First Red Panda Conservation Workshop held in Bhutan

Thirty five people with a passion for protecting the magnificent red panda came together for 3 days to share their knowledge and experience with red panda conservation in Bhutan, India and Nepal. The workshop was organized by Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in
collaboration with WWF Bhutan and Charles Sturt University.  Major threats to red panda in Bhutan and across the east and west borders with India were identified as habitat fragmentation, dog attacks/disease, livestock grazing and infrastructure development. A draft action plan was prepared to be finalised and endorsed by the Government of Bhutan by October 2018. It will be titled “Red Panda Conservation Action Plan (2018-2023): Ensuring the Future of Red Panda Landscapes through National and Regional Collaboration”. For more information, contact Mr Thinley Wangdi (wangdi.thinley78@gmail.com) or Joanne Millar (jmillar@csu.edu.au)

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Thinley Wangdi, CFO SWS.   Rajarshi Chakrabhorty, WWF India receives kata and gifts from Sangay, SFO, DOFPS.    

 

 

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Herders sow improved pasture for winter fodder

The sound of power tillers breaks through the mountain mist as we drive towards Sheytemi, a winter grazing area of the Brokpas from Merak. The mist clears and we look down a slope to see and smell the acid brown earth smeared with white lime powder as the tiller churns it into the soil. Two district livestock officers greet us at the junction and point to where families are busy sowing ryegrass and cocksfoot into the newly fenced, ploughed and fertilised ground. This is a new experience for them. It will provide much needed winter fodder for cattle and reduce calf mortality.

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A week later and we visit more pasture sites to observe germination of ryegrass and sprouting of willow tree cuttings which will also provide valuable winter fodder. One herder has cleverly left strips of established white clover to reduce soil erosion and achieve a good balance of grass and clover. His family plan to make silage and buy a couple of Brown Swiss cows. Until now, they have not had livestock and other people have grazed their unfenced land.

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From Yack to Merak: a spinning wheel migration

Spinning wool is a way of life for Brokpas to make their traditional clothes. Normally done by individual spinning spools, this is about to change with plans for a wool processing centre at Gengu village at Merak. A successful grant application to Helvetas will fund a small electronic wool carding and spinning machine. This will significantly reduce labour for Brokpa women who do most of the spinning. It will enable quicker and greater production of traditional textiles.

Whilst waiting for the wool processing machine, I decided to donate my spinning wheel to the Gengu women. Karma and I spent an afternoon renovating it, packed it up and carried it all the way from my village of Yackandandah to Merak! The Brokpa women soon got the hang of using the spinning wheel but preferred to stand up as they are accustomed to- it may take a while to feel comfortable with pedaling…..

 

 

 

 

 

Red panda research in Bhutan: a brief summary

In the lead up to the national workshop on red panda conservation, we thought it might be useful to provide a summary of what has been researched in Bhutan to date, the main findings and knowledge gaps. These topics and issues will be fleshed out in more detail at the workshop.

  • Five studies have been carried out in three national parks namely, Jigme Dorji National Park (Dorji et al. 2011) , Thrumsengla National Park (Dorji et al. 2011; Dendup et al. 2016), Jigme Singye Wangchuk National Park (Wangchuk, nd) and Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (Dorjee 2010; Dorjee 2012). An overview paper of potential distribution was published by Dorji et al. 2012.

Main Findings

  • Red panda habitats are located within a narrow altitudinal range between 2980 and 3685 masl in temperate conifer forests. The highest proportion of red panda detection was reported in fir forest between 3000-3800 masl. Fir forest is the primary habitat of red pandas in the eastern Himalayas.
  • A majority of red panda droppings (between 75% to 95%) were found between 100 and 150 meters of a water source and they showed predilection for easterly and southerly facing slopes with relatively high bamboo densities usually associated with sunlight and rainfall. However, one study has found red panda within 400m from water sources and on north and north-east aspect.
  • Red panda habitat degradation, attrition, destruction and loss due to natural and anthropogenic disturbances is pushing red panda beyond its normal range.

Threats

  • Loss of its habitat due to bamboo die back following mass flowering
  • Timber harvesting including burr collection,
  • Bamboo collection
  • Livestock grazing. For instance, in Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, winter grazing last for about five months between December to February which poses the greatest risk to red panda as it coincides with red panda breeding seasons.
  • Predation by predators such as tiger, leopard, wild and domestic dogs

Gaps

  • Red panda population and distribution in Bhutan not known in detail
  • No clear government policy directive or instrument for red panda conservation
  • Lack of coordination of red panda research efforts among relevant stakeholders.
  • No dialogue between concerned departments and agencies for optimal red panda conservation outcomes. For example, overgrazing and trampling are often alleged to be the main drivers of red panda habitat destruction by several authors (Dorjee, 2008, Dorji et al., 2011). However, there is no indication or record of interaction between DOFPS and DOL to develop a multi-pronged strategy to conserve red panda.

Suggestions

  •  Develop a clear national policy on red panda conservation clearly specifying what steps must be taken to preserve, conserve, restore and minimize red panda habitat destruction and loss due to anthropogenic activities.
  • Identification and creation of “red panda conservation core zones or sanctuaries” within Parks, biological corridors including buffer zones in key vulnerable areas

References

  1. Dendup, P., Cheng, E., Lham, C. and Tenzin, U. (2016). Response of the Endangered red panda Ailurus fulgens fulgens to anthropogenic disturbances, and its distribution in Phrumsengla National Park, Bhutan. Oryx, pp.701-708.
  2. Dorjee, K. (2010). Conservation and Management of Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) in Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. Report submitted to CEPF, WWF-Bhutan Program. Report unpublished.
  3. Dorjee, K. (2012). Transhumant Practices, Its Impact And Threat To Red Panda Habitat Conservation In Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. Bachelor of Science thesis, College of Natural Resources, Royal University of Bhutan.
  4. Dorji, S., Rajaratnam, R., & Vernes K. (2012). The Vulnerable red panda Ailurus fulgens in Bhutan: distribution, conservation status and management recommendations. 1;46(04):536–43.
  5. Dorji, S., Vernes K, and Rajaratnam, R. (2011). Habitat Correlates of the Red Panda in the Temperate Forests of Bhutan. PLoS ONE 6(10): e26483. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0026483
  6. Wangchuk, K. (n.d). Habitat Status and Conservation Threats of the Red Panda in Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. https://www.rufford.org/files/15374-1%20Detailed

National and transboundary red panda conservation workshop, 1-3 May, Bhutan

In a few weeks time, invited red panda researchers and managers from Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh will gather in Trashigang, eastern Bhutan to develop a national and transboundary action plan for red panda conservation. The workshop is being hosted by Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (Bhutan Department of Forests and Parks) and supported by World Wildlife Fund Bhutan and Charles Sturt University Australia.

The first day will explore research findings on red panda ecology and threats in Bhutan, Nepal and India. Research gaps and needs will be identified. On the second day, participants will share experiences with red panda management and education strategies across the three countries.  The final day will be devoted to developing a national action plan for red panda conservation in Bhutan and a transboundary conservation plan for Bhutan and India.

The aim is to encourage better coordination of red panda conservation within Bhutan and with neighbouring districts to ensure safe movement of animals and support sustainable populations. Keep watching this site for workshop outcomes!

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Herders learn about community-led conservation in Sikkim and pasture sites in Bhutan

From 19 February 2018, twelve Merak herders (4 female and 8 male) and two district officers (forestry and livestock), went on a study tour to Sikkim, India to learn about community benefits from red panda conservation. At the villages of Yuksum (1300m) and Okrey (2300m), herders learnt how local communities were benefiting from ecotourism by offering homestays, trekking services, food, and even Rhododendron Wine! However with more than 6,000 visitors per year, solid waste has become an issue so a resource recovery centre was established. Herders were shown how to segregate waste and use materials for making handicrafts to sell back to tourists!

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Okrey is an entry point to Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary bordering Singalila National Park, famous for rich diversity of Rhododendron and conservation of Red Panda. Herders trekked 4.5 km uphill through bamboo thickets, well managed to feed Red Panda by the Department of Forest. Though Red Panda couldn’t be sighted, herders were excited to learn about the mechanism of revenue generation from red panda ecotourism activities. Last stop in Sikkim was the Sikkim Himalayan Zoological Park located 3 km from Gangtok to observe captive Red Panda breeding and other charismatic wildlife species.  

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At Phobjikha, herders interacted with bee keeping farmers and learnt about the benefits and challenges in rearing bees. They also visited the Black Crane Information Center to learn about community based conservation initiatives to protect crane habitat in the valley leading to enhancement of income generation from tourism. Participants visited Bumthang dairy farm where the farm manager showed silage preparation and storage process, milking machine, cattle shed and hygiene management process to maintain the health of the animals. Participants also visited improved pasture management sites maintained by the farm to feed their animals on a rotational basis.

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Participant feedback revealed the following plans to adopt some practices;

  • Install waste bins in strategic locations and create awareness to manage waste in their locality.
  • Generate income by brewing Rhododendron wine
  • Host visitors to Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Start apiculture in their pasture land in the coming year to diversify income
  • Request to be trained in how to make silage to overcome winter fodder shortage

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Fencing for pasture and red panda habitat: the tale of two brothers

Twin brothers Nima and Dawa are a very industrious pair. They have combined their allocated 2.5 acre pasture plots to establish 5 acres of improved pasture this spring at their winter grazing area. Fencing of the pasture area has been completed and is now ready for soil preparation and sowing. In Bhutan, Nima means Sun and Dawa is Moon. They live up to their names as great examples of co-operation and dedication to their environment.

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Nima recently returned from the project sponsored study tour to see red panda conservation in Sikkim. As a result, the brothers have decided to fence off part of their grazing lease for red panda habitat to allow regeneration of bamboo and forest under-storey. They are leading the way as true community stewards for red panda conservation. Thank you to Nima and Dawa and your families!

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Check out these check-dams!

It’s snowing and freezing cold, but our herder and parks team are bravely soldiering on with the construction of 25 check-dams in the massive Drana gully.  Hand built from stone and braced by timber logs, the check-dams will slow down water run-off during the monsoon season. They are designed to let the water seep through the stones rather than spill over or go around the sides forming minor gullies. Plant cuttings have been placed above the check-dams to bind the soil. Time will tell if the check-dams can withstand the power of climate change induced flash flooding events.

Tashi Delek Team! [Thanks to Norbu Yangdon for the great photos]

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More red panda scats found!

In the final days of 2017, SWS staff have found more evidence of red pandas in the project area. Old scats were found on a tree and fresh scats were on the ground in a new  location. Three camera traps have been installed to (hopefully!) capture images of the red panda over winter months. There are now eight camera traps operating above Cheabuling and Sheytemi winter settlements.

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Without images or DNA testing of scats, we don’t know if it is the same individual using the project site. However, it confirms that the forest is still used by red panda despite the land degradation, timber use and grazing of vegetation. Our efforts to curb erosion,  plant habitat and reduce grazing pressure should improve prospects for red panda living or transiting through the area.

Another new year development is the tree nursery at Karma Gonpa. A site has now been fenced off and seedbeds will be prepared for spring sowing of tree seeds. A manager has been appointed to run the nursery with technical assistance from SWS staff.

Tree nursery site

 

Trade in burr bowls and cheese gets boost from savings scheme

In only four months, the Genghu women’s savings group has grown from 80 to 100 members and three loans have been issued to herder families. One household has borrowed Nu. 30,000 and two households have borrowed Nu 20,000 each, mainly to build up their trade in buying and selling fermented cheese. The Merak savings group has increased slightly to 35 members and saved Nu. 35,000. Here are some examples of how the loans are assisting herders to boost their enterprises.

Kinga boosts family trade in burr bowls

Kinga and his family have taken a loan of Nu.20,000 to invest in their business of buying and selling “Dhapa” bowls and cups made from burr wood (abnormal cambium growth).  Dhapas are traditionally used for eating rice and drinking arak (spirits). Kinga has a licence to harvest two trees per year. He pays Nu.600 for a small tree with burr, Nu. 900 for medium tree and Nu.2000 for a large tree . Burr can also be harvested from a tree root system (Betula species) in which case they do not fell the tree but a permit fee is required. Kinga sends the wood to Trashi Yangtze to experienced carvers and collects the products to sell locally. A Dhapa can cost between Nu. 3500 and 17,000 depending on size and intricacy of pattern. The annual turnover is around Nu. 150,000 to 200,000.

Burr bowls Mr Kinga sheytemi  Burr bowls in two different colours

Lobzang Tashi borrows for expanding cheese business

Lobzang Tashi is one of the herders who took a loan for buying and selling cheese and butter on behalf of a herders’ group “Jomo Lhanor Tshokpa” specifically formed for group marketing of butter and cheese. He said the group has been buying and selling butter and cheese for a few years now. Although there are 10 members in the group,  only four are active and involved in group marketing of butter and cheese. The active members pool financial resources for buying and selling of butter and fermented cheese and divide the profit equally. In 2016, the group sold approximately 1500-1600 kg of butter and cheese. They usually sell butter and cheese in Tashigang, Samdrup Jongkhar and Thimphu. In 2016, each member made a profit of Nu. 36,000-37,000. Lobzang said the micro credit facility provided by the Gengu women’ group is helpful in providing necessary funds for small businesses like his and his group.

cheese in jars  Fermented cheese is marketed in labelled jars