Improving rural livelihood through effective conservation

Addressing multiple threats to the interdependent goals of preserving biodiversity while improving rural livelihoods

Within its extensive forest cover, currently about 72 percent – one of the highest proportions of any country in Asia – Bhutan harbours some of the best remaining representatives of the Himalayan wildlife and habitat. The tiny Kingdom boasts a five-million-acre network of protected land rich in mountain forests, pristine rivers, and thriving wildlife such as tigers, snow leopards, and elephants. Centuries of isolation, a small population, and the strong conservation ethics instilled in the people by religious believes allowed Bhutan to emerge into the modern world with most of its ecosystems intact. Bhutan’s approach to conservation is based on the belief – now acknowledged by the world to be a fact – that sustainable economic growth, conservation, and participation of the people are inseparable elements of real development, the Gross National Happiness.

Bhutan’s protected area network, which encompasses 10 protected areas all linked by biological corridors, covers more than 51 percent of the country. These landscapes contain a vast repository of ecosystems, species, and genetic diversity, and play a critical role in supporting socioeconomic and environmental health within and around Bhutan. The protected area system is especially critical to the country’s climate resilience, providing the connectivity between habitats and refugio that these ecosystems and species will need to adapt to ever-increasing temperatures and climate change impacts.

Bhutan’s current conservation and biodiversity status is a result of the farsighted vision and leadership of our Kings and the country’s centuries-long tradition of living in harmony with nature. Bhutan further strengthened its commitment in the 1970s by formally adopting the development philosophy of Gross National Happiness, envisioned by the His Majesty the Fourth King, which includes environmental conservation as one of its four pillars.

Bhutan’s forests are not only important as habitat for wildlife, but also as necessary defences as the country grapples with increased impacts from climate change. Some 69 percent of Bhutan’s population lives in rural areas, and forests and surrounding landscapes underpin their livelihoods, providing food, shelter and income. Bhutan’s environment also benefits the region and the world by providing clean water, clean air, and carbon sequestration. Bhutan’s rivers, which flow into neighbouring India and Bangladesh, is part of a network of rivers emanating from Asia’s “water towers” that provide water for one-fifth of the world’s population. Its forests sequester more than six million tons of carbon dioxide annually—four times more than what Bhutan emits.

Despite these successes, living with wildlife often carries a cost, with increased wildlife populations and expanded Parks and Protected Areas nearby farming areas and fields, result in more frequent conflicts between people and wild animals, particularly elephants, primates, wild boars, and other predators. This has resulted in livestock and crop losses, damage to watersheds and, in some instances, loss of human lives. The effects of unemployment, lack of cash and rural-urban migration compound the impact of losses and damage to crops on rural farmers.

Addressing human-wildlife conflict requires striking a balance between conservation priorities and the needs of people who live with wildlife. Most Bhutanese depend on the land for their subsistence. Majority of the people living inside the wildlife sanctuary also sustain on livestock as the main source of household income. The presence of many species of large mammals, combined with settlement patterns of people, leads to conflict between people and wildlife. There is, therefore, an urgent need to find practical approaches and methodologies to reduce the impacts of human-wildlife conflict to our most vulnerable farmers.

In an attempt to better understand the conflict surrounding elephants and farmers in Southern Bhutan, Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation (BTFEC) with its partners, the Wildlife Conservation Division (WCD) and the Samtse Forest Division has successfully collared six Asian Elephants Elephas maximus indicus in the adjoining areas of Jomotshangkha Wildlife Sanctuary, in March 2014. This scheme was part of a larger effort to understand and manage human wildlife conflicts where various schemes already in place include solar electric fencing, habitat improvement, and awareness meetings.

However, solar electric fencing was found not effective against primates and birds. Many farmers still have to crop guard from monkeys even if they have installed electric fence in their fields. The Agriculture Research & Development Centre, Wengkhar, Mongar, with grants from BTFEC is conducting Research and Development in electric fence designs by studying on animal behaviour and response of various types of wildlife deterring technologies. One of which is bio-acoustic equipment. Depending on the specification, the equipment can deter about 13 species of wild animals and 16 species of birds. Effectiveness of bio-acoustic equipment is being tested against primates and birds at Wengkhar. Thenbang village under Tsamang Gewog in Mongar is one of the villages selected for studying the animal’s behaviour towards this technology. The village has five households with 1.5 kilometres field perimeters installed with electric fence and cameras. ARDC is also studying cost effectiveness of numerous designs of electric fencing poles – from HDPE poles to life fencing poles.  Another technology used in this project is installation of 3G capable Trap Camera to monitor the monkey movement in the maize fields in Packchurung under Mongar Gewog, Laptsha village under Drepong Gewog and Galingkhar under Saling Gewog. The trap camera has been setup near the electric fence area to capture the still image and video footage on how monkeys bypass electric fence and entered in the maize field. The cameras records both still picture and video of animals’ movement and save them in the SD cards. ARDC is also integrating all those technologies and testing its effectives. By the end of the project period, BTFEC in partnership with ARDC is expected to come up with the most effective mitigation measures for deterring wildlife from crop damage and also provide range of options of electric fencing poles.

Conflict between people and animals is one of the main threats to the continued survival of many species in different parts of the world, and is also a significant threat to local human populations. If solutions to conflicts are not addressed timely and adequately, conservation of both natural resources and biodiversity is impossible. Human wildlife conflict being one of the main issues for communities living inside the protected areas, the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary with financial support from BTFEC had installed electric fencing in three villages under Womanang Chiwog, Bumdeling Gewog benefiting 18 households. Electric fencing has revived more than 12 acres of fallow lands. This winter flagship bird species like Black Necked Cranes are expected to land in those revived paddy fields. In Sherimung Gewog, electric fencing had been installed in almost all Chiwogs: Serzhong, Soenakhar and Muhung benefiting 144 households with coverage of 169.85 acres of farmland.
Meanwhile Pemagatshel Territorial Division with BTFEC funding is mapping human wildlife conflict areas in Biological Corridor V mostly under Pemagatshel Dzongkhag.  Till today, there is no single study conducted on the human wildlife conflict hotspot mapping using scientific methods for Biological Corridor V. Understanding nature and degree of human wildlife conflict is a prerequisite to coin long-term solution to reduce or mitigate them. Therefore, this project will be of a huge national significance. It will enhance the conservation effort through scientific intervention and management as per the Conservation Management Plan, which will be one of the key outcomes of the project.

On the other hand, a Civil Society Organization, Tarayana Foundation, with support from BTFEC is also developing climate resilient community through appropriate adaptation and mitigation interventions. The Foundation will install electric fencing in 15 remote villages of Haa, Samtse, and Lhuntse – Pekri, Nagor, Brokser, Sanglung, Kuchey, Dopoling, Youkha, Rangtse, Gondokha/Babuna, Ney, Semjong, Jangbi, Torkey, Bahagjungye, Galachhu – thereby reducing Human Wildlife Conflict incidences and community capacity built.

Human wildlife conflict is not unique to Bhutan but is increasing here in terms of reported severity, combining a loss of income to farmers and a loss keystone species through retaliatory killings. Many ideas have been proposed over the years but few, have been uniformly successful. BTFEC’s fund with a combination of good research, good science, good practices and innovative ideas, have made a substantial impact on reducing this threat to conservation of some of Bhutan’s most important species, including elephants, tigers, and snow leopards.

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