Bhutan: Culture and Conservation in the ‘Land of Happiness’

The nation of Bhutan – the self-proclaimed “Land of Happiness” – is arguably one of the few remaining places in the world uncorrupted by modern commercialization. But now, the small country in Southeast Asia could be in danger of losing parts of its authenticity and culture that made it so “happy” in the first place.

In 2005, Bhutan’s government instituted what it calls a “Gross National Happiness” policy, which is intended to “ensure that progress does not affect conservation and social harmony.”

The utter absurdity of a law mandating happiness does not warrant further explanation. But the irony is that it’s starting to look like the entire “happiness” effort was actually driven by commercialism itself. The country has launched a new tourism campaign, and new websites – such as TravelBhutan.com – are starting to dot the Internet landscape.

In another ironic twist, part of Bhutan’s tourism push involves what the government calls a “Noah’s Ark of wildlife” thriving in the country’s newest national park – including the endangered snow leopard, whose population in the wild falls in the range of 4,500 to 7,500 individuals, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

WWF says a recent study showed the leopards are “thriving” in the area, which is positive news for conservation. But what happens when Bhutan succumbs to the tourism trap? What will happen to the country’s culture, its people and conservation efforts?

The answer may lie in yet another irony: Bhutan’s definition of “happiness” is the assurance that “progress does not affect conservation and social harmony.” But aren’t conservation and social harmony considered “progress”?

It may be time for Bhutan to assess what really makes its people happy.

 

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Top Wildlife Comebacks of the 20th Century

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

With so many animal populations on the decline – thanks to habitat loss, climate change and human intervention, among other causes – sometimes it’s easy to forget all of the progress that conservation efforts have made over the years. For a positive spin, let’s take a look at some of the greatest wildlife comebacks of 20th century, according to a report issued by The Nature Conservancy (NC).

Grizzly Bear

In 1970, the grizzly bear was designated as a threatened species in the continental U.S. Like many other species that once thrived in the country, the grizzly has continued to be threatened by habitat loss and hunting. Thanks to conservation efforts, however, grizzly-bear numbers are improving, and the species may be removed from the threatened list in the near future.

Gray Whale

Back in the 1800s, widespread hunting nearly obliterated the gray-whale population. Since the International Whaling Commission adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, however, gray whales have begun to rebound and now number about 22,000, according to the NC.

Bald Eagle

This iconic American species was driven to the brink of extinction in the middle of the 20th century due to habitat loss, pesticide contamination and hunting. However, thanks to the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972, the bald eagle began to make a comeback, and the NC estimates that there are approximately 10,000 nesting pairs currently living in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Santa Cruz Island Fox

Until a massive captive-breeding initiative was launched by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups, fewer than 100 of these four-pound foxes remained. The animals, native to a small island off the coast of California, had fallen victim to feral pigs and golden eagles. Now, the Santa Cruz Island Fox’s population has risen to 1,300.

Southern White Rhino

Decimated by widespread hunting back in the 1800s, the Southern White Rhino was on the verge of extinction by the end of the 19th century. However, as a result of conservation efforts, they have made one of the biggest wildlife comebacks of all time, with over 20,000 individuals now in the wild.

Gray Wolf

A top predator, the gray wolf was considered a threat to livestock decades ago, and was routinely killed. After having been added to the Endangered Species List in 1974, though, they began to bounce back and now total around 4,000.

Mauritius Kestrel

The NC says this small African bird of prey was once considered the rarest bird in the world. At one time, there were only four individuals remaining. Thanks to work by conservationists, who established a captive-breeding program, there is now a self-sustaining population of over 800 of these birds.

 

The Gulf, One Year Later: How Wildlife Populations Are Faring

(Photo via Newscom)

As the one-year anniversary of the BP oil-spill disaster approaches, how are the wildlife populations in the Gulf faring? The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has released a new report detailing the impact of the oil spill on several of the Gulf’s animal species, as well as the future implications for their respective populations.

Here are some highlights from the report:

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

Because the oil spill occurred during the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna’s breeding season, the species’ eggs and young — which are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of contamination — were severely affected by the spill. In addition, the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna continues to suffer from overfishing.  Status: Poor

Bottlenose Dolphins

Since the oil spill, the numbers of stranded bottlenose dolphins have increased fivefold, according to the NWF. However, more studies are necessary to determine the direct effects of the oil spill on bottlenose-dolphin populations in the Gulf. It is likely that, in addition to the adverse impact of contamination, bottlenose dolphins will face the residual effect of reduced food supply. Status: Good

Brown Pelicans

According to the NWF, two-thirds of the 700 pelicans found in the oil-spill area were dead. However, cleanup efforts were successful in saving many individuals. In the future, the brown pelican will continue to be affected by habitat loss, rising sea levels, tropical storms and other impacts of climate change. Status: Good

Sea Turtles

Sea-turtle populations were perhaps the most affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Of the five species of sea turtles that inhabit the Gulf, four are endangered and one is seeking endangered status. From May through September 2010, strandings of sea turtles were eight times higher than any of the record-highs over the prior 22 years, the NWF says. In addition, sea turtles continue to face threats from commercial fishing, habitat destruction, contamination and climate change. Status: Poor

Shrimp

More studies are still needed to determine the long-term impact of the oil spill on shrimp populations. Nonetheless, it is clear that toxicity will remain a concern. A decline in coastal wetlands also continues to plague their future. Status: Good

How you can help

Although it is impossible to reverse the horrific oil-spill catastrophe, it’s not too late to help wildlife in the Gulf. Click here to urge Congress to uphold the Clean Water Act and require that BP fines go back to restoring the Gulf.

Whooping-Crane Reintroduction Is Brimming With Symbolism

Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

After over 60 years of absence from the state, the whooping crane is set to make a comeback in Louisiana.

In cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries will reintroduce the first group of non-migratory whooping cranes into a wetlands conservation area in the state later this month, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI).

The whooping crane is highly endangered, with only about 400 individuals remaining in the wild, and the species was on the brink of extinction in the 1940s, the DOI notes.

The federal government has not given up on wildlife conservation, and it has not given up on Louisiana.

The decision by the department to reintroduce the species into the wild — albeit as an experimental, “non-essential” population — is positive news for conservationists and environmentalists alike. But it represents much more than that. With this announcement, the DOI is trumpeting the message loud and clear that Louisiana is a safe environment for wildlife, and that the state is persevering amid the aftermath of the infamous BP oil spill and the damage resulting from Hurricane Katrina.

With the images of oil-slathered birds still branded in my mind, in a way, it’s shocking that the Louisiana wetlands would ever be chosen as the site in which to reintroduce an endangered species.

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense: From the federal government’s perspective, these actions symbolize not only the comeback of the whooping crane, but the comeback of Louisiana from all of the perils it has endured.

I’m not quite convinced that this habitat is safe for any species, and I certainly have not forgiven BP for its egregious negligence and ruthless contamination. But what I will take away from the department’s decision is, nonetheless, uplifting: The federal government has not given up on wildlife conservation, and it has not given up on Louisiana.

 

Nabbed! Man Sentenced For Smuggling Elephant Ivory Into U.S.

Most of us have become accustomed to the ubiquitous metal detectors, pat-downs and scanners we encounter while passing through airports. International travel — with all the anxiety and fear surrounding the threat of terrorism — has become particularly onerous.

Even aside from anti-terrorism measures, concerns about contraband have seemed to focus on the smuggling of illegal drugs across international borders. But it turns out there’s another lucrative trade that U.S. government officials have worked diligently to thwart.

In November 2009, Tamba Kaba was arrested for smuggling African Elephant ivory into the U.S. via JFK International Airport, following a joint investigation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), Northeast Region and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Homeland Security Investigations New York. He was sentenced yesterday to 33 months in prison and a $25,000 fine, the USFWS reports.

According to the USFWS press statement, Kaba imported two air cargo shipments containing 71 elephant ivory carvings, hiding them in wood and metal handicrafts to avoid detection. The importation of ivory into the U.S. has been illegal since 1975, when the nation became a party to the Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The African Elephant is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Investigations such as these are bittersweet in the realm of wildlife conservation and the protection of endangered species. On one hand, it’s encouraging to see that the U.S. is taking an active role in prosecuting poachers and smugglers. On the other hand, the very fact that illegal poaching and smuggling are thriving industries in the international black market certainly draws the ire of many.

Even more discouraging is the lack of action taken by foreign governments — mainly in Africa and Asia — to end the poaching of endangered and threatened species. It is my hope that more cooperation among nations to address the issue — such as the recent International Tiger Conservation Forum — will take place and that we can end poaching and animal trafficking for good.