Landscapes in Bhutan range from lush, subtropical plains in the south to the Himalayas in the north, where peaks soar to more than 23,000 feet. ©Eric Rock

By any measure, Bhutan is a spiritual place, known for how it assesses the quality of life of its citizens, phrased as “gross national happiness (GNH).” The term, in fact, was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who used it to signify his commitment to social progress. Rather than employ the typical, numbers-based gross national product (GNP) to take stock of his nation, he used GNH.

Located on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is filled with rugged mountains crisscrossed by a network of swiftly flowing rivers, which form deep valleys before draining onto the Indian plains. This great physical geographic diversity is paralleled in Bhutan’s outstanding range of biodiversity. The country is a real-life manifestation of an eco-traveler’s dreamland.

But there is another side to Bhutan that is not quite so happy. The country’s proximity to markets for wildlife parts to be used in unproven, traditional medicines and remedies is a major concern for species such as musk deer, tigers and leopards. And despite the emphasis on GNH, it seems, for some, GDP has the upper hand. With high prices being offered for animal components, many people have taken up poaching to meet the demand.

Bhutan’s Himalayas are home to takins, the national animal. ©Goran Hoglund (Kartlasarn), flickr

Medicines that harm instead of help

If we have to apply numbers to Bhutan, it’s fair to say that more than 770 species of birds and 5,400 species of plants occur throughout the kingdom. Bengal tigers, Indian rhinoceroses, clouded leopards and sloth bears live in the lush, tropical lowlands and hardwood forests of the south. In the temperate zone, tigers and Indian leopards are found in mixed conifer, broadleaf and pine forests. Bhutan is also rich in primate life, with gray langurs and rare species such as the golden langur and a variant of the Assamese macaque.

Fruit-bearing trees and bamboo provide habitat for the Himalayan black bear, red panda, sambar, wild pig and barking deer. In the north, the Himalayas are an alpine home for antelope, blue sheep, Himalayan musk deer, marmots, snow leopards, Tibetan wolves and takins, Bhutan’s national animal. A few individuals of the endangered wild water buffalo live in southern Bhutan, and the globally endangered white-winged duck has recently been added to the list of Bhutan’s birdlife.

Unfortunately, this wildlife wealth attracts not only wildlife-watchers but wildlife-poachers. Himalayan musk deer, black bears and tigers are illegally taken for commercial trade, mostly outside of the country.

The kingdom of Bhutan has decided—by law—to keep at least 60 percent of its land under forest cover. ©Eric Rock

It is the tigers, though, that are particularly threatened, since tiger parts are used in many traditional East Asian medicines. Poaching to supply the demand—particularly for tiger bone—is the most immediate risk to the big cat’s long-term survival in Bhutan. In addition, there exists a commercial demand for the nonmedicinal parts of the tiger; its skin, teeth and claws.

Besides poaching for commerce, some wildlife species are also illegally killed for retaliation when agricultural crops and livestock are damaged.

Hope for a happy place

But what may be different about these poaching issues is that unlike many other countries around the globe that have realized too late that living wildlife is a sort of natural wealth on its own, Bhutan seems to understand now that its wildlife cannot be taken for granted. The kingdom has decided—by law—to maintain at least 60 percent of its land area under forest cover; to designate more than 26 percent of its territory as national parks, reserves and other protected areas; and to identify a further 9 percent as wildlife corridors linking the protected spaces. And poaching and illegal trade in wildlife parts has been specifically targeted: recently, an agreement was made between the Royal Government of Bhutan and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to implement a project to address those concerns in two regions.

Bhutan can be proud of its GNH—and the measures it takes to protect its wild nature. ©Eric Rock

Under the direction of Bhutan’s Forest Protection and Surveillance Unit within the Department of Forests and Park Services, three guard-informants have been deployed in the Wangdue Phodrang and Paro Districts to monitor wildlife-poaching activities. Procuring a vehicle is underway, which will help with observance and improve the mobility of the project’s staff. And to deal with agricultural crop damage caused by wildlife, WWF and its partners have established a compensation fund for livestock killed by snow leopards and tigers. The goal of the new agreement is to reduce wildlife poaching by 50 percent by 2014.

Now that’s a number-based—and happiness—measure Bhutan can be proud of.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,