails in the country during a recent study. Snail species prevalent in Europe to Malaysia were found in the country.

The four different vegetation zones allow forests to thrive and allow wildlife to thrive.

The presence of wildcats indicates healthy ecosystems. Six cat species such as the leopard, leopard cat, tiger, clouded leopard, golden cat and marbled cats are present in the Royal Manas National Park (RMNP).

The Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park which is connected to the RMNP has one more species.

“Now we have reasons to believe there are nine wildcat species in the park,” Nawang Norbu said.

“The reason we have managed to keep Bhutan as a magical forest is not only the protected areas that we have set up but because of the inherent way of belief we have had,” Nawang Norbu said.

He said Bhutanese have the concept of sacred places and sacred beliefs referring to concepts of ladhams and ridham or closure of mountain passes and forests for a certain time in a year.

While others elsewhere set aside a geographic area as protected areas. In Bhutan areas are considered sacred for certain time allowing the forests and landscape to grow and revive.

Unlike elsewhere in the world, Bhutanese wildlife and humans are surviving together as unique set of factors come together presenting a favourable environment. About 20 percent of the Bhutanese live in the protected areas.

More than 51.44 percent of the country is protected areas with 10 national parks boasting about 200 mammal species, 700 species of birds, 5,603 flowering plants, 470 orchids, and 350 mushroom species.

Wildlife Conservation division’s chief forestry officer Sonam Wangchuk said the country’s guiding development philosophy of maximising Gross National Happiness bears environmental conservation as one of the four pillars, sacrifices short term gain over long term sustainability.

The initial estimate of the ecosystem services is worth USD 15.5 billion. The total contribution of the protected areas in 2008 to the GDP was estimated at more than Nu 1.2 billion.

There are challenges too.

The White Bellied Heron has its habitat threatened from damming the rivers for hydropower projects.

Forest officials said forests in the region have come under pressure from population growth that takes a toll on forests.

“Invasive species are one of the biggest challenges for native biodiversity because they are drivers of species loss,” Sonam Wangchuk said. Conservationists have destroyed 4,979 invasive species across the world.

The forest officials were addressing students and other participants on the second day of the three-day conference at the Royal Bhutan Flower Exhibition in Paro yesterday.

Tshering Palden | Paro