Just a few weeks before the UN Convention on Biological Diversity was scheduled to start its summit in neighbouring India, Bhutan designated its first two wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. The Himalayan country will now be able to access more funds to protect the wetlands.
The first site, Tashiyangtse Dzongkhag, is a wildlife sanctuary that provides a habitat for at least 74 bird species, including endangered species. A valley scoured out of the Himalayas by a glacier in north-eastern Bhutan, it was a rice-producing floodplain until a series of floods washed away the paddy fields and left it fallow with sandy soil. The birds found in the sanctuary include the vulnerable Black-necked Cranes (Grus nigricollis) that migrate from the Tibetan plateau each winter. Other endangered animals recorded there include the Snow Leopard (Panthera unica), Tiger (Panthera tigris), Asiatic Wild Dog (Cuon alpines primaevus) and Himalayan Musk Deer (Moschus leucogaster). Located at 1,900-2,000 metres above sea level, the fairly isolated valley is at a much lower altitude than other crane wintering areas in Bhutan and is comparatively warmer.
A broad-leaf forest dominates the area. Alder (Alnus nepalensis), Maple (Acer sp.) and Birch (Betula sp.), found in and around the wetland, are used for making traditional household items and represent the main source of income for some communities in the area. The river Kholong Chhu and its three tributaries flow through the wetland; while the tributaries provide the local communities with a source of water for irrigation and drinking, the main river will be the site of a hydropower project 35 km south of the wetland, which will not impact the site itself.
The second site is Wangdue Dzongkhag, in the Khotokha wetlands, west of the Black Mountain range in the Himalayas. This is one of the main wintering sites for the Black-necked Crane and is also home to the Himalayan Musk Deer and the Asiatic Wild Dog. Local inhabitants live in harmony with the migratory birds, considering them sacred and a sign of good harvest. However, the number of cranes has been dwindling over the years. Logging activities surrounding the wetland are leading to noise pollution and increased sedimentation of the rivers.