When conservation, pilgrimage, and tourism converge

In Bhutan’s East, the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary opens minds for life by immersing visitors in the wild unknown

The conservation of biological diversity, protected areas, and biological corridors is urgent. Preservation of cultural heritage and religious sites within these areas is even more important. Practical conservation involves social as well as natural sciences, and multiple stakeholders including private, community, and Civil Society Organisations, as well as government, and multilateral agencies.

Amongst these stakeholders, especially in Bhutan, the Department of Forest and Park Services is assuming an increasingly important role through forming partnerships with Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation to undertake specific conservation projects. Establishing conservation-oriented ecotourism facilities and community engagement is one such approach, by Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary at the sacred Aja Nye and its surroundings.

The whole valley of Aja is regarded as a cultural and natural museum – it is a treasure island and cultural Refugio. Thousands of pilgrims visit these sacred sites annually. Blessed by Guru Rinpochoe, it is believed that, terrestrial orchid Aphyllorchis alpina (Tsa-Awa-Doti) is found only in the Aja locality. Plants with medicinal and economic value such as the Star anise (Illicium griffithii) are also abundant in the area.

This important cultural site is located right inside the Bumdeling wildlife sanctuary, under Sherimung Gewog, in Mongar. Aja Ney, at present, is one-day walk from the nearest road point. The entire pilgrimage to Aja would take a week to complete. Aja is a host of religious sites and symbols including Guru’s foot and body prints, Khando Dowa Zangmo’s footprint, 108 retreat caves of Guru Rinpoche, and the footprint of Lam Karma Jamyang who discovered the hidden sacred site among others. It is believed that the menchu at Aja can cure 18 diseases such as tuberculosis, body aches, ulcer, and whooping cough, among others. Among the several sacred spots, the most popular site is a small cave on the bank of Aja Chhu where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months. The rock bears 100 sacred syllables ‘Aa’.

On the environmental point of view, this wildlife sanctuary is truly a conservation jewel, featured with astounding biodiversity composed of many high-value medicinal plants, numerous globally endangered, rare, and endemic species of plants and animals, spectacular sceneries, and unique cultural sites. In the sanctuary, and its buffer zone, four globally endangered mammals – tiger, snow leopard, red panda and capped langur – and five globally threatened bird species like Rufous-necked hornbill, Palla’s fish eagle, Chesnut-breasted partridge, wood snipe and the black-necked crane are found.

With these and lot more to offer, the Aja valley has become one of the most desired places to visit for both nature lovers and religious people. Subsequently the number of pilgrim visiting the renowned historical sites is increasing. Annually more than 5000 pilgrims across the country and Arunachal Pradesh in India visit Aja.

With the increase in numbers of tourists, environmental related problems, especially waste and demand for fuelwood has increased. The rampant littering along the trails and within the Neys in Aja has become one of the pressing challenges. Lack of amenities like canopies, resting area, drinking water outlet, and waste disposal pits both along the main trail and within Neys are other pressing issues. To address these the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary with financial support from Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation carried out 18-month project “Integrated wildlife management for sustainable biodiversity conservation and livelihood”.

The Nu 14.2 million project, completed in September 2018, was implemented to integrate both wildlife conservation and social livelihoods through appropriate interventions and research. The objectives of the project are to strengthen biodiversity conservation and habitat management through appropriate approach; and to improve social livelihood through initiating of community-based ecotourism.

Even though ecotourism is gaining momentum in Bhutan, due to its scope and market potential, the communities inside the wildlife sanctuary are still unaware of the its prospect mainly due to illiteracy, and remoteness. Through this project, community Association Group was formed with 17 members from Thrilling, Thramo, and Soenakhar. These people were trained on ecotourism. They have basic knowledge on housekeeping, catering, guiding, and cooking. At the same time this initiative has benefited in Environment conservation, protection of cultural and historical sites, social livelihood of youth through on site job opportunities.

The visitors, today, are provided with the facilities for night halt and designated camping areas for the camping enthusiasts. The visitors are provided with firewood and cooking utensils by the group members on payment of minimal fees as the service charge. All the local visitors and the international tourist are made aware, through media, on the requirement of visiting permits from the entry points.

The entry and exit point are from Serzhong under Sherimung Gewog in Mongar and Bangtsho under Tshenkhar Gewog in Lhuentse. Visiting permit is provided at any time with no additional fees. This is done to collect the information on the number of visitors visiting Aja Ney. This arrangement while benefitting communities (local and visitors) will also help conservation through close monitoring of people entering the sanctuary, reduce environmental impact through proper waste management, and reduce pressure on uncontrolled collection of firewood.

Today the visitors would see improved eco-trails along the cultural sites. There are six toilets and seven gazebos at Gochu, Miter, Nangkor, Barkor, Tsekor, and Nimathang. There is continuous water supply to the guesthouse and transit camps. The internal footpath within Aja cultural sites Tsekor, Barkor, and Nangkor are improved. Two wooden ladders in Nangkor, 21 in Barkor, and 12 in Barkor are replaced with iron ladders. A number of signage and visitors information boards are installed that would help visitors in direction, and enable them to identify the important cultural sites. For the visitors seeking spiritual healing, hot stone bath facilities are provided at the Menchu with proper shed. There’s a guesthouse nearby with complete kitchen utensils.

Conservation of natural resources on sustainable basis by the government alone is difficult without the support of local people. Majority of the people living inside the wildlife sanctuary sustain on raising livestock as the main source of income. To have full participation of local people in conservation, without any monetary benefits to support their livelihood is infeasible. Aja Community Ecotourism Group has been able to generate income through porter services, guesthouse charges, guiding services, and others. The group has been able to provide effective service to the visitors and alongside they had gained meaningful employment. This is one exemplary project that has enabled the participation of local communities in the field of conservation of flora and fauna, and cultural sites through such community based programmes.

Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the largest Wildlife Sanctuaries in the country. The sanctuary covers an area of 1520.61 km2 out of which 17 percent consists of snow, ice and rocks, 2 percent pasture, 1 percent agricultural land, 10 percent scrub, 35 percent coniferous forest and 34 percent broadleaved forest. The altitude ranges from 1500 to 6450 meters above sea level, with warm temperate climate in the south and alpine in the mountainous region in the north. The Sanctuary is established with an aim to protect the high and medium altitude ecosystem, habitats and increase knowledge on nature conservation. It also aims at protecting the cultural heritage and uplifting the living standards of the community living in and around the sanctuary area through community based development program.

Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary was gazetted in 1994. It encompasses 3 Gewogs spread over three Dzongkhags, namely Lhuentse, Mongar, and Trashiyangtse. Three range offices located in Dungzam, Khoma and Serzhong administer it. Technical sections at the park head office based in Trashiyangtse assist these field offices.

Rabi C Dahal is Communications Officer at Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation. He can be contacted at rabi@bhutantrustfund.bt

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