Sunday, 25 January 2009

Bhutan : Saving the White-bellied Heron

24 January, 2009 - The rare and endangered White-bellied Heron, spotted mainly along the Punatsangchhu basin in Punakha, might, after all, have a protected home.

With major developmental activities taking place along the Punatshangchhu area to generate 10,000 MW by 2020, there was a concern among nature conservationists that the activities and growing population in the area would severely alter or destroy the habitat for the birds. And although the upper Phochhu area was declared protected for White-bellied Herons in 2007, the Natural Resources Development Corporation Ltd. (NRDCL) recently asked the government to lift the ban on quarrying operations in the area to meet the growing demand for sand.

The environmentalists seemed to be losing out in what observers saw as a clash between them and the power sector over which received priority. But today, the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), Punatsangchhu-I Hydroelectric Project Authority, Nature Conservation Division (NCD) and forest officials are teaming up to save the birds.

RSPN ornithologist, Rebecca Pradhan, said that they were in the process of creating artificial habitat for the Herons, such as making ponds in the other areas of the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. “We are also looking at other mitigation strategies on how we are going to save this bird as it is a critically endangered species in the world,” she said. “We also need to do a proper research on whether these artificial habitats would work.”

Rebecca said that the concerned agencies have pledged to assist RSPN in educating the community and workers on the endangered species. “Both hydropower and environment is important for the country and we had to meet the concerned agencies to solve the issue.”

The White-Bellied Heron is one of the 50 rarest birds in the world, considered endangered in the Birdlife International Red Data Book because of its small and declining population and lack of data. There are just about 200 White-bellied Herons worldwide and Bhutan has 31 of them, about 15 percent of the total.

White-bellied heron can be identified from their long legs for wading, grayish slender body with long head and neck, and huge thick bill. Its colour camouflages it in the surroundings making it difficult to spot. It was sighted in Bhutan as early as 1975, say RSPN.

Rebecca Pradhan said that rock extraction and other activities along the river shores would disturb the habitat of the heron. Nature conservationists said that destruction of forest and tall grassland, and reclamation of wetlands was harmful for the heron.

However, nature conservationists said that with more developmental works planned for the years ahead, Bhutan would face growing challenges of having to balance between biological diversity and economic activity.

By Phuntsho Choden

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