Bhutan: A Birder's Paradise
The size of Switzerland, Bhutan is home to about 680 species of avifauna in astonishing variety — gulls, terns, storks, falcons, woodpeckers, kingfishers, hornbills (including the rufous-necked hornbill), macaws, cuckoos, starlings, and on and on. Of these, some 200 are endemic. Twenty six are globally endangered, including imperial herons (one of the fifty rarest birds in the world), and the famous black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollis) that make their winter home in Phobjikha Valley each year after breeding on the Tibetan plateau.
Bhutan is such a biodiversity hotspot that ornithologists are sure more species await discovery within its borders. A deep reverence for life among the Bhutanese keeps this sanctuary intact, rooted in the Buddhist ideal of non-harming, along with their genuine love of nature. Nature preserves, wildlife sanctuaries, and national parks make up over half the land. The constitution guarantees that at least 60% of the nation's land will be maintained as forest cover for all time. Right now that stands at 72% and growing, as volunteers gather annually every Social Forestry Day to plant more trees en masse.
Birders visiting the country for the first time are often pleasantly surprised by its pioneering nature-protecting regulations. Laws restrict the use of mating calls to attract birds outside the mating season — for example — because they interfere with birds' natural rhythms.
Other traditions may make less sense to non-Bhutanese, but nevertheless exert strong protective influence. In the local belief, the raven — the national bird of Bhutan — incarnates Jarog Dongchen, who together with Yeshey Gonpo and Palden Lhamo form the Divine Trinity of protective deities that keep the people from harm. Killing a raven is a capital crime. A raven even tops the crown of the king.
Nature preservation is one of the four pillars of the famous Gross National Happiness (GNH) index. The Royal Government understands that it cannot create happiness, only the conditions for happiness. And because this is Bhutan, that aspiration is not restricted to humans only. Recently, a young black-necked crane with a broken wing was left behind in Phobjikha when the rest of its flock migrated back over the Himalayas. The government is building a special rehab facility to nurse back to health this crane and any others that require it in the future. GNH is for the birds, too.