Conservationists and bird watchers are worried by the increasing disturbance of prime White Bellied Heron’s (WBH) habitat and feeding site at Phochhu in Punakha.

The site was declared as an Important Bird Area in 2014.

WBH is a critically endangered bird species.

Bhutan is home to about half the world’s WBH population. Twenty-four individuals and five juveniles out of less than 60 WBH in the world are in the country today, according to Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN). 

According to multiple surveys conducted by RSPN between 2003 and 2010, the river systems harboring potential WBH habitats are Phochhu, Mochhu, Punatshangchhu, Sunkosh, Dagachhu and its tributaries in the west, Mangdechhu and Bertichhu, among others.

The bird was also recently sighted at Kurichhu.

However, researchers from RSPN, birdwatchers, and rafting operators told Kuensel that the population of WBH at Phochhu and Mochhu has declined over the years.

A regular bird watcher, Hishey Tshering from Thimphu, said that in 2001 he saw five WBHs along the Mochhu.

“Now it is very rare to see even a single WHB along the Mochhu. In 2016, there were three along the Phochhu. Today, we can see only one and that is also being continually disturbed,” he said.

According to the population count of WBH during nesting and non-nesting seasons between 2003 and 2010, two birds were counted from Tshekathang Pochhu and one at the Phochhu-Mochhu confluence.

Chief of communications and membership division with RSPN, Tashi Phuntsho, said that WBHs were secretive birds often intolerant of close proximity to humans.

“Disturbance from humans and loss of habitat undoubtedly attributed to their extirpation over much of their former range. Threats to these birds are further intensified by the growing tourism activities like rafting and kayaking along the important habitats,” he said. “There are more than three rafting companies operating along Phochhu and Mochhu rivers in Punakha.”

This situation of the birds being frequently disturbed by tourists and rafting activities caught the attention of a group of bird watchers in the country.

Tshering Tobgay, one of the bird watchers wrote on a public group in social media called Birds of Bhutan, saying that it was the threats driven by anthropogenic causes. “We are getting late and it will be too late to wait for a few more years. There is a need for our support to bring back WBH in Punakha to a stable number.”

One of the rafting operators in Punakha said that river rafting at Phochhu was done only on the request from visitors. “It is unfair to hold rafting activities, which is our livelihood for a single bird. Moreover, I have not seen the bird in the last four years.”

Kencho from Explore Bhutan said that his clients, after seeing the signage installed at WBH’s habitat, did not stop for photography and other activities so as not to disturb the birds. He also said that there was no awareness related to the bird’s conservation conducted with the rafting operators yet.

RSPN monitors the daily behaviour of the bird by collaborating with the community through the Local Conservation Support Group.

The initiative also helped reduce harvest of timber, collection of firewood, fishing, and picnicking at the bird’s feeding and roosting areas.

The executive director of RSPN, Kinley Tenzin (PhD), said WBH were ambassadors of a healthy ecosystem of rivers.

“The extremely low population of the WBH along its habitat area is an indication that the ecosystem of the river and its surrounding is very unhealthy,” he said. “If WBH goes extinct, it is an indication that the river and its surrounding ecosystem are also on the verge of collapsing. Therefore, conservation is not only about saving particular species but eventually it is all about saving ourselves.”

An ecologist and researcher with RSPN, Rebecca Pradhan, said that the population of WBH at Phochhu could not have declined but migrated to a better habitat where there is a minimum disturbance.  

“There is a need for collaboration among all the stakeholders because the conservation of the bird will benefit all in the long run,” she said.