Tales from the field

Posted on
14 October 2020

By Dechen Yeshi
Program Officer
Wildlife Practice
WWF Bhutan

Working for the past 9 years in WWF Bhutan has given me an opportunity to understand the environment and appreciate nature in a more delightful way. Visiting field and communicating with project implementers is the by far the best means one can learn about impacts and the progress of projects. I have been fortunate to have projects spread across the country giving me a diverse learning opportunity. Over the years I have made several field trips but my recent trip to Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary (PWS) located in southern Bhutan was of an experience of no equal. 

We started our journey on a bright and sunny morning. The trip was pleasant, except for the bumpy ride through the new hydropower plant, Punasangtchhu Hydropower, due to construction trucks. On the way, we decided to halt at one of the guesthouses in Gelephu which is in Sarpang district. The weather was a drastic change, dreadfully hot but a relief once we reached the guesthouse with air conditioning facilities. 
I had a peaceful sleep, but could not help fear what lay ahead since PWS lies in the wild reaches of the forest. The park had long remained isolated due to a porous border with India. But I kept my worries at bay and the following morning we continued our on our journey. 

We were accompanied by the park manager from Royal Manas National Park, the District’s Forest officer and the Officer in charge, and of course forestry staff. The first halt was at the construction site at Theomba. It was only in 2009 with WWF support, PWS began conservation work. Until then, PWS remained a paper park. I had previously seen pictures of the headquarters, with just the base of the construction site in progress. However, on this trip, I saw a lot of impressive progress with the building almost finished. Luckily the contractor was also present to provide us with a brief update on the building. We also had a tour of the staff quarter construction site which was also near completion. Later, both contractors of the two sites treated us with some tasty homemade snacks which we ate heartily.

We then continued our journey towards PWS base. Having heard of unfortunate incidents of bomb blasts from the Indian side, I was a little apprehensive about the whole journey. Saying a silent pray in my mind, we started our long journey. We had a group of six forest staff in front of us leading the way. Their eyes and ears were fully open, and their guns stood tall beside them. 

Monsoon season had made the roads harsh and bumpy, and we also had to cross three rivers. It was very interesting to note that most of the roads actually fell in India. Along the way, we crossed SingyeGeog,where human wildlife conflict is rampant, but this has been controlled by provision of electric fencing, seen as a blessing by the local communities. 

The whole journey took almost two and a half hours, and it was a huge relief seeing the green roofs of the forest staff quarters after passing huge heavily adorned forests. We were received by the forest guards stationed in the park and were led to the newly constructed dining hall where we were served tea and biscuits. 
Later we were shown to our rooms to freshen up. The weather was unbearable and I sweated my guts out, so it was refreshing to take a shower. But the moment I got out of the washroom, I started sweating again, so I knew my whole trip would be this way. 

Thereafter we started off our field tour with the forest staff and a tour to the Royal Guest House. We were welcomed by two forest guards stationed in the house and given a tour. It was a beautiful building with a lovely veranda where you could actually see the beautiful trees blissfully showering the whole forest. We made this visit short and continued on our field tour. 

While we were trying our best to enjoy the ride despite the bumpy road, and sweating profusely and cursing silently about the harsh weather, we spotted a herd of elephants with their calves. All my sweating disappeared in a second and I got all excited seeing wildlife for the first time. I immediately got up on a pickup truck and craned my neck to get a better view. My boss took out his camera to get some shots while some of the forest staff walked over to get a better look. I took out my mobile and tried my best to shoot some pictures but with little success. 
The elephants, probably females, stopped by the river and drank water while the calves just dipped themselves in the cool water. It was an amazing feeling just to stand there and gaze at them. I felt content that such wildlife exists, knowing we are responsible for the preservation of such wildlife. 

Led by the forest staff, we then walked for several kilometres to catch a glimpse of the famous chital (spotted deer) commonly sighted in the Sanctuary. Unfortunately we did not get to see any wildlife at that time, except for some pug marks made by wild dogs. Since it was getting dark, we decided to head back to the staff quarter and made our way to the dining area.  

There was a huge gathering in the dining area that night, where the DzongkhagForest officer spoke to the forest staff on the commendable work they were doing, despite the isolated location and harsh weather. The staff thanked WWF for providing funds for the construction of the dining hall, the provision of solar lights, a television set for recreation, and a generator for the television. The evening ended with some cultural songs and dances performed by the staff while we enjoyed our dinner.

The next morning I was awakened by a knock on my window. I looked out and saw a forest staff informing me that there were chitals nearby.  The time was 5:30 am and I got up and took a look outside, but I was too sleepy to see anything and went back to my bed. 

Later the sun started shining and I could sleep no longer, so I was forced to get up. I took a quick shower and went off to see if the chitals were still there. Luckily they were and I had a nice view of a herd of seven to eight chitals happily grazing on the grass. 

After some time we had our breakfast and it was time to leave the field and head back to Gelephu. We again had to go through the gruelling weather and the harsh road. I was exhausted but had a great feeling of contentment as we conquered the rough road. 

Heading back to the capital of Thimphu felt good, as I would be able to sleep in my own bed. However, I truly gained a huge amount of hands-on experience and became four shades darker! I am highly encouraged to go on such trips in the future and would encourage my fellow colleagues to do the same. 

Additional information about the park:
Area - 269 square km 
Established – 2003
Support by WWF began- 2009
Geographical location - Sarpang district

Wildlife richness - Elephant, Gaur, Spotted deer, and Golden langur
Conservation Challenges - staff capacity, border security, transboundary issues, restraints of conservation being implemented for the first time in the park