Use at crematorium attributed to the loss

Choki Wangmo

At the rate the juniper trees are felled for religious purposes, there will be no more junipers left in the forest around Thimphu soon.

This is the concern bothering forestry officials who said that rapid collection of juniper has robbed the Changkhaphu hills above Hongtsho, in less than a decade.

Every month, eight truckloads of juniper is extracted from Changkhaphu to cremate the dead. This is discounting the unaccounted felling of the species for other purposes.

The beat office in Hongtsho receives about six requests for juniper trees in a week. After the death certificate is confirmed, each individual takes at least a bolero pick up truck of juniper mixed with other species. On an average, about 25 individuals extract the species every month.

Forest and Nature Conservation Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2017 allows a total of four cubic metre of juniper wood for cremation. The fact that Bhutan’s death rate is estimated at about 6.5 per 1000 person, which translates to 5,000 deaths annually, 5,000 cubic metre of juniper is felled for cremation.

Forest ranger, Phurba Tshering, said that Thimphu has a population of more than 100,000. Daily, the crematorium receives a minimum of five bodies and at times it is as high as 16.

“As soon as someone dies, people rush to Hongtsho and demand for juniper,” Phurba Tshering said adding that people from 20 dzongkhags live in Thimphu and they have to consider everyone’s need.

“It is exerting too much pressure on the species.”

Moreover, bodies from nearby dzongkhags are brought to the capital for cremation. 

This according to the chief of Thimphu forest division, Gyeltshen Drukpa, is because of the presence of central monastic body to carry out rites in the dzongkhag. “Most of the chronically ill patients are referred to the Thimphu hospital, after which their bodies are cremated here.”

Gyeltshen Drukpa said, traditionally, people used mixed species of trees to burn a body whereas in recent years, relatives of the dead prefer to cremate the body with freshly felled juniper trees.

“People also waste the trees at the crematorium. They refuse to use the firewood left behind because of beliefs associated with funeral rites,” he said.

Buddhists believe that cremating a corpse with aromatic juniper would liberate the dead and help them to achieve good rebirths.

Other than its use in crematoriums, the valued Lhashing Shub (heavenly tree) is used as a relic in temples and monasteries and as a cover for Buddhist scriptures. Juniper is also used in manufacturing incense.

Forest officials are concerned about replacing juniper at the rate it is lost.

Juniper takes double or even triple the years of a normal tree to grow 10 cm.

“The junipers we have right now were conserved by our ancestors. If we practice unsustainable extraction, what are we going to pass to our future generations? Gyeltshen Drukpa said.

The challenge, according to him is worsened by access into the forests. It has increased and made illegal logging and theft of such high quality woods easier.

National Forest Inventory report found that there are close to 14 million juniper trees equal to more than 8 million cubic metre volume in the country. The species is mostly found in higher altitude.

To curb future challenges and reduce pressure, officials said that they were allowing only dead, dying and the injured trees to be felled. The Thimphu forest division is in the process of hiring a contractor to ease the process for everyone, while helping to control the species loss.

Meanwhile, more than 100 people in Hongtsho have written to the beat office to seek alternatives to save the precious species. Hongtsho tshogpa, Minjur Wangmo said that uncontrolled felling in Changkhaphu caused their water sources to dry.

Most of the households draw their drinking water from the area. Villagers said that people had reduced the production of vegetables and apples due to water shortage for the past six years.

The destruction of forest also increased incidence of human-wildlife conflict in the village. It has discouraged people from cultivating their fields, Minjur Wangmo said.

People are also worried that when they need juniper, it won’t be available for them due to over-extraction by people from other dzongkhags.

“It is impossible to bring the extraction at a complete halt. But we are asking for sustainable measures to conserve the species,” one of the locals said.

There are 757 hectares of mixed forest along with junipers within the Hongtsho beat office. The species is found in Chamgang, Genekha and Gidakom in Thimphu but at a comparatively lesser amount.