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“Look, movement!” whispered Rinchen Singye thrusting his binoculars into my hands and pointing enthusiastically at a cluster of bamboo shoots. I focused the lenses on a round bird dangling upside down swinging wildly on the end of a frond. “It’s a Brown Parrot Bill, a bamboo specialist”, explained Rinchen, Bhutan Ride for Climate’s EMT and on the side ornithologist. In the early mornings, Rinchen lead bird walks in some of the best bird watching areas in the world including the Royal Botanical Park. As I watched the brown parrot bill catapult itself amongst the bamboo shoots, I realized I’d only seen 27 of the nearly 700 species native to Bhutan.
Avifauna contributes to only a small sector of Bhutan’s rich biodiversity. Bhutan serves as a model for environmental conservation across the globe. With its forest cover policy, commitment to carbon neutrality and sustainable development, the country successfully preserves its unique ecosystems. However, the pressures of an increasing population, globalization and climate change threaten this biological “hotspot”.
As we begin our walk through the densely forested area of the Royal Botanical Park, Rinchen explains how some species are already reacting to a changing climate. Rinchen is looking for a White Breasted Water Hen, one of the species sighted in higher altitudes as global temperatures rise. Ornithologists across the globe including Rinchen are observing changes in the ranges of many birds. He also points out the combined threats of climate change with land use changes and habitat destruction. The massive hydropower construction site we visited in Punatsangchhu is home to the White Bellied Herron—one of Bhutan’s endangered species.
Despite these threats, birds in Bhutan have a better chance of survival because of the country’s commitment to conservation. Perhaps this effort stems from the Buddhist beliefs of its people. In particular, the value placed on all sentient beings and the practice of relieving suffering for any living thing. As my fellow rider Kinley explained while cupping insects in his hands to release them outdoors, Buddhists believe when we harm others, we harm ourselves. I am inspired by Kinley’s compassion for all living things. Bhutan’s dedication to protecting biodiversity reflects this compassion. People of Bhutan understand the importance of protecting biodiversity on an ethical level.
Our bus driver, Dechen, accompanied Rinchen and the birders on our walk in the Royal Botanical Park. He lingered behind holding prayer beads, his chants adding to the forest noises. Dechen’s prayers went out to all sentient beings. As we took turns looking through the binoculars, his chanting reminded me of the role of Buddhism in Bhutan’s conservation policy. People like Kinley and Dechen make these efforts possible. Because of the value Buddhists place on all sentient beings, protecting biodiversity remains a widely supported effort. Coming to Bhutan, I’ve gained a new way of understanding nature through the beliefs of the Bhuddhist people.