Chencho Dema

As per the latest report from the Annual Population Survey of White-bellied Heron (WBH) 2024, released on April 27, Bhutan is home to 25 WBH, which includes three herons currently under care at the WBH Conservation Centre.

The wild population was found distributed mainly across the major river basins of Punatshangchhu, Mangdechhu, and Wangchhu.

The highest number of WBH individuals was observed in the Punatshangchhu basin, followed by Mangdechhu, Wangchhu basins, and Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary.

Comparative analysis with data from the previous year (2023) reveals a drop by two WBH individuals in Bhutan. In 2023, Bhutan documented 27 WBH across 14 habitats, marking an increase of four compared to the 2022 count.

Specifically, there has been a drop of one individual from Wangchhu and two from Punatshangchhu basin.

However, there was an increase of one individual from Mangdechhu basin with a lone individual sighted from Chamkharchhu. The sighting record of two individuals from Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary remained the same.

Accoriding to the report, no WBHs was sighted during the population survey period from Kuri-Gongri basin and Jomori in east.

During the survey period, surveyors recorded four active WBH nests—one in Mangdechhu basin and three in Punatshangchhu basin.

Jigme Tshering, the chief of Species Conservation Division (SCD) from RSPN, said: “We are unable to confirm the cause of the decrease as we haven’t tagged the birds. Some sites are inaccessible, and there’s a knowledge gap regarding fledgling behaviour. After fledging from the nest, we lose track of the birds, and we’re uncertain if the high mortality rate is occurring post-fledging or if they are migrating to other locations. This represents a significant knowledge gap for us.”

He said that the declining number was a cause for concern, leading to the adoption of two conservation approaches: ex-situ and in-situ conservation.

Karma Wangchuk, project officer from Sustainable Livelihood Division (SLD), said, “In terms of livelihoods, our focus is on mobilising and raising awareness within the community about this rare and critically endangered species.”

He further said, “We are striving to enhance their understanding of the White-bellied Heron (WBH) and its habitat, seeking their support to safeguard both the WBH and its habitat.”

This year, the survey took place from March 1 to 5, covering the significant river basins of Wangchhu, Punatshangchu, Mangdichhu, Kuri-Gongri, and Jomori.

These major rivers, along with their tributaries, were selected based on their current WBH populations or their potential as habitats for the species.

The annual nationwide population count enlisted the efforts of more than eighty surveyors from the Department of Forests and Park Services (DoFPS), Local Conservation Support Groups (LCSG), and the staff of the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN).

The WBH population survey was first initiated in 2003. It is an annual event coordinated by the RSPN with the support of DoFPS and LCSG members.

Currently, the conservation of the WBH stands as both a flagship initiative and a fundamental aspect of RSPN’s central mission. Its primary goal is to safeguard the genetic diversity of the species and foster its population recovery in Bhutan and region.

The worldwide count of WBH is fewer than 60 individuals. Bhutan is home to more than 45 percent of the count.