This small Himalayan kingdom sometimes thought to be the real-life Shangri-La of legend has an extraordinary 26 percent of its wildlife-rich land set aside in reserves, and a national policy protecting all natural life. (The U.S. has 10.5 percent, for example; France 8.8, Japan 6.5, India 4.2.)
Bhutan’s National Assembly has banned logging and other habitat-destructive activities and vowed to maintain not less than 60 percent of its land under forest cover for all time. A National Environmental Commission oversees all environment-related activity,strongly supported by its hereditary ruler, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in accordance with Buddhist views respecting all life and holding that a healthy environment is essential both for material and spiritual happiness. Rare and threatened species such as clouded and snow leopards, Asian elephants, greater one-horned rhinoceros, royal Bengal tigers,golden langurs, and wild water buffalo are among some 165 kinds of mammals (perhaps including legendary “abominable snowmen”).
These are at home in sanctuaries rising to almost 25,000 feet (7,625 m) from steamy lowland jungles to white-crowned glacial Himalayas. For some species, these may be among last places offering hope of survival for significant populations.
Takins, strange national animals seeming to be part-moose and part-antelope—also described as oxen with goats’ heads—seek out alpine meadows near forest cover, sole members of their scientific family and according to legend the miraculous 15th-century creation of an eccentric Buddhist saint known as “the Divine Madman.” Blue sheep (aka bharals)—slate blue, actually sheep-like goats—crop scrubby steep-slope vegetation.
Rare resplendent Blyth’s tragopans with lemon-yellow faces and orange-red feathered mantles forage with multihued Sclater’s monal pheasants for seeds and insects on the forest floor—among over 700 bird species, at least half of which are found only in the Himalayas.
Endangered black-necked cranes fly from the Tibetan plateau to winter here—arriving always,it’s said, on the same late autumn day and then flying three times around a nearby monasterybefore settling on the marsh, mimicking Buddhist pilgrims’ ritual arrival in a sacred place.
Lammergeiers—“bone-breakers” (aka bearded vultures)—drop bones from Himalayan heightsto shatter them and get at marrow. Rufous-necked hornbills with bright rufous heads, necks andunderparts and enormous yellow bills—rare elsewhere— are common in tropical evergreen forests. Other spectaculars include sapphire flycatchers, blue-fronted robins, fire-tailed sunbirds, slenderbilledscimitar-babblers and over 10 species of laughing thrush.
Plants are equally remarkable—over 5,400 species, including more than 600 kinds of orchid,50 kinds of rhododendron, and 300 valued for medicinal qualities. Because ice-age glaciers hadno impact on lower elevations, some plants date back to earth’s ancient vegetation.
Something is always in brilliant bloom—yellow Indian laburnums April–June; orange “flameof the forest” February–May; pink Himalayan wild cherries in fall; deep red rhododendronsMarch–May—all attracting colorful and rare butterflies. Alpine meadows are carpeted withanemones, forget-me-nots, dwarf irises, rhododendrons, delphiniums, and primulas, fromsnowmelt to early summer and even more with onset of July monsoons.
Climate varies with elevation, dropping to freezing and below in mountains, warm andsteamy in lowland jungles. Rains occur any time—but during June–August monsoons,Thimphu, the capital, can get 20 inches (500 mm), and eastern hills many times that. Best timesare October–late November with generally clear skies; second-best March–May—cloudier with more rain, but flowers are in glorious bloom and birdlife abundant.
Most of Bhutan’s reserves have not been fully investigated or developed for visitors. Plans for future management and protection while permitting gradual development have been undertaken by the Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation (BTFEC) in collaboration with the U.N., World Bank, and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The government and WWF also are engaged in planning biological corridors connecting various reserves to allow for dispersal of megafauna such as tigers.
With all Bhutan’s environmental consciousness, problems exist with poor land management— overgrazing, clearing for human settlement, and shifting agricultural use (aka slash-and-burn or “swidden” farming)—poaching for illegal trade in live animals and their parts and of rare trees for uses ranging from incense to firewood. Sheepherders eliminate blue sheep, leopards, wolves, and Asiatic wild dogs or dhole, when they feel them competitive with their livelihood.
Bhutan has been open to tourism only since the late 1960s and at least until recently has granted only about 5,000 tourist permits yearly, the government insisting that foreign visitors arrive with pre-planned itineraries arranged through licensed Bhutan tour operators.
The national airline, Druk Air, connects Bhutan with New Delhi, Calcutta, Dhaka, Kathmandu, and Bangkok—but getting around can be hard on roads unsuited to motor traffic.
More about the Reserves in bhutan
Each button selection will take you to a site outside the Nature's Strongholds site, in a separate window so that you may easily return to the reserve page.