Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Singapore's Rare and Valuable Visitor: Not so Rare After All

My last post claiming the rare and first time sighting of the White-bellied Heron in Singapore aroused a huge interest among the birding community around the world - only to find that it was nothing more than a false ID by me. It turns out that the bird is not a WBH but another heron called the Great-billed Heron (Ardea sumatrana). OBC, London and senior and experienced bird watchers in Singapore and Japan have confirmed this. I took a closer look at the bird's images posted on the internet and find that I was wrong - my apology for the mistake - but certainly the similarity between the two herons is striking. The following images of the Great-billed Herons will show you how similar they are - except that the belly of the GBH is not as white as that of the WBH. It also looks smaller than the WBH.

In comparison, the following image of the White-bellied Heron I photographed in Rurichu clearly show the difference - in that the WBH has a pure white belly while that of the GBH is greyish.

As I said in my earlier post, it would have been fantastic if the bird were to be WBH - I guess it was just too much of a wishful thought.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Singapore's Rare and Valuable Visitor

Historically, the range of the world's rarest of rare herons - White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis) - is believed to spread from Nepal and Bhutan in the north to India in the center, into Myanmar in the south. There has been no report of sightings of this bird outside and beyond these four countries. Its global population is said to be anywhere from 50 to 250, of which Bhutan has a recorded population of 28 individuals, found in two locations - Punasangchu areas (both Phu-Chu and Mo-Chu) in the west and Berti, Zhemgang in south-central part of the country. In Nepal, it is said to have gone extinct - as of few years back.

It has so far been believed that the birds do not migrate. One other behavioral characteristic attributed to the bird is that they are very shy and therefore, solitary feeders - generally avoiding human habitat.

If that were true, what is the bird doing in a concrete metropolis such as Singapore? Incredible? But it is true - the lone tourist was sighted by the shores of Singapore on 23rd January, 2014 at 11.00AM by Ms Shirley Koh - a 63-years old photo enthusiast.

Ms Shirley had accompanied her writer husband who wanted to swim at the Tanjong Beach Walk - a man-made lagoon in Sentosa island (Blue Lagoon revisited?). While her husband splashed in the warm water, she was scanning the banks of the lagoon to kill time while waiting for her husband to finish his swim.

That is when she noticed a large bird perched on a boulder that somehow looked familiar. Shirley is neither a bird watcher nor a bird photographer but she had seen the photo of the bird - in the process of doing a calendar project for a local law firm - a calendar comprising of thirteen of my bird photographs. Of the thirteen photographs, one of them was that of the rare White-bellied Heron.

She began to photograph the bird with her point-and-shoot camera: SONY Cyber-shot DCS HX10V. The clarity of the images are such that I am sure she managed to get extremely close to the bird - as close as about 20 ft. - otherwise such a miniscule camera could not have gotten such amazing quality images. All the following incredibly detailed images were photographed by Shirley - with her point-and-shoot SONY Cyber-shot. She sent me the images for validation; if she hadn't, I would have laughed the whole thing away as a joke.

For comparison, here is a photo of the bird photographed by me in Rurichu (Wangduephodrang) - some eight years back. There is no mistaking the bird - it is indeed a White-bellied Heron - beyond a shred of doubt.

Here is a photo of the camera that captured the rare bird with such clarity and detail - it is almost unbelievable. This camera must be something!

I do not believe that the bird is a resident of Singapore - no sightings have ever been reported here before. Singapore simply does not have the habitat to support such a large and shy bird. This could only mean that it is a visitor from some place in the proximity of the island state. Which one? The closest place where this bird is reported is Myanmar - few thousand KMs away to the north. Thus, it is near impossible that this bird originated there. In any event, the heron is not known to migrate. So then, how can the existence of this bird by the shores of Singapore be explained?

Tanjong Beach Walk where the bird was sighted is by no means a secluded spot - the place is buzzing with activity - there are buses and trams carousing around; there are joggers, swimmers and even sunbathers kicking up a racket. Gigantic ships and tankers box the place in - hooting loudly from time to time.

Here are some photos of the location where the heron was photographed:

So what is a shy and solitary bird doing in the middle of all this cacophony? Is the bird deaf, is it blind, or both? If it is neither deaf nor blind, how come it allowed Shirley to come so close? It took me five years to get a decent photograph of the bird - with a 500mm bazooka of a lens. I have never been able to get close to it - no where close to even 500 Mtrs. Every time I approach it, it would fly away. And this bird allows Shirley to photograph it with an idiot camera? This is incredible! If it is no longer shy of human intrusion, how did it become so?

In my view there is only one answer - it is quite probable that the bird is a resident of Malaysia. Since these birds are known to fly close to hundred KMs in search of food - Singapore is within that range from Malaysia. Strangely, how come few thousand birders in the region did not sight the bird before - until Shirley sighted it while patiently waiting for her husband to finish his swim?

Notwithstanding all the questions that remain unanswered, this is an important discovery for the nearly extinct birds. It could be that there are lot more of these birds than earlier believed. This important discovery could alter the bird's demography - and certainly it extends its range to beyond what is traditionally believed. May be even the belief that they do not migrate could be a myth. More importantly, this is good news for the birders in the region - they can finally begin to hope to see and observe one of the most critically endangered birds in existence.

I am going to get in touch with some birders in Singapore and see if a concerted effort can be made to determine the residential address of these birds. May be some ornithological societies in the region can get involved - to gain better understanding of this rare bird.

STRANGE COINCIDENCE: At exactly the same time Shirley was photographing this extremely rare bird, I happened to call her on her mobile. It is almost eerie that even as the rare bird is being discovered in Singapore for the first time, I, one of its most vocal campaigners in Bhutan, happen to call the discoverer at that precise moment. Is there something Karmic about this? Even Shirley thinks this is very strange!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Fantastic News Coming Up

Talk to any birder worth his/her salt about the rarest of rare Herons - White-bellied Heron (Adrea insignis) - and you are likely to hear a catchy slogan: “Happiness is a Place” - the “Place” being Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon. And, as an afterthought, names of few other countries could crop up, such as those of Nepal, India and Myanmar. The reason is that these are the only four countries in the world where the bird is known to exist; correction - it went extinct in Nepal a few years back.

As of 2007, the White-bellied Heron has entered the IUCN Red List as a species that is Critically Endangered. It could go extinct anytime. At 28 individuals, Bhutan perhaps has the largest recorded number of these giant birds. These numbers could dwindle rapidly because of the large hydroelectric projects that are being set up in the country. The heron habitats are being imperiled by the gigantic concrete barriers that are being built to dam the Punasangchu river.

The shit hit the fan when, last year, it was revealed that the precious Punasangchu I dam was sinking - even before generating a single unit of electricity. For environmentalists however, even worst news is that as a result, the Heron population will eventually sink irrecoverably. For a nation that is touted as a champion of conservation and environmental protection, it would be the height of irresponsibility to allow these rare birds to go extinct. The environmental destruction that is being caused in the Punasangchu areas is irreversible but that is not the end of the story. Over the long haul, Bhutan’s economy will be totally messed up by these misbegotten projects. But I believe that some Bhutanese people have finally begun to understand the enormity of our problems, consequent upon the sinking dam debacle. I am now encouraged to believe that hence forth we will tread with caution.

As they say, let us cut our losses and run like hell - away from these booby-traps called: HYDROPOWER PROJECTS.

But this post is not about our woeful hydropower projects. It is about the herons, and particularly the critically endangered White-bellied Herons.

I believe that I have some fantastic and exciting news for the bird lovers and ornithologists of the world! If I am allowed to reveal, I will do so in my next post.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

PHALLUS Crazy Wisdom from BHUTAN

In all provability, Karma Choden the author of the book titled "PHALLUS Crazy Wisdom from BHUTAN" must be frantically going mad - supervising the arrangements for the launch of her maiden publication at the Nehru-Wangchuck Cultural Centre which is scheduled for 3.30PM today.

His Eminence Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche has the honor of launching the book - very apt in my view! I can think of no other personality who has the matching mischievous appeal - as does His Eminence - to validate the relevance and importance of the subject the book deals with. Worship and reverence of the male phallic symbol is integral to our culture and religion.

As I write this post, I am cruising at 39,000 ft. above the Indian Ocean - on my way to Singapore. I had wanted to be a part of the launch - but it coincided with my travel that was planned months back. Nonetheless, I wish Karma the very best and hope that her launch is progressing well and that she is thronged by people making snide digs at her and her lack of prudery in taking on a subject that is supposedly in the male domain.

I have played a small part in the book's making. It was an instinctive decision - I loved the overall packaging of the book; I loved the concept and I loved the fact that a woman was putting it all together. During the process of refining the book and improving its design and debating the relevance of some of the contents, we had hilarious moments - all very jaunty and jolly. But in the final stages of the books preparation, there was one funny incidence that is simply priceless! I hope that its narration will bring loads of laughter to every one - as it does to me every time I think of it.

The back flap of the book's cover needed a small blurb from the author. Karma was required to write something about herself and how come she was inspired to author the book. Not entirely a shy and retiring type of a girl, Karma got on with the job with real gusto.

She started the blurb with; "Karma's fascination with phalluses and the crazy wisdom associated with them started two years back...."

I looked in horror and guffawed at what I thought cannot be the truth. I pointed that out to Karma. Although she did not accept that what she wrote was untrue, nonetheless, she rephrased the sentence to how it now appears:

"Karma's fascination with phallic symbols and the crazy wisdom associated with them started two years back when she had an opportunity to travel all over Bhutan".

I wish Karma a huge success.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Law & Calamity

For me yesterday was a satisfying day - not because I did something noble or useful - but because someone else did. At about 10.30AM I was driving down from Motithang on my way to the Druk Air office in Changlam Plaza. As I was nearing the Labour Ministry office, I saw that a traffic police had stopped a lady driver in a Maruti car heading on the opposite direction to me.

WOW! is it possible that the officer stopped the lady for the reason I hope he did?

I stopped by the officer next to the car and asked him: “Lobey, gachi bedab mo?

“She entered a NO ENTRY zone”, replied the officer.

I was ecstatic! I gave the officer a Thumbs-Up and told him “Great Job - this has been going on for far too long”. He smiled happily while the lady violator glowered at me and drove off.

Some of you may recall that I had raised this issue of the mindless violation of the NO ENTRY zone in this particular area (my post of Tuesday, October 30, 2012 titled “The Bhutanese Way” (

I cannot understand why some people cannot understand that a particular area is declared a NO ENTRY zone for a good reason. Following traffic rules keep our traffic flowing smoothly. And, discipline on the road saves lives.

 Photos from my earlier post on the subject dated 30.10.2012

Anyway, I had a great feeling - it was obvious that the Traffic Police are finally going to keep a watch over this area. The truth is that every law-abiding citizen should respect the law, without the need for the law enforcement agencies having to crack down on them every time. But, as a close friend told me one day, the Bhutanese people do not understand the rule of law - the only thing they understand is the Taetha - stick/cane!

I drove down to the Druk Air office - a happy and contented man - only to find that the Druk Air’s reservation system was down. The booking assistant at the counter was courteous and apologetic. She offered to make the reservations when the system was up. She took down my email address and assured me that the reservation details would be emailed to me when the system was back on. That email never arrived – meaning that the system was still down.

Then it began to snow ---- and snow --- and snow. So much so that all flights into and out of Paro were suspended/cancelled. All vehicular traffic to Punakha and Phuentsholing was closed - with the result that a friend of mine was stranded in a traffic gridlock - 3 KMs below Dochula while returning from Punakha. I kept myself awake until after 10PM - just in case he needed me to go and rescue him. As I write this post, I am clueless as to what happened to him - whether he was able to pass the Pass or whether he is still holed up in his vehicle where he was stranded last night. It is too early in the morning to find out.

I am a little unnerved - is it possible that enforcing law in this country can be calamitous?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Certification of Dungsam cement

A news article in today’s (10th January, 2014) Kuensel newspaper reported that the Dungsam Cement Corporation Limited can begin to export cement once the collected samples pass the lab test and a "license" is given by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).

This report is inaccurate and misleading. A Bhutanese manufacturer does not require a license from an Indian authority to sell/export its products. Not even Indian manufacturers require a license from BIS to sell their products.

The BIS, which was earlier known as the Indian Standards Institute, is the national standards body in India that issues certification marks for some of the industrial products manufactured in India. It is not a licensing authority.

By the way, during my tenure as the Head of the Export Department under the Export Division of the Ministry of Trade & Industries, I visited the ISI facility in Bombay. During the Q&A session, I couldn't help but question the boss of the ISI: who tests your testing and calibrating machines? I got a huge laugh from the man.

The BIS issues a certification mark known as the ISI Mark. Any product that carries this mark is supposed to be of superior quality since they are supposed to meet the quality and manufacturing standards and practices set by the BIS. It is mandatory for certain Indian products to carry the ISI Mark - Portland cement being one among them. However, not all manufactured goods need to obtain this certification - if some manufacturers wish to do so, they can - but it is voluntary. The ISI Mark looks like this:

As I said, goods that carry the ISI Mark are supposed to be superior in quality and durability but you and I know that it is far from true - 90% of the ISI marked goods sold in Bhutan are fakes - they have been stamped as "BIS Certified" in some dingy by-lane in Siliguri.

In a sense, it makes sense to obtain BIS certification for Dungsam’s Portland cement under appropriate ISI coding - not because we need it but because Dungsam Cement hopes to be able to market their product in India. However, I am not sure that it is wise for Dungsam Cement to suspend production simply because they have not yet been issued ISI Mark by the BIS. There are other certification bodies around the world that can certify our cement as a worthy product. Not all imported goods sold in India carry the ISI Mark. As long as they carry appropriate certification marks of the certifying authority in the country of origin or any one of the recognized certifying body around the world, Indian consumers and regulatory authorities should accept the product.

Bhutan could have Dungsam cement tested and certified by any one of the independent certification bodies around the world. This should be enough for our home market as well as Indian consumers to be satisfied that the cement produced by Dungsam cement is fit for use.

The following are few of the prestigious certification bodies around the world.

Australia       :  ASI
Bangladesh   :  BSTI
China            :  SAC
Germany       :  DIN
Japan             :  JISC
Singapore      :  SPRING SG
USA              :  ANSI

Following are some of the Certification marks from around the world: