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




Publications of relevance

There has been a flurry of journal papers published in the last few years on rangeland management in Bhutan, and Red Panda studies in the Himalayas. Here is a list to whet your appetites!

Tenzing, K., Millar, J. and Black. R. (2017) Changes in Property Rights and Management of High-Elevation Rangelands in Bhutan: Implications for Sustainable Development of Herder Communities. Mountain Research and Development. Vol 37, No. 3. 353-366

Namgay, K., Millar, J. and Black, R. (2017). Dynamics of grazing rights and their impact on migrating cattle herders in Bhutan. The Rangeland Journal. 39 (1) 97-104 CSIRO Publishing, Australia.

Tenzing, K., Millar, J. and Black. R. (2017) Conflict and mediation in high altitude rangeland property rights in Bhutan. IASC Conference July 10-15 2017, Utrecht, the Netherlands. Available from authors.

Tshering, K. and Thinley, P. (2017) Assessing livestock herding practices of agro-pastoralists in western Bhutan: Livestock vulnerability to predation and implications for livestock management policy. Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice  7:5
DOI 10.1186/s13570-017-0077-1

Norbu Yangdon1, Kumbu Dorji2, Sonam Tobgay (2017) Fuelwood Consumption by Semi-Nomadic Communities of Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan International Journal of Science and Research (IJSR) ISSN (Online): 2319-7064 Volume 6 Issue 9, September 2017

Damber Bista, Saroj Shrestha, Peema Sherpa, Gokarna Jung Thapa,
Manish Kokh, Sonam Tashi Lama, Kapil Khanal, Arjun Thapa, Shant Raj Jnawali. (2017) Distribution and habitat use of red panda in the Chitwan-Annapurna Landscape of Nepal. PLOS One. October 11, 2017.
HA R I P . S H A R M A, JE R R O L D L . BE L A N T and P E I – J E N L . S H A N E R. (2017) Attitudes towards conservation of the Endangered Red Panda Ailurus fulgens in Nepal: a case study in protected and non-protected areas. Oryx, Page 1 of 6 © 2017 Fauna & Flora International doi:10.1017/S0030605317000990

R Chakraborty, LT Nahmo,PK Dutta, T Srivastav (2015) Status, abundance, and habitat associations of the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) in Pangchen Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, India.  Mammalia, 2015

Shrestha, S., Shah, K. B. , Bista, D. , & Baral, H. S. (2015). Photographic Identification of Individual Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens Cuvier, 1825). Applied Ecology and Environmental Sciences, 3(1), 11-15.
Namgay, K., Millar, J., Black, R., and Samdup, T (2014). Changes in transhumant agro-pastoralism in Bhutan: A disappearing livelihood?   Human Ecology. October 2014, Volume 42, Issue 5, pp 779-792.

Namgay, K., Millar, J. Black, R. and Samdup, T. (2013) Transhumant agro-pastoralism in Bhutan: Exploring contemporary practices and socio-cultural traditions.  Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice journal. 3 (1): 13

Dorji, S., Rajaratnam, R. and Vernes, K. (2012). The Vulnerable Red Panda Ailurus fulgens in Bhutan: distribution, conservation status and management recommendations. Oryx Volume 46, Issue 4, pp. 536-543.



Annual review and planning meeting

The Annual Review and Planning Workshop for 2016-17 and 2017-18 was conducted on 4th and 5th August 2017 at Tashigang. A total of 30 participants participated in the workshop including herders from Merak (n=12), Gup, Gewog Administration, Merak (n=1), staff from Department of Livestock (n=1), Regional Livestock Development Centre, Khangma (n=4), Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, Phongmey (n=6), Dzongkhag Livestock Sector (n=4) and Land Record Officer (n=1), Dzongkhag Administration, Tashigang and research officer, Charles Sturt University (n=1). Here are some highlights from the meeting;

Red panda habitat and land restoration

As part of conservation and restoration of red panda habitat in the project area for 2016-17, Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in collaboration with herders,  carried out rehabilitation works on one of the biggest landslides in the area at Drana. They fenced 20 hectares and planted 10,000 tree wildings, cuttings and bamboo rhizomes. A signboard installed by the main feeder road to Merak above Drana provides details of plantation area and type of tree species planted in the landslide area. The plants have started growing, however recent heavy monsoon rain has washed away an area at the head of the landslide. Construction of check dams and diversion pipes, along with repair of fencing and replanting will be required over the autumn months.

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Red panda presence/absence surveys

SWS staff have carried out red panda surveys and installed several camera traps in potential red panda roosting areas based on two scat sightings on rhododendron trees (one as recently as 12 September 2017 at 3132m). However, no pictures of red pandas have emerged yet. After a mass bamboo flowering event, bamboo regrowth is only slowly coming back so it was thought that the Red Panda population might have shifted to bamboo forest elsewhere. However, during summer months, there was evidence of Red Panda across the park feeding on fruits of wild kiwi, Rosa spp, Sorbus spp,  Holboellia latifolia, and Agapetes sp. Most of these wild fruit are available in project area so park staff are planning to keep the five cameras fixed with the hope of capturing a red panda (or two!).  A few herders mentioned recently that they have seen red pandas at Nugteng  (one day walk south-west of our project area) so a camera will be installed there also.

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Summer Berries  Red Panda in SWS park 2014

Pasture development plans

Formalities and procedures for leasing of government land for improved pasture development has been completed. By-laws and a management plan for improved pasture development in winter pasture areas were developed. It was agreed by all herder households in Cheabling, Sheytemi, Drana, Lurzhing and Tse-thonpo to develop 2.5 acres/household. Fencing is to be completed between October 2017 and February 2018 and soil prepared for sowing in April/May 2018. Soil samples have been sent to the National Soil Service Centre, Department of Agriculture for testing to determine input requirements. Herders will participate in a pasture study tour in November and be trained in pasture sowing and management next March.


Womens saving groups formed

Dr Karma Tenzing (CSU research officer) and Dr Kuenga Namgay (Chief of Animal Nutrition, Dept of Livestock and our focal DOL person) visited Merak in August 2017 to train herder families how to set up saving schemes. Two staff from RLDC, Khangma and three from the Dzongkhag Livestock sector, Tashigang assisted with facilitating the training.  About 98 herders attended the two day training program.  At the end of the second day, two women groups (Merak and Gengu) were officially launched by the Merak Gup (mayor). We handed over two iron safes along with main ledgers and members savings passbooks. Each group has appointed office bearers and they are managing the record keeping.



Twenty five and 12 founding members initially came forward to join  Merak and Gengu savings groups respectively. The founding  members from both the savings groups agreed to deposit Nu.500 as membership fee.  Merak members decided to save Nu.100 monthly whereas Gengu group  decided to save Nu. 150.00 monthly. One female herder even decided to open an account in the name of her minor child! Over the last month, more members have enrolled with Gengu now at 81 members with savings of Nu.40,00 (about $600US).  So they are getting ready to start lending funds to members with a set interest rate. We will monitor how they spend the loans and what difference it makes to their lives over the coming years.




Drana gully fenced and planted

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!