Friday, June 22, 2012

Porous borders: a boon for goons, bane for the law

To contain illegal trades in the northern and southern ends of the country is a most challenging task for Bhutanese law enforcement authorities. As a result, illegal trading of medicinal plants is up and on the rise.
Trans-boundary illegal collection of medicinal plants is rampant in Bhutan although enforcement officials are stationed at many strategic points. Illegal exploitation of resources by people from across the border according to the officials may compromise sustainability of Bhutan’s medicinal plants.
Such illegal collections are also often untraceable due to which authorities don’t have any concrete data on the quantity of the illegal exports.
Lyonpo (Dr.) Pema Gyamtsho said that Bhutan has always faced difficulties in legality, sustainability and traceability of medical plants in the country. “Due to porous borders both in north and south, much of it is traded not in very legal manner.” This Lyonpo said was because of the lucrative market it has in the international market.
In the north, it is mostly the Ophiocordyceps (Chinese caterpillar) which are being smuggled through the unguarded and unmanned part of the border while similarly in the south, Pipla, Star Anis (Illicium) and Fritillaria delavayi are few among many that are illegally ferried across the border.
This is also evident from the recent report of Revenue and Custom official seizing sacks of semi-dried Pipla from a driver of Indian origin.
Collectors from within the country also exert pressure on the resources sustainability.  “Poor collection is also happening rampantly,” said Lyonpo  (Dr.) Pema Gyamtsho. “The method of collection is very destructive that in many cases there is no regard for the revival and regeneration of the medicinal plant species.” This is happening both at the alpine areas in the north as well as sub-tropical zone in the south.
For instance, experts shared at the CITES regional workshop last Thursday, that it takes approximately, 5000 pieces of Ophiocordyceps sinensis (Chinese caterpillar) to make one kilogram. So, chances of getting over exploited if not managed properly cannot be overruled.
In particular to Chinese caterpillar, many mechanisms are in place to check over-exploitation both natural and man-made. The harsh and ruthless climatic condition in Cordyceps growing areas is a kind of a favorable condition for sustenance of the worms. Such inclement weather limits quantity of the worms collected. “The ‘bub’ grows within the thickets of the alpine bushes and it really takes experience to locate one. Hunting for 12 hours, many can gather only few pieces,” said an official.
Although officials said that it is difficult to put legal limitations, mechanisms such as restriction of collection time for only one month (From 15 May to 15 June) are imposed. During this period, enforcement officials sternly monitor the collection methods. The numbers of collectors are also kept at minimum through provision of limited collection permits from the forest and park services department.
Bhutan is home to more than 300 species of medicinal plants.

Wild driving claims numerous wild (lives)
Tanden Zangmo
A female adult Leopard cat (Felis Bengalensis) was killed on the spot when a speeding motorist crushed her on the expressway opposite to Samazingkha in Thimphu on June 21.  
The dead felid with major injury on its head and the jaws crushed was first spotted by Thimphu divisional forestry staff lying on the expressway when he went jogging early in the morning. He then immediately informed Forest Protection and Surveillance Unit (FPSU) of Department of Forests and Park Services (DoFPS). “When I reached the spot at 6 AM, the cat was already dead,” said Phub Tshering of FPSU.
Based on the wheel tracks of some big vehicle in the accident spot, officials believe that the animal might have been killed by a truck. With the leopard cat just about the size of a domestic cat, officials say that the trucker might have mistaken it for a common household cat. “Bhutanese have this superstition that a cat crossing your way will bring bad omen to commuter,” WCD’s Chief Forestry Officer, Sonam Wangchuk said together with Phub Tshering of FPSU. They believe that in order to avoid the cat crossing the way, the trucker might have killed it.
Forest Officials also added that if not for such intentional killing, it might have been carelessness on the part of man behind the wheel. “With better and wider asphalted road, speeding vehicles often run over the wildlife. This is the major threat in developed countries.” WCD CFO said. He agreed that it is increasingly becoming a trend in Bhutan too.      
It is likely that the cat got killed at night since it is a nocturnal wild animal was probably looking for a comfort zone. “The asphalt road remains much warmer when the temperature in the forests drops. So, the cat was perhaps lying on the warm tarred road.” Otherwise, they say the cat was looking for its prey which consists of small mammals, birds and poultry.     

As per the field guide to the mammals of Bhutan the leopard cat is described as having similarity with the household cat except that it has longer legs. It has spots and marks on the body similar to that of leopards and look like a miniature leopard but it had no rosettes on its coat and instead has soild black spots or patched.

The guide further describes that the cat is nocturnal but occasionally hunts during the daytime. The cat is found to be a solitary except during the mating season.

The normal size of the cat ranges from 35-60 cms while its tail measures 15-30 cms. The normal cat would weigh 3-7 kgs.

Like the common leopard, the leopard cat is one of the most adaptable cats. It occurs in the broad spectrum of habitats from tropical rain forest to temperate broadleaf and coniferous forest as well as shrubs and grasslands. They take shelter in hollows of trees.

The cat shows little aversion to presence of human and often lives close to human settlements. In Bhutan, the cat is found ranging from south till about 3,200 meters above sea level.

As per the guide book, the conservation threats of the cat globally are habitat fragmentation, poaching for its pelt and retaliatory killing by farmers. But in Bhutan, it does not face any major threat and enjoys a relatively undisturbed habitat.

The IUCN status as per the guide is lower risk.        

Meanwhile, a civet (Civettictis Civetta), rare species was also run over by the speeding vehicle on the national highway at Lumitsawa under Punakha dzongkhag on June 11.

According to Kezang Dawa, park Manager of Royal Botanical Park (RBP) Lamperi , this mammal is a nocturnal animal who prey on domestic hens and would have run over by the vehicle while it was wandering into the nearest village in search of food.
“This is a rare species and I have never encountered such animal before.” He said.
The Civet is a purely nocturnal generally solitary animal. Purely terrestrial it is poor at climbing and at digging, and it lives in vacant burrows left by other species. 
Civets are found in a wide range of habitats, but densely wooded areas and forests are preferred.  Civets are almost always found near a good source of water.
According to Park Manager, the civet was also run over on its jaw and which consequently has died after stern injury on its mouth.
Further, CFO of WCD also shared his experience from the Thrumshingla National Park in Bumthang. The east-west highway running through the heart of the park has claimed lives of wild animals in the past too. He reminisce incidences where small mammals and reptiles like Langurs and Snakes have succumbed to the reckless driving.  
The department officials are doing all they could to bring down such cases of wildlife being killed by vehicles. The precautionary messages imparted in the environmental education program are directed to creating public awareness on avoiding suck kills.
On the legislation front, the Forest and Nature Conservation Rules, 2006 is silent on such traffic part. While the affected can either kill or drive away wild animals causing crop depredation, it is restricted to only those not included in the Schedule I. Those listed in the Schedule I, which usually are those wild animals critically endangered and vulnerable to extinction are not permitted to kill at no cost. 
The dead specimen of both the dead wild animals have been surrendered to the Wildlife Conservation Division (WCD) Thimphu who further handed over to Taxidermy centre at Taba where it will be mounted. The mounted specimen will be used for the educational purpose especially to those visiting the centre. 
“This is a big loss from the conservation point of view,” said Sonam Wangchuk. He urges all the people especially those behind the wheel to be little cautious and spare the lives of innocent wildlife.

Camera traps catch Snow Leopard and in Wangchuck Centennial Park
Tanden Zangmo
In a recent camera trapping of Snow Leopard by Wangchuck Centennial Park (WCP) under Department of Forests and Park Services from March 8 to June 4, 14 stations captured pictures of Snow Leopard from the total of 28 stations.
Park officials said the second phase of camera trapping was intended to determine the spatial distribution and individual identification of Snow Leopards within the Central Park Range premises.
The camera traps, besides the Snow leopard, captured other mammals like Asiatic Black Bear, Musk Deer, Blue Sheep, Tibetan Wolf, Mountain Weasel and Red Fox were also captured.
The team before setting up the camera traps first identified potential areas logically. “The experience from the previous camera trap helped us to understand the potential area.” The locations were then were mapped on toposheet.
A total of 56 cameras were set up for the purpose in 28 different stations inside the park areas. The team has mapped 4 Km­­2 areas placing camera in every vertices. The cameras were set up especially in selected trails that were frequented by animals. 
Besides mammalian species, the camera traps also captured numerous other avifauna wildlife species. Diverse birds such as Monal Pheasant, Blood Pheasant, Satyr Tragopan, Tibetan Snow Cock, Yellow-billed Chough, Snow Partridge were also captured.
Officials said that such study will help the WCP management to determine the number of individual Snow Leopard within the study area. Besides, the team also collected Snow Leopard scats for DNA analysis to identify individual Snow Leopard and to understand the fecal composition of Snow Leopard in WCP.
Park officials said that presence of such healthy population of illusive snow leopard is a good sign of Bhutan in general and WCP in particular being the host for wide range of faunal species. They said that such findings from the study indicate good ecosystem.
According to Park Manager of WCP, D.S Rai, such technique would help identify the individual snow leopard and spatial distribution. “This has helped us to understand the pyre-based and a kind of movement they make.”
The WCP team has conducted same scheme last year by setting up few cameras around the park region and was able to understand few behaviors of the snow leopard and Tibetan wolf.
However the team this year was able to study the whole behavior of both snow leopard and Tibetan wolf. Through their study the blue sheep is the common pyre for both snow leopard and Tibetan wolf and the concern for the team was about Tibetan wolf which hunt in pack to defeat snow leopard which hunt in single.
“Earlier highlander used to rear sheep in high attitude but these days we can see no more which has led the Tibetan wolf to pyre on blue sheep.” D.s Rai said.
With the achievement for their study this year the team has identified the competition of pyre in blue sheep by the snow leopard and Tibetan wolf. They have also identified the domestic yaks as the other pyre for Tibetan wolf.
The field survey was technically supported by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) -Bhutan.

Confiscated Pipla finally surrendered to the Forest office

Any forestry products seized by any agencies are supposed to be handed-over to the forest department who will take course of actions as per Forest and Nature Conservation Rules.
Earlier the confiscated forest products ended up for storage with the customs officials since no two sides took actions, be it taking-over  or to auction it.
The product was surrendered to the department by the Regional Revenue and Customs Office (RRCO) after receiving directives from the headquarters when they were not sure how to go about with the confiscated product.
The Divisional Forest Officer Kaka Tshering had written a formal and official letter to the Regional Director for customs regarding such confiscations made in future by which such information sharing by the RRCO would help them penalize the defaulter as per FNCR, 2006.
The defaulter Anob Bansal, apprehended by the RRCO was released without penalties for his illegal act on the condition that he’ll come back with the people involved. But he did not turn up.
The RRCO officials said this is the first time they seized such smuggled forest products and it is a wakeup call for them to step-up vigilance to inspect the products that are exported out of the country.
“Not only Pipla, but other forest products could be smuggled out of the country,” Samtse DFO, Kaka Tshering said. He said that he would tap all sources to dig deeper into the smuggling business and unravel all possible links in the country.
According to him the confiscated product is still marketable though it lay idle in the RRCO stores for more than a month.
The confiscated Pipla will be auctioned providing fine preference to the Institute of Traditional Medicine and Services (ITMS) and to Bio-Bhutan with royalty and farm gate prices.
The Forest office in Samtse with the Road Safety and Transport Authority has started investigations to seize the van and the defaulters who had escaped.
According to the Sr. forestry officer Sonam Peldon of Social Forestry and Extension Division (SFED) of forest and park services department under the agriculture and forests ministry, the forest and park services  will liaise with Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority( BAFRA ) to impart training on how to determine the legality of the forests products being smuggled outside or brought into the country.
As of now the BAFRA officials do not have required knowledge to identify the forest products being smuggled.
The BAFRA officials who are currently placed and stationed in strategic locations are mainly involved in plant quarantine services. This would be an advantage to determine the legality of the plants, and other forest products.
Pipla is a non-wood forest product commonly used in Indian Ayurvedic System, as well as the Tibetan and Bhutanese medical tradition owing to its rich content of medicinal properties.
Such medical tradition recognizes the fruit of the plant as a powerful stimulant for the digestive and respiratory systems, and also as a rejuvenating agent, longevity enhancer and tonic for the immunity.
Growing as bushes to a height of 1-2 meter, Pipla is a perennial plant and has smooth dark greenish leaves. Only female plants are known to bear fruits which have commercial value. Pipla fruits  start ripening in the months of August or September.
In Bhutan, Pipla grows widely under the canopy of broadleaf forests or in open areas in Zhemgang and Pema Gatshel, and in other sub-tropical areas. Pipla is also known to thrive best in damp and moist soils with good shade.
It is normally the fruit of the plants which has commercial value. Today, at the fair market value, a kilogram of fruit fetches prices ranging from Rs. 165-200 in the Indian market.

Drought in the South screams famine, Met Department data reads otherwise

In what could be the most inimical event toward the government’s Rupee-retentive measures, the majority of Gewogs in the southern dzongkhags are in the midst of an imminent famine situation.
This, in the face of the live-Rupee crunch could be a huge setback in the government’s recent immediate move to accomplish self sufficiency in home grown vegetables; the modus operandi for which was primarily, the large scale production of vegetables from the farming communities, nationwide.
Updates pouring in from across gewogs have not been the least bit inspiring with each gewog reporting little or no rainfall.
Reports say that it has been four months without even a single drop of rain in Dagana dzongkhag. This has seriously affected not only vegetables but all other cereal crops. Consequent to the prolonged dry spell, crops are scalded, some to the extent of no rejuvenation. Even if they receive rainfall sooner or later, affected farmers say that their crops may not revive.
The farmers of Tashiding in Dagana say that in the past, their first harvest of green chilies would be already on their way to the market. Such first harvest which fetched them good prices was good source of income.
With the unexpected drought in rainfall, farmers don’t have enough for their own consumption. Production in surplus is a vague dream at this point which will seriously negate the country’s objective of self sufficiency  in vegetable production.
“Around this time of the year, our farmers sell their new chilies of the year but it failed since the plants are all dried up due to inadequate irrigation,” Tashiding Gup, Namgay Pelden said.
Lack of rain had seriously impacted healthy growth of many crops and vegetables. For instance, even the Mandarin trees were not spared and the yield this year is expected to slump drastically as compared to previous years.
The most affected among  the dzongkhags is Tsirang dzongkhag where even the drinking water sources have dried up, with no sign of rain for more than one month.
Farmers now are travelling further in search of drinkable water for their household needs. The maize plants they left behind in the fields are sundried, wilted and scalded. The plants will never yield them good corns.
“We won’t be able to rely on the Orange as the trees are roasted in the heat,” said Tsangkha gup Dorji.
Normally around this time of the year, Tsirang farmers are busy with paddy plantation. This is obviously not visible, for rain is the progenitor to all activities.
“Paddy plantations have stalled in hope of rain to descend. It’s no use planting without adequate water,” Kilkhorthang Gup, Tshewang Norbu said.
The gup said some farmers have given up on Paddy this year since their prayers for rain never got answered. But this leaves them clueless about the ration stock for next year.
Cash crops including chilies, which are the most important commercial crops for farmers to generate income in Tsirang has withered in its growing stage. With no productions from their own farmland or the means to make money to buy from markets, risk of facing major food shortage in the coming year looms large for them.
Not sparing even the small scale vegetables grown in their backyard garden, the drought has left farmers worrying not only about food but also the vegetables for self consumption. So, rather than coming out with surplus to suffice the need of the consumer, this means that producers themselves will have to look for alternate sources to meet their own requirements.
“We expected some rain day before yesterday as it was showing some signs of its coming but rather it turned into hot bright sunny day.” Rangthangling Gup, Bal Bahadur Tamang said.
Farmers grasping at straw have put their hope in faith and superstitious beliefs. Rituals to invoke local deities to appease them  and initiate rainfall are in full swing in the many dzongkhags.
Few groups have approached to Dzongkhag offices for advice, and assistance. For now they wait in eagerness as to which one delivers them first from the sufferings – their Gods or their Government?
“If we are fortunate enough and receive light shower within this week, our scalded crops might grow again but if it fails we would face shortage of food.” Tshogpa Dhan Bhadhur Rama said.
The farmers living in higher attitude of the dzongkhag has already given up paddy cultivation while the farmers in lower attitudes are still clinging to the last grain of hope and luck.
Farmers in Semjong gewog share the same story of scarce or no drinking water in the event of more and more sources drying up. For them getting enough water for irrigation purpose remains a far-fetched dream when their immediate concern is a reliable source of drinking water.
Tshogpa Rajman Dlon of Tashiding said the gewog has been identified as potential vegetable production area for which, affected farmers will receive 60% seedlings from the agriculture ministry. He said seeds stocks maintained by the households from their previous year are all spoilt. “Such seeds will not reap good crops since it has been in storage for too long.”
The intensity of the dry spell is evident from the volume of water in Wangdikhola. The Tshogpa said “The River which earlier used to be raging has now become so shallow”.
Similar droughts have spread to other southern dzongkhags such as Samtse and Sarpang where drinking water sources have increasingly dried up.
Contrarily, the Meteorology division with the economic affairs ministry forecast almost all the dzongkhags in the south and eastern Bhutan received rainfall in varying amounts in the last few days. Quantitatively, the southern part of Bhutan received quite a high amount of rainfall than the eastern part of Bhutan.
The amount of rainfall received by the eastern dzongkhags is relatively insignificant.
Generally, the frequency of rainfall during the entire month of May 2012 is comparable with the same time of the past years. The pattern of rainfall has not changed much but interestingly the monthly total rainfall received in southern and eastern part of Bhutan in May 2012 is comparatively less than that of May, 2011.
Experiencing the brunt of the elements of the nature, the farmers have reported to the gewog office for help.
“Drought is not only in the southern belt but similar features are visible throughout the country and the Ministry is planning and working on water reservoirs and rain water harvesting,” Agriculture and Forests secretary, Sherub Gyaltsen said.
The ministry would provide water pumps and pipes but will be helpless if there is no water source at all.
“We have asked the Dzongkhag Office to assess the situation and the kind of support Agriculture Ministry can bestow,” he said.

New orchid discovered

The entry of new record of Orchid species encountered in Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary has made Bhutan richer by one more plant species
The new Orchid belongs to the species Bulbophyllum. The Orchid plant was discovered by a seven-member team which includes two visiting scientists Stig Dalstrom and Thomas Hoeijer, representatives from Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS), National biodiversity Centre (NBC) and Wildlife Conservation Division (WCD).
Stig Dalstrom is a botanical illustrator, an experienced orchid taxonomist while Thomas Hoeijer works at The Bergius Botanical garden, Stockholm. His interest is in tropical plants with a focus on orchids and aroids.
Ngawang Gyeltshen of the biodiversity section of WCD said the Orchid was sighted in the warm broadleaved forests inside the designated orchid trail. The location in which the new sighting was made is also part of Jonkhar Community Forests.
“We could instantly determine in the field itself that it was a new record,” Ngawang Gyeltshen said adding that it was done with the two experts in the team.
However the team could only determine the genera of the orchid as Bulbophyllum. Due to lack of such data, the distribution of this particular orchid in the world is unknown. Further expert determination would be required to pinpoint the species of the new orchid.
Chief Forestry Officer of WCD, Sonam Wangchuk said that there are many opportunities for recording of new species of both flora and fauna species in the country. “Bhutan still remains largely unexplored and those areas especially inaccessible to human are yet to be explored for high significance biodiversity,” He said. “WCD will place strong focus in 11th FYP in new species documentation.”
The orchid survey in SWS was carried out beginning May 23 this year basically as part of Biodiversity inventory for enhancing orchid conservation in the sanctuary. The park so far has recorded 55 species of Orchids prevalent in their jurisdiction. It increased to 68 species with addition of 13 more species from the orchid exploration survey.
The team used existing foot trail as transect line without defined interval along the altitudinal gradient. Field data were collected using Trimble Juno SC handled GPS using data dictionary with basic information of the site and the species.
The same orchid survey team also accompanied the Biological Corridor team and trekked from Nahi in Wangduephodrang till Dochula in Thimphu. Live samples and herbarium of the undetermined species during the exploration was collected to grow in Royal Botanical garden and National Herbarium at Serbithang for identification and preservation.
Bhutan has recorded approximately 370 species of Orchid excluding the one recently documented by the team.