Saturday, December 26, 2015

Save The White-bellied Herons

The last letter written by the famed ornithologist and heron expert - Dr. Heinz Hafner - mentor to a generation of heron biologists and conservationists around the world - is said to have mentioned that the “highlight of his life was the discovery of a White-bellied Heron (WBH) nest”. There has never been a report of the sighting of the bird’s nest, since 1929 - leading Dr. Heinz to believe that the WBH was bound for extinction.

Then, nearly three-fourths of a century since its last sighting, the world became aware of the discovery of a White-bellied Heron nest in Kamechhu, Wangduephodrang, Bhutan in May of 2003.

Five months later, in the same year, in October of 2003, Dr. Heinz Hafner passed away at his home in the Camargue, France - happy in the knowledge that the world's rarest of the Herons had a chance at survival.

I wrote the following article for the KUENSEL (published: 26.12.2015) - to honor the late Dr. Heinz Hafner, and to celebrate the recognition of Bhutan’s leadership position in the bird’s conservation and protection, during the recently concluded international workshop on the Conservation of the White-bellied Herons.

Early this month (1st - 4th December, 2015), Punakha saw the convergence of close to 70 participants - all with interest in conservation and environment - to an international workshop held at Drupchhu Resort, Punakha. First of its kind in Bhutan, the workshop discussed the conservation of the critically endangered White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis). All the countries identified as the birds range were represented: Bhutan, China, India and Myanmar. Although pre-2000 records show that the birds’ range included Nepal and Bangladesh, these countries were not represented, presumably because the birds are now extinct in those countries.

The workshop was a collaborative effort between the Royal Government of Bhutan and the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN). In addition to representatives from the range states, the workshop saw participation from the following national and international organizations:

Asian Species Action Partnership, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, College of Natural Resources, Department of Forests & Park Services, Druk Green Power Corporation, International Crane Foundation, International Rivers, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN/SSC/SCPSC), Namdapha Tiger Reserve, Nature’s Foster, Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project Authority - I, Royal Society for Protection of Nature, Synchronicity Earth, Wildlife Institute of India, Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF-Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck Institute of Conservation & Environment and Zoological Survey of India.

The Punakha workshop was a follow up to the first such workshop held last year, at the Hotel Brahmaputra Ashok, Guwahati, India (2nd - 4th December, 2014) when a Working Group for Conservation of White-bellied Heron was established.

White-bellied Heron
(Ardea insignis)
The White-bellied Heron is the world’s rarest heron and one of the most threatened birds that is listed as “Critically Endangered” in the IUCN Red List. As of 2014, its occurrence was reported from only three countries - Bhutan, India and Myanmar. In August of 2014, a juvenile WBH was captured on the east side of Nujiang River (Salween) in Gaoligong Mountains National Nature Reserve, Yunnan Province, China. However, the bird died within days at the Yunnan Wild Zoo. This juvenile WBH was the first confirmed sighting of the species in China since 1938. Although there have been more reports of the bird’s sightings in other regions of China, particularly Hubei Province, Central China, none of the reports have yet been confirmed.

Although the world population of the WBH was earlier stated as anywhere between 50 - 200, the Punakha workshop determined that the confirmed population is only 60, distributed among the following rage countries.

Confirmed global WBH population

Even while it is nearing extinction, knowledge of these birds is poor, and disparate at best. Thus, the Punakha workshop, and the one that preceded it in India, will hopefully help bring coordinated efforts towards its protection and conservation, among the range countries.

White-bellied Heron and Bhutan
As of 2015, Bhutan has recorded the highest number of WBH’s in the world - at 28 individuals. The birds’ primary habitats are the Punatsangchhu and Mangdechhu river basins.

His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck reported the first confirmed sighting of the White-bellied Heron in Punakha sometime during 1974. However, going by the motifs woven into our ancient textile called the Chagsipangkhep, it is safe to assume that the birds existed in Bhutan - in larger numbers in the distant past.

The motif of a large bird woven into the Chagsipangkhep has a striking resemblance to the WBH

Bhutan’s leadership in WBH conservation
Bhutan leads the world - both in confirmed numbers, as well as in efforts towards its conservation and protection. The Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) started their systematic field investigation and ecological study of the birds in 2003. Under the guidance of Peter Frederick, PhD, Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida, RSPN’s research team of Rebecca Pradhan and late Tshewang Norbu published the world’s first scientific research paper titled “The Critically Endangered White-bellied Heron” in 2011. Bhutan also became the first country in the world to attempt captive breeding of the WBH - successfully hatching a chick that was later reintroduced to the wild.

History of Bhutan’s WBH conservation efforts
Dr. George Archibald, Co-founder of the International Crane Foundation visited Bhutan in 2002 along with the late Ms Ellie Schiller, a professional fisheries biologist and Head of Felburn Foundation, USA - an organization dedicated to preserving nature. During a trip along the Mochhu, their guide Hishey Tshering of Bhutan Birding & Heritage Travels pointed out a large bird to Ellie, explaining to her that the bird was among the world’s rarest birds, called the White-bellied Heron. Ms Ellie Schiller took a picture of the bird through the eyepiece of Hishey’s spotting scope. The film roll was sent to Bangkok through Druk Air’s Captain Tenzing Tshering who developed the film and brought back the prints to be handed over to Ellie who was still in Bhutan. She loved the bird and offered Hishey Tshering the necessary funding for the study and conservation of the WBH. Hishey Tshering declined the offer - citing inadequate knowledge and expertise. Instead he suggested that the funding be channeled to the RSPN with the condition that Tshewang Norbu, a jobless aspiring birding guide be attached to the project. Consequently, Felburn Foundation, in partnership with the WWF-Bhutan and the International Crane Foundation became the principal supporter that funded the RSPN’s concerted efforts to study and conserve the WBH, beginning 2003. Tshewang Norbu died in a vehicle accident few years back.

The WWF-Bhutan and Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation (BTFEC) are other major donors that fund the RSPN’s conservation efforts.

In partial fulfillment of their corporate-environmental responsibility, the Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project Authority provided funding amounting to Nu.2.00 million. The RSPN used the money to embark on the first-ever pilot project of captive breeding of the bird. Technical assistance for the project was provided by the San Diego Zoo, USA.

Threats to the White-bellied Herons 
There are a number of threats to the WBH - principal among them are habitat loss, impacts of climate change and hydropower development and activities related to it. In Bhutan particularly, it is significant that the country’s largest hydropower projects are located in the middle of the WBH’s most populous habitat.

Rebecca Pradhan at the RSPN says that her records show that they have so far sighted over three dozen chicks since the start of their study of the birds. Regardless, their adult population has not seen any significant increase over the years. She thinks that predation could be another threat to the healthy growth of the bird’s population.

Mitigating the challenge of possible extinction 
There is a real threat that the birds may disappear from its local range. Thus, the RSPN is working on an ambitious project for the bird’s captive breeding. A detailed proposal is under preparation, to start a captive breeding center at Basochhu, Tsirang - so that the birds can be introduced to other suitable sites around the country - both to propagate the numbers as well as to improve diversity in the gene pool. The Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project Authority has indicated that they would provide the funding to start this important conservation initiative.

Photographing the WBH 
The photographs that appear in this article is the culmination of fours years of dogged pursuit of the birds - year after year - from Phochhu/Mochhu in the West; to Basochhu/Changchey in the South and Berti in Central part of the country. Finally, I managed to photograph these rare birds in Rurichhu, Wangdue. My photographs of the WBH are featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as well as the Archive in the UK - the images are among the rarest in the world.

An adult WBH keeping watch over the nest

One parent keeps watch over the nest while he/she waits for the other to return with food

A five weeks old WBH chick in the nest at Rurichu, Wangdue

A WBH chick preening - sign that it is now ready to learn to fly

Responsibility and leadership 
The Punakha workshop has established that Bhutan is the country that has the highest number of these near-extinct birds. This recognition is an endorsement of the pristine condition of our environment as well as the re-validation of our standing as the front-runner in environmental conservation. However, this honor comes with responsibility.

Bhutan’s leadership position and pioneering work in the study and conservation of the WBH is undisputed. We are years ahead of other range countries in the knowledge base of the birds’ biology, ecology, habitat and its known and perceived threats. Therefore, it is now our responsibility to ensure that the birds not only survive, but multiply in the coming decades.

To allow the bird’s population to decline would be a national shame.


  1. Great piece and I wish to add that Tshewang Norbu died in that accident as he was en route to survey the herons in Punakha. The accident happened below Thinleygang.

  2. I visited Punakha last week, in search of this bird,I could not sight but came to know from local villagers that few birds are there for nesting

    1. Hi Sandeep,

      Yes, Punakha/Wangdue has the largest number of these birds in the world. I beleive that this area has about 20 adult birds ... rest are in Zhemgang and other places.