Choki Wangmo 

While the country’s stringent conservation policies have hailed Bhutan as an environmental champion in the world, the country is not safe from the global environmental challenges, according to the World Wildlife Fund Bhutan.

This comes with the release of WWF’s Living Planet report 2020 (LPR), which found that between 1970 and 2016, the global population size of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have suffered an average two-thirds decline due to environmental destruction contributing to the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as the Covid-19.

The report says farming and deforestation are two of the major causes, while overfishing is a major problem for life in the ocean and freshwaters. The WWF says the destruction of ecosystems means a million species (500,000 animals and plants, and 500,000 insects) will be threatened with extinction over the next 100 years.

Wildlife populations found in freshwater habitats have suffered an average population decline of 84 percent, equivalent to 4 percent per year since 1970, while more than 85 percent of the area of wetlands has been lost.

According to an official from WWF Bhutan, the wetlands in the country are faced with challenges such as habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation linked to large scale development activities like hydropower, roads and other infrastructure in both urban and rural areas, water pollution, rampant illegal fishing, and over-extraction of riverine resources, among others.

Bhutan currently has three designated Ramsar sites, with a surface area of 1,225 hectares. They constitute different ecosystems like lakes, rivers, streams, marshes, peat bogs, and fens.

The country’s conservation efforts should include freshwater biodiversity which has been neglected and has received less attention when compared to terrestrial biodiversity, he said.

The official said that the country should raise the profile of freshwater biodiversity conservation and bring it at par with the terrestrial biodiversity.

“We need to start valuing our rivers and wetlands other than just for hydropower development and address the drivers of unsustainable development and growth,” he said, adding that there is a need to build back better and a greener environment post-Covid-19.

The living planet index shows that factors believed to increase the planet’s vulnerability to pandemics including land-use change and the use and trade of wildlife were some of the drivers behind the 68 percent average decline in global vertebrate species populations between 1970 and 2016.

This, however, couldn’t be deduced due to lack of data in the country. While there was data for certain species, there was a huge data lag in the country, the official said. “We have species diversity data and not species abundance data, which is important to monitor such trends. So, this is a huge gap that needs to be addressed.”

LPR’s assessment of a sample of thousands of species of global plant diversity showed that one in five plants which are 22 percent are threatened with extinction. In Bhutan, the trend couldn’t be studied due to lack of standard data to measure such trends.

Although there were initiatives to study reptiles and amphibians, butterflies and moths including aquatic invertebrates in the country, it was on a small scale, the official said. He said that Bhutan should broaden the base and coverage.

To counteract habitat loss and degradation, based on a paper, ‘Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy,’ co-authored by WWF and more than 40 NGOs and academic institutions are expected to reverse the loss of nature caused by humans’ destruction of natural habitats.

Changes needed include making food production and trade more efficient and ecologically sustainable, reducing waste, and favouring healthier and more environmentally-friendly diets.

WWF Bhutan has implemented the initiative in freshwater biodiversity conservation, which is lost faster than terrestrial or marine species. In collaboration with the government and Bhutan for Life, the office has supported effective management of the protected areas network in the country since 2019.

“In the future, the Living Landscapes Programme in the country implemented by WWF focuses on the identification and management of high conservation value areas outside the protected areas network and integration of that in the land use planning,” the official said.

WWF Bhutan along with partners has proposed the implementation of the freshwater biodiversity emergency recovery plan to bend the freshwater biodiversity curve through six actions such as letting rivers flow more naturally, reducing pollution, protecting critical freshwater habitats among others.

The report states that conservation action alone was not enough, but to make transformational changes to the way people produce and consume food to help address some of the major drivers of biodiversity loss.

The report published every two years presents a comprehensive overview of the state of our natural world through the index, which tracks trends in global wildlife abundance, and contributions from more than 125 experts from around the world.

The index has tracked almost 21,000 populations of more than 4,000 vertebrate species between 1970 and 2016.