And THAT is how it is done!

It has been a case of many hands getting the job done over the last 10 days, with none of it easy!  The Brokpa herders of Merak and Park Forestry staff pooled their resources to complete the mammoth task of fencing out and planting the enormous gully at Drana. You only have to look at the distant specks of women planting in the base of the gully to get an idea of the scale of what the project is dealing with. With the monsoon season starting, we pray that Aum Jomo (Merak’s protective deity in the mountains above the project site) will stop the plantings from washing away.  Congratulations to everyone involved!

Photos taken by Kesang Dorjee, Species Conservation Officer, Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary.

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Fencing and planting of first landslide underway at Drana

Now that the fence posts and wire have arrived at the first gully site at Drana (see map below), the herders are swinging into action! 130 herders have erected fence poles over the 20ha site, and will complete wiring over the weekend. A mix of  bamboo, acer, fir, salix and few other fodder species will then be planted. Photopoints will be set up to monitor changes in vegetation cover and erosion control. The community will patrol the area to check fence damage or livestock invasions. Note, the wet conditions typical of area- one of the wettest spots in Bhutan! Herders work in rain, hail, and snow to look after their livestock and rangelands.

Photos taken by Thinley Wangdi, Chief Forestry Officer, Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary

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Drana gully site  zoning of project area


Red Panda awareness and knowledge amongst Brokpa community

Throughout the project, we will be monitoring changes in people’s awareness and knowledge of red pandas in response to red panda research and education. The baseline household survey showed that 67 percent of respondents have sighted red pandas while herding yaks in the forests whilst 33 percent had not seen them. While a few of the sightings were in the recent past, the majority of sightings happened between 10 to 30 years ago which may indicate a decline in red panda numbers.

About 70% of respondents did not know anything regarding changes to red panda population. Nine percent of the respondents said red panda numbers had increased and eight percent thought they had decreased. About five percent said the number had not changed. One respondent had seen a carcass of a red panda mauled and killed by domestic dogs. See red panda charts

Almost 75% of respondents did not know anything about breeding or movement of red pandas.  Some respondents said that red pandas move towards lower altitudes during winter especially when it snows and return to higher altitude during summer. They also think that red panda move within a small range while others think they stay in the same area where there is bamboo. On red panda breeding, one respondent said they breed in hollow tree trunks and raise one or two young ones. Some respondents think red panda breed on tree tops in autumn whereas others think they breed among wood and bushes in summer.

Regarding red panda diet, the 40% of respondents said red pandas eat bamboo, 25% said grass and 21% and eight percent of respondents think red panda eat wild fruits and leaves respectively. One respondent assumed that red panda eat insects found in cow dung. Respondents gave a range of suggestions on protecting red pandas including protecting habitat, replanting bamboo inside red panda habitat, creation of a restricted zone, awareness creation among herders and promoting sustainable grazing. Red panda has religious and cultural significance and sighting is a lucky omen.  Some respondents see red panda conservation as a means to promote eco-tourism and bring tourists to their area. On the other hand, one respondent was skeptical about red panda habitat protection and creation of buffer zones for fear it may restrict movement of people and livestock in the area.

Red Panda

Spring snow delays land restoration works

Merak has returned to a winter wonderland with a recent heavy snowfall. Looks lovely but has made it difficult to transport fence posts and wire to the land restoration site, and to get started. On the other hand, it may bring red pandas down to lower altitudes where the cameras are installed! Hopefully this is the last snowfall so work can begin to fence and plant out the Drana landslide and install two biogas units at Cheabuling and Sheytemi winter settlements. Thanks to SWS Forestry staff for the photos!



Red Panda Monitoring Begins!

A team of SWS rangers and herders, led by Mr Kesang Dorjee from the Species Conservation Section at Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary traversed the project area twice  during December 2016. They fixed five camera traps in potential Red Panda habitat.

After the lapse of 37 days they checked the cameras and found photographs of Goral, Serow, Barking Deer and Monkey but no sign of Red Panda yet. There are several possible reasons for this;

1)  the bamboo (leaf) which is the primary source of Red Panda’s diet especially during winter season are dead and new sprouts of bamboo is yet to come. Red pandas will return when there is enough bamboo feed.

2) the cameras have white flash which may disturb sensitive animals such as Red Panda. Ten infrared cameras have been ordered and will be installed during spring.

3) the project area comprises a mosaic of forest, opened grazing ground and landslips. As the disturbed area has increased over the years, it may be limiting red panda movements even though there have been sightings by herders and rangers.

Watch this space as we report on findings over spring and summer!


Making money from animal toys

A group of Brokpa men and women are sitting in the autumn sun on a hillside, deep in concentration as they learn to knit and crochet woollen toys. Their instructor, Ute Meuser, a freelance consultant from India, patiently explains how many stitches to load and how many rows to knit. The little group appears relaxed and deeply focused on the task at hand.

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The November training was an initiative of the Tarayana Foundation enabling the people of Merak and Sakteng to produce quality toys for sale to tourists and locals. Over a week in each village, participants learnt how to make yaks, horses, dolls, snow leopards and……….red pandas! When our project team stumbled across Ute and the knitters in Merak, we asked if she had a method for making red pandas that she could teach to herders.  Overnight, Ute got busy and made this cute felted red panda! Within a day, Nima the local carpenter, had made a beautifully carved wooden panda with plans to make many more to sell.

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Currently in Merak, there are two shops selling the toys. However they have not been able to sell much due to off tourist winter season. So far in Merak they have been able to sell 8-9 yaks and horse toys. The cost of the toys vary from 400-600 Ngultrum depending on the size.  Producers are also planning to make dolls of herders in their traditional attire, and (hopefully!) more red pandas to create awareness and interest in red panda conservation. We will continue to monitor this unexpected project spin-off in collaboration with the Tarayana Foundation.

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Young girls in Sakteng village learning to make felted red pandas (photo Ute Meuser)


Merak lady showing her handcrafted yak and horse (photo: Norbu Yangdon)


Handknitted horses for sale in Merak village! (photo: Norbu Yangdon)

Herders care about red pandas and want livelihood change

A household survey was conducted in October 2016 with 75 Merak herding families who use the winter grazing areas of Cheabuling, Sheytemi and Drana in the buffer zone of Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. The project is focusing on this area for land rehabilitation, revegetation, pasture improvement, biogas trials and red panda conservation.

Six local parks and livestock staff were trained by Dr Joanne Millar in how to conduct the interviews and modifications made to the questionnaire from their suggestions.  Herders interviewed included 60 from Chebuling, 14 from Sheytemi and 6 from Drana  (54% women/46% men, and 66% of total households). Some herders had already left for winter pastures so we were unable to interview them. Data will be analysed over the next two months by Dr Karma Tenzing, however some preliminary findings are highlighted here.

A small proportion of herders had seen individual red pandas in the wild usually whilst herding their yaks and dzo/dzom. Some people said they saw red pandas sleeping in the tree canopy, others reported seeing red pandas crossing the path and disappearing into the forest. No-0ne had seen red panda cubs. Most herders knew that red pandas eat bamboo leaves, tree leaves and wild fruits and some thought they ate grass.

However no-one knew how red pandas raised their young, where they moved to/from or if there numbers had changed in the last 20 years. All herders were keen to protect red pandas as they hold social and religious values.

In terms of their livelihoods, there was significant variation in herd sizes, tsadrog area  and livestock numbers.  Some individuals had sheep only or no animals, whilst others had large herds of  yaks. However, the majority of people thought the rangeland was in poor condition. Those with large livestock numbers resorted to lopping trees for fodder in winter. A few herders had trialed pasture improvement and were keen to try again once pasture leasing was finalised. Livelihood activities centred around butter and cheese production mainly but some people also had income from weaving, working for others or running a farmstay. The majority of herders were interested in joining a savings group, trialing biogas units and developing alternative income sources to raising livestock.

A full report will be available in April 2017.



Getting to know their elusive neighbour, the red panda

Dr Joanne Millar and park ranger (Norbu Yangdon) visited Merak school (140 students) on 20th October. We started off by talking about Australia and the koala using drawing and posters. Then we posed the question “What animal do you have in your forests that is about the same size as koala and also sleeps a lot?” Answers from the children varied from Bear (too big!), tiger (too fierce!), leopard cat (getting close!). With the prompt that the animal is red, a couple of bright children shouted “Amkhar Dongka!”, the Dzongka name for red panda. We talked to the each of the six classes about red panda feeding, breeding, habitat, threats and need for protection. Most children knew that red pandas eat bamboo but were unaware of other foods in the diet, where they nested or how many young they could have. Each child was given a simple fact sheet developed by WWF Bhutan which was also distributed as posters, to take home and show their families.

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On 22nd October, the BBC documentary “Cherubs of the Mist” was shown to classes 3-6. Students were very enthusiastic and interested in following the introduction of captive red pandas and tracking of wild red pandas in Singhalila National Park in Sikkim. We will return to the school in 2017 to show camera trap evidence and conduct educational activities using drama, singing and art. If red pandas are identified in the project area we will run a naming competition.

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The BBC documentary was also shown to herders during training, creating great excitement and intrigue, particularly the breeding and raising of young in the wild. Posters of red panda were displayed around the community hall during training.


Brokpas learn about group dynamics to help future rangeland management

The sound of laughter and discussion fills the community hall in Merak village. Five groups of Brokpa men and women are sitting in circles with a bunch of sticks arranged in the formation of a fish.  They have been given the task of turning the fish formation upside down using only three sticks. It is an exercise in problem solving as a team. A loud shout goes up as one team works it out. Earlier, blindfolded herders formed a circle outside  whilst holding a rope which they had to shape into a square without looking. They had to learn to trust one another intuitively. The training led by Dr Karma Tenzing from Charles Sturt University,  covered group formation, group dynamics, managing conflict, building trust and drafting group constitution and by-laws.

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A total of 90 herders were trained in two groups over two weeks in November. Building the group capacity and leadership of Brokpa herders will assist implementation of sustainable rangeland management and conservation of red pandas in their tsamdros (high altitude pastures).


Project launched in Merak with Yakcham dance by Brokpa community

On a crisp sunny morning on Sunday 23rd October, the Merak village hall filled with Brokpa herders, their children, parks rangers, livestock staff, dignatories and lamas to launch the project. The newly elected local mayor (Lam Rinchen) started proceedings with the ceremonial bowl filled with fermented maize brew. He lifted a cup filled with the brew above the bowl and chanted blessings.


The lamas beat drums and chanted from their ancient prayer books. Offerings were passed around in the form of yellow rice, fruit and biscuits. The Dasho from Sakteng gave a speech followed by the Chief Ranger of Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (Thinley Wangdi) and Director of the Regional Livestock Development Centre (Tsering Dorji). After cutting the ribbon in front of the banner, the local ladies entertained with their beautiful singing and dancing.

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Just when we thought it was over, a loud drumming came from outside the hall. In came a large dancing yak surrounded by masked dancers. The yak reared and bowed to the dignatories whilst his dancers performed the famous Yakcham dance only bestowed on important occasions. We felt blessed indeed!

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