November 12, 2007 in Travels with George
Travels with George
Travels with George, Fall 2007
Bhutan — November 7 21, 2007
Early November marked my 11th trip to Bhutan since 1996. As usual, I shared the adventure with a small group that this year included Kathleen Heenan (New York), and film makers Rhett Turner and Greg Pope (both from Atlanta).
Besides exploring the wonder of six valleys, we participated in the Black-necked Crane Festival and met with colleagues studying the rare White-bellied Heron. Rhett and Greg captured the beauty of Bhutan on video. We hope their film can be premiered at our Annual Meeting September 27, 2008.
The court yards of Gangtey Monastery, a 16th century temple cresting a hill that protrudes into the Phobjikha Valley from the north, was the venue for the 11th Black-necked Crane Festival. Several thousand local people and dozens of visitors from afar gathered for a day of dance and song.
While the Bhutanese celebrated, small groups of Black-necked Cranes arrived from Tibet.
At about 3:00 p.m., I had the good fortune to observe the arrival of a family of three. These cranes were first detected by their calls drifting down from the sky. Then with binoculars I caught sight of the three cranes circling at great speed apparently propelled by winds and gravity. With repeated circling they lost altitude but their speed was noticeably greater than “normal flight.”
Circling and banking continued several hundred meters above the valley floor until the family group, a pair with one juvenile, plopped into the flock of cranes on the wetland just below the temple.
The Bhutanese believe that the circling of cranes provides a special blessing. Crops of winter wheat are not planted until after the fields have been blessed by the arriving cranes.
But change is in the wind. In 2008, the people of Bhutan will be a democracy with elected leaders. The Fifth King will remain the head of state but the administration of the nation will be in the hands of the elected.
The administration of five kings in the Wangchuck dynasty has benefited the nation. Many would prefer to continue the old system seeing democracy as a means for people with questionable motives to gain power. How will these changes affect the cranes?
The destiny of the cranes will rest more in the hands of the local people that live near the cranes. As Bhutan continues to modernize, more money will be needed. Aid from other nations, the sale of hydropower to India, and tourism are the top three sources of income today. Most of that income goes to the government and smaller amounts to tour operators. More and more the Bhutanese will look to their natural resources for income.
The major feeding areas for Black-necked Cranes in Phobjikha Valley are wetlands carpeted by a type of bamboo. In summer the bamboo wetland is a communal pasture for thousands of cattle and horses. Without their intensive grazing, the bamboo would grow to the height of several meters, rendering the wetlands useless for cranes. However, developers have suggested that if the wetlands are drained and converted to potato fields there will be great cash crops for the local people. But, there will be no tender bamboo shoots for the cranes.
Likewise, in eastern Bhutan where about 150 cranes winter in Bomdeling Valley and forage mainly on waste grain in unplowed rice fields, global warming provides new opportunities for winter crops in fields that grow rice in summer. But if the rice fields do not remain unplowed in winter, there will likely be reduced food for the cranes. Now is the time to be proactive in assuring traditional management of the bamboo wetlands and the rice fields.
The Black-necked Cranes are winter visitors to Bhutan. They migrate over the Himalayas in spring to spend the summer on wetlands in nearby Tibet where they breed.
In contrast, the rarest of the world’s herons, the White-bellied Heron both winters and summers in Bhutan. These enormous grey herons with white bellies and slender white crests, live on fish captured in shallow waters of several rivers that flow down from the Himalayas to India.
Once widespread on the Himalayan rivers of India and Bhutan, the only herons confirmed to exist are about 25 birds in Bhutan and unknown low numbers in Myanmar.
With support from ICF through the Felburn Foundation and from the Worldwide Fund for Nature Bhutan, colleagues Rebecca Pracham and Tshewang Norbu of the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), have located and studied several nesting pairs and have determined the ecological needs throughout the year.
Recently they have been assisted by Dr. Peter Frederick, an ecologist specializing in heron biology and conservation, from the University of Florida. Rebecca and Tshewang will be continuing studies of reproduction, movements, energetics, habitat selection and human disturbance on the herons in the coming years.
Last year critical winter habitat for herons along the Pho Chu River in the Punaka Valley was threatened by the extraction of sand and gravel. But a plea from RSPN and others influenced the Government to stop the extraction. During my recent visit, I was dismayed to discover that extraction is now taking place where we had previously observed a heron along the Mo Chu River in the Jigme Dorji National Park.
RSPN and WWF are the major non-government organization in Bhutan to guard the environment. Both organizations are now raising funds to construct new and enlarged headquarters buildings in the capital city, Thimphu. As democracy sweeps over Bhutan and as votes are gained through promises of economic prosperity, these watchdog organizations will have added significance in the “new” Bhutan. They need our support.
Image 1: The Black-necked Crane Festival convenes each November 12 in the courtyard of a 16th century temple, the Gangtey Monastery. Children dressed in crane costumes perform beautifully choreographed crane dances will thousands of people enjoy the show. High in the skies over the mountains, cranes are circling to lose altitude as they return to a valley where their ancestors have likely has been visiting for thousands of years.
Image 2: Meet Hishey Tshering (left) and Dr. Lam Dorji (right) dressed in their handsome “goes. Hishey is the founder and the director of Bhutan Heritage Travel and handles all ICF tours. Lam is the Director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature. Researchers with RSPN study Black-necked Cranes and White-bellied Herons. The “Goe” is the natural dress for Bhutanese men.
However, off-duty men often wear jeans. Hishey and Lam were the hosts of ICF Director, Sam Evans and me, in 1996 when we first visited the Cloud Kingdom. It is a pleasure to continue to work with these gentlemen.
Image 3: When the wind blows over the prayer flags at the Chelila Pass, the Bhutanese believe the prayers are carried away on the wind. At dawn one of Bhutan’s highest and most beautiful mountains, Jumolhari, shines northwest of the Chelila Pass.