Rhododendron kesangiae, one of the species of rhododendron found in Merak, is suspected of being infested by a caterpillar, which is causing the trees to wither.

Merak residents are worried, claiming that it is unusual for the insect to attack this species of the rhododendron.

A villager, Karma Dorji, said caterpillars never infested the rhododendrons before.

Rhododendron kesangiae is an endemic species to Bhutan and grows at an altitude of 2,600-3,400 meters above sea level.

The highlanders of Merak and Sakteng use the leaves of the tree to wrap cheese and butter when polythene bags were not available.

Commonly known as lha-shing by the highland community, the species today has no other purpose to the people.

However, the infestation appearing for the first time this year has worried villagers. With superstitions strong in the community, some villagers fear that this could be an indication of some misfortune for the community.

A villager said it is sad to see the trees dying. “These trees and flowers have always beautified our community. Now it’s all dying.”

Merak gup, Lama Rinchen, however, is not alarmed.

He said that besides the flowers providing aesthetics appeal, the tree has no use to the people in the community. “It is a tree that is not even grazed by the cattle. It proliferated over the years and consumed much of the tsamdro lands.”

Lama Rinchen said that with some trees dying, it could create space for tsamdro for the cattle. “I see no reason for people to worry with this infestation.”

Meanwhile, forest officials of Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Phongmay, Trashigang, refused to share information on the infestation saying they required the approval in writing from the director of Department of Forest and Park Services in Thimphu.

Kuensel however, learnt that forest officials of Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary identified the infestation during one of their routine surveys earlier in May. It was also learnt that the forest officials are observing the infestation and the degree of damage caused so far.

Foresters said that the infestation of the rhododendrons would affect the ecosystem, as there would be many insects that live on the tree. “Birds might be feeding on the insects,” a forester said. “If the trees die, the food chain will be disturbed.”

He also said that if the trees die, there would be no undergrowth, which will affect the soil profile when it rains. The rain would fall on the soil directly leading to landslides.

Younten Tshedup |  Trashigang