The Kingdom of Bhutan lies hidden in the folds of the Eastern Himalayas between the two giant China (Tibet) to the north and the Indian territories of Assam and West Bengal to the south, Arunachal Pradesh to the east, and Sikkim to the west. With a total area of 38,394 sq. kilometers, Bhutan lies between 88° 45’ and 92°10’ longitude East and 26°42’ and 28°15 ’ latitude North. Bhutan is a mountainous country except for a small flat strip in the southern foothills with hot and humid summer. The valleys in the central and the northern parts are separated by mountains as high as 7200 meters.
Its physical geography consists mostly of steep and high mountains crisscrossed by a network of swift rivers, which form deep valleys before draining into the Indian plains. The land rises from 200 in the southern foothills to 7000 meters high northern mountains. Within this latitudinal range a diverse biodiversity-rich enough to be considered as one of ten global environmental ‘hotspots’. About 72.5 percent of the area is under forests, and the law requires the country to maintain 60 percent of forest cover for all times to come.
The climate varies from the hot subtropical climate in the south to cold alpine slopes in the north. Human settlement is confined mostly to interior river valleys and a swath of southern plains; nomads and other tribes live in the north, raising sheep, cattle, and yaks.
- SPRING: March-May
- SUMMER: June-August
- AUTUMN: September-November
- WINTER: December-February
Bhutan straddles two major bio-geographic realms, the Indo-Malayan realm consisting of the lowland rainforests of South and Southeast Asia and the Pale-arctic realm consisting of conifer forests and alpine meadows of northern Asia and Europe.
Bhutan ranks among the most bio-diverse country in the world and has an incredible range of habitat types due to its location. The warm southern part of Bhutan supports wildlife that is usually associated with a tropical-jungle climate. As one progresses north, the wildlife changes accordingly as the elevation increases. Bhutan falls under one of the ten global biodiversities ‘hotspots’ with many animal and plant species. Considering its size, Bhutan has the most diverse ecosystem at least in Asia.
Forests are Bhutan’s largest renewable resource and the most dominant land cover measuring 72.5 percent of Bhutan’s total landmass. Bhutan’s forests can be classified into three broad and distinct eco-floristic zones comprising alpine forests (above 4000 meters above sea level (masl)), temperate forests (2000-4000 masl), and sub-tropical forests (150-2000 masl). Several forest types occur corresponding to variations in altitude and climatic conditions as below:
|Forest Type||Area (Sq Km)||Percentage of Total Landmass||Common Species|
|Mixed Conifer||4523||11.8%||Spruce, hemlock, larch|
|Fir||3132||8.2%||Fir, hemlock, birch, juniper, rhododendron|
|Broadleaf and conifer||1598||4.2%|
|Blue Pine||1199||3.1%||Blue pine, oak species|
|Scrub forests||3457||9.0%||Shrubs and alpine meadow grasses|
Bhutan has a large number of inland water resources comprising a network of freshwater rivers, wetlands, glaciers, lakes, and underground water.
Bhutan has four major river systems: the Drangme Chhu; the Puna Tsang Chhu, the Wang Chhu; and the Amo Chhu. Each flows swiftly out of the Himalayas, southerly through the plans to join the Brahmaputra River in India. These rivers are fed by many tributaries.
The largest river system, the Dangme Chhu, flows southwesterly from India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh and has three major branches: the Dangme Chhu, Mangde Chhu, and Chamkhar Chhu. These branches form the Drangme Chhu basin, which spreads over most of eastern Bhutan and drains the Trongsa and Bumthang valleys. In the plans, where eight tributaries joined it, the Dangme Chhu is called the Manas Chhu.
The 320-kilometer-long Puna Tsang Chhu rises in northwestern Bhutan as the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu which are fed by the snows from the Great Himalayan Range. They flow southerly to Punakha, where they join to form the Puna Tsang Chhu, which flows southerly into India’s state of West Bengal.
The tributaries of the 370-kilometer-long Wang Chhu rise in Tibet. The Wang Chhu itself flows southeasterly through west-central Bhutan, drains the Ha, Paro, and Thimphu valleys, and continues into the plains and enters West Bengal.
The smallest river system is the Amo Chhu. The Amo Chhu in its northern reaches flows out of Tibet into the Chumbi Valley and swiftly through western Bhutan before broadening near Phuntsholing and then flowing into India.
Lakes and Marshes:
Lakes and marshes form an important part of the wetland ecosystem although they are not well documented in Bhutan. However, there is a complete inventory of Bhutan’s 677 glaciers containing 2,674 glacial lakes which are also sources of some of the largest river basins in the country. Phobjikha valley by far is known to be the largest high-altitude wetland in the country and is the wintering habitat to over 300 black-necked cranes.
|Wetland Type||# Lake||Area Subtotal (Sqm)||Average Area (Sqm)||Largest Lake (Sqm)||Smallest Lake (Sqm)|
Source: Inventory of High Altitude Wetland in Bhutan
Ten hot springs (Tshachu) have been officially recorded including Gnyes and Yonten Kuenjong Tshachu in Lhuentshe, Dur Tshachu in Bumthang, Gelegphu Tshachu in Sarpang, Dungmang Tshachu in Zhemgang, Koma and Chu Phug Tshachu in Punakha and Laya, Wachi and Gasa Tshachu in Gasa(Source: BAP III)
Flora and Fauna:
Owing to the various climatic types, Bhutan supports a diversity of flora and fauna representing both the Indo-Malayan and Pale-arctic biodiversity.
The Flora of Bhutan series has a record of 5603 species of angiosperm and gymnosperms including 579 wild orchids, 46 rhododendrons, and over 300 medicinal plants. At least 30 bamboo species have been recorded in Bhutan to date including ‘Ringshoo’ (Neomicrocalamus andropogonifolius), a species used extensively in the fine art of ‘Tsazo’ or bamboo weaving.
Bhutan creates a heaven for a wide range of animals. Close to 200 species of mammals have been recorded in Bhutan including some of the globally significant Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris), Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia), Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens), Takin, (Budorcas taxicolor), Golden Langur (Trachypithecus geek), Asiatic Elephant (Elephas maximum), and the Himalayan Musk Deer (Moschus chrysogaster leucogaster). The Royal Bengal Tiger living at 4000 meters above sea level in Bhutan is an extraordinary finding and has been recently documented on film by the BBC.
Bhutan is considered a birding paradise with 678 recorded bird species. At least 14 species are globally threatened and ten fall within the restricted range. The white-bellied heron (Ardea Insignis) is considered critically endangered by the IUCN because of its low population status and loss of habitat.
Protected Areas of Bhutan
The protected areas system of Bhutan was initiated in the 1960s, and then covered almost the entire southern and northern regions of the country. In 1993, as a financing condition for the Bhutan Trust Fund, the parks system was revised for better ecological representation and realistic management. Bhutan today has 10 formally protected areas covering 16,396.43 square kilometers, which is more than a quarter of the country.
Since 1992, the Fund has spent over $6 million to build institutional and human capacity in these parks, and related central government agencies. This includes recruitment of 189 field staff, training 24 post-graduate specialist degrees, and at least 389 short scientific courses.
The parks of Bhutan are described briefly below, focusing on key features and their underlying importance to our natural heritage and conservation efforts.
Wangchuck Centennial Park
Wangchuck Centennial Park was launched on 12 December 2008 as a tribute to the visionary, selfless leadership of the Wangchuck Dynasty. Located in the central-northern part of Bhutan, it is also the country’s largest park covering 4,914 square kilometers. It is a source of headwaters of four major river systems: Punatsang chu, Mangde chu, Chamkhar chu, and Kuri chu. It represents the middle Himalayan ecological biomes, ranging from blue pine forests to alpine meadows, over an altitude of 2,500 to 5,100 meters. The park is home to 244 species of vascular plants, 23 species of large mammals, and 134 bird species. Charismatic wildlife species such as the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris), Snow leopard (Uncia uncia), Wolf (Canis lupus), Takin (Budorcas taxicolor) and Himalayan Black bear (Selenarctos thibetanus) are residents.
Torsa Strict Nature Reserve
Torsa Strict Nature Reserve, covering 609.51 square kilometers, protects the westernmost temperate forests of the country, from broadleaf forests to alpine meadows within an altitude range of 1,400 to 4,800 meters, and includes the small lakes of Sinchulungpa. Unlike Bhutan’s other protected areas, Torsa has no resident human population.
Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park
Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park is Bhutan’s second largest protected area (4,316 square kilometers) with an altitude range of 1,400 to above 7,000 meters. The park is a vital watershed covering almost half of northern Bhutan and is an important natural conservatory of glaciers, alpine meadows and scrublands, sub-alpine and temperate conifer forests, and warm and cool temperate broadleaf forests, major rivers and streams, and the flora and fauna that inhabit these ecosystems. Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park harbors numerous charismatic species of wildlife, many of which are endangered or extinct elsewhere in the world. These include the Royal Bengal Tiger, Snow leopard, Takin, Blue sheep (Pseudouis nayaur), Musk deer (Moshcus chrysogaster), Himalayan Black bear, Marmot (Marmota himalayana), Red panda (Ailurus fulgens) and several species of pheasants. The park is also famous for its flora, and more than 300 species of plants found here are used in indigenous medicine, including the high-value Jartsa-guenbub or Summer plant-winter worm (Cordyceps Sinensis). Jigme Dorji Wangchuck Park has a resident human population of more than 1,000 households.
Royal Manas National Park
The conservation showpiece of the Kingdom, Royal Manas National Park is the oldest park in Bhutan. Covering 1,057 square kilometers, it is strategically located between Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park in the north, and Manas National Park in India to the south, the latter an important World Heritage Site. Thus, Royal Manas National Park is an integral part of a protected areas complex ranging from 150 to 2,600 meters, that includes habitats from lowland tropical forests to permanent ice fields. The park is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, Elephant, Gaur (Bos Taurus), and four rare species — Golden langur (Presbytis geei), Pygmy hog (Sus salvanius), Hispid hare (Caprolagus hispidus), and Ganges River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica), in addition to being the only park with the Greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) and Asiatic wild buffalo (Bubalus arnee). 362 species of birds — including four species of Hornbills (i.e., Rufous-necked, Wreathed, Pied, and Great Indian) — have been confirmed. Three species of Mahseer, the rare migratory game-fish — Deep bodied mahseer (Tor tor), Golden mahseer (Tor putitora), and Chocolate mahseer or Katle (Acrossocheilus hexangonolepis) — inhabit the Manas river, which is formed by the Mangde, Chamkhar, Kuri and Dangme rivers. Several plant species are valued as food crops, while a number are of commercial, medicinal, and religious significance. Thus, the park serves as a genetic depository for these valuable plants. Royal Manas was one of the earliest recipients of the Fund’s project interventions in the early 1990s, through support for infrastructure development and baseline biological and socio-economic assessments. Bhutan’s first park management plan was prepared for Royal Manas and guided management interventions in other parks. About 5,000 people live in remote, isolated villages within the park.
Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park
Covering an area of 1,730 square kilometers, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park includes a wide range of habitat types, from broadleaf forests at 600 meters to coniferous forests, alpine pasture, and lakes, to permanent ice on the peak of Jou Dorshingla at 4,925 meters. The park constitutes the largest, richest, and most intact temperate forest reserve in the entire Himalayas. More than 449 species of birds, including the endangered Black-Necked Crane (Grus nigricollis), inhabit the combined area of Jigme Singye Wangchuck and Royal Manas National Park — more than any other reserve in Asia. About 6,000 people reside in this park, formerly known as Black Mountains National Park.
Thrumshingla National Park
Thrumshingla National Park in central Bhutan is the second major temperate park and protects large tracts of old-growth fir forests. Thrumshingla covers 905.05 square kilometers, over an altitude range of 700 to 4,400 meters. six species of globally threatened birds are found here: Rufous Necked Hornbill (Aceros nepalensis), Rufous-throated wren-babbler (Spelaeomis caudatus), Satyr tragopan (Tragopan satyra), Beautiful nuthatch (Sitta formosa), Ward’s trogon (Harpactes wardii) and Chestnut-breasted partridge (Aroborphila mandellii). The Wedge billed wren babbler (Spenocichla humei) was recently discovered here. Thrumshingla has spectacular scenic views, including beautiful forests from alpine to sub-tropical broadleaf types. The soil of this area is particularly fragile, rendering it unsuitable for commercial logging or other development, although it did not prevent Austrian foresters from trying in the early 1990s. The park has excellent tourism potential, including the country’s highest motorable road. Close to 11,000 people live within the Thrumshingla area demonstrating, particularly in the highlands, Bhutan’s closest success to a harmonious balance between man and nature.
Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary
Bumdelling Wildlife Sanctuary in north-eastern Bhutan contains a rich diversity of flora and fauna as well as some of the most scenic alpine lakes. Covering 1,520.61 square kilometers between 1,500 to 6,000 meters, the Sanctuary was gazetted in 1995 and operationalized in 1998. Bumdeling Valley within the sanctuary is one of the country’s two wintering spots for the endangered Black-Necked Crane. The park has 3,000 resident households and several cultural and religious sites of international significance.
Sakten Wildlife Sanctuary
Sakten Wildlife Sanctuary is possibly the world’s only protected area known to harbor the highly reclusive Yeti. Covering 740.60 square kilometers between 1,800 to 4,400 meters, Sakten is designed to protect the country’s eastern-most temperate ecosystems which harbor, among others, endemic species such as the Eastern blue pine (Pinus bhutanica) and Black-rumped magpie (Pica pica bottanensis).
Khaling Wildlife Sanctuary
Covering a modest 334.73 square kilometers between 400 to 2,200 meters, Khaling Wildlife Sanctuary is Bhutan’s smallest protected area. However, the park is an important habitat for elephants, Gaur, and other tropical wildlife species. It may also contain the rare Pygmy hog and the Hispid Hare. The latter two species are known to occur in the adjacent Khaling Reserve in India, with which this park forms a trans-border reserve.
Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary
Although it is Bhutan’s second smallest park, Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary is known for its important bio-geographic position, second only to Royal Manas National Park further east. Phibsoo covers 268.93 square kilometers and ranges from 200 to 1,600 meters. It is the only area in Bhutan to have Chital (Axis axis) or spotted deer and the only remaining natural Sal (Shorea robusta) forests in the country. Like Royal Manas, Phibsoo is home to Elephant, Royal Bengal Tiger, Gaur, three species of Mahseer, and possibly the rare Ganges River dolphin. Unlike Royal Manas, it has no human residents.
White-bellied Heron Conservation
The Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) has been involved in the White-bellied Heron conservation project since 2003. Over the years much has been understood about their status, potential threats, and conservation options in Bhutan.
As a critically endangered species in the world, it is very important to protect it and its natural habitat. The initiative has helped establish two important WBH habitat areas in Bhutan: 1) Punatsangchu Basin, Wangduephodrang Dzongkhag, and 2) Berti, Zhemgang Dzongkhag.
At present, there are 4 individuals in Berti and 26 in the Punatsangchu basin. With 30 individuals of this species in their natural habitat, Bhutan plays a pioneering role in protecting the critically endangered white-bellied heron. Although RSPN has initiated a study on its ecology and breeding behavior, the rapid pace of development activities calls for immediate interventions that could provide quicker options for the survival of the bird. Captive breeding could be an immediate option to balance conservation and development by ensuring the survival of the species and continuation of developmental activities – the “Middle Path” National Development Approach.
Black-Necked Crane Conservation
The Black-Necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) is the last 15 species of cranes discovered in the world. This majestic bird is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau and migrates to lower altitudes, including several areas of Bhutan, in autumn. In Phojikha Valley, one of the major habitats in Bhutan, the arrival of the cranes signals the end of the harvesting season. The Black-necked Cranes have a sacred identity in Bhutanese culture and often appear in folklore, dances, and historical texts.
Since 1987, RSPN has been working to protect and rebuild the population of the Black-necked Cranes.
Phobjikha is a wide glacial valley with a central stream meandering through the open grassland and thickets of dwarf bamboo. Farmlands occupy the peripheral slopes where potatoes and turnips are grown. The forests beyond the farms are mostly coniferous. The general vegetation is composed of mainly Blue Pine (Pinus wallichiana), birch (Betula utilize), maple (Acer spp.), and several species of rhododendrons. The Central Valley inhabited by the cranes in winter has mostly dwarf bamboo. The repeated grazing of the bamboos by the local cattle and horses in summer prepares the ground for the wintering Cranes. The magnificent Black-Necked Cranes heighten the breathtaking scenery of Phobjikha in winter respiratory.
- Physical geography & climate Elevation: 2,900 m a s l
- Size: 161.9 km2
- Population: 4,716
- Economy: Agriculture based
- Lowest mean temperature: – 4.8oC in December
- Maximum mean temperature: 19.9o C in August.
- Annual rainfall: 1, 472 to 2,189 mm annually.