Sightings Of White Bellied Herons Declining In Bhutan
The White Bellied Herons are secretive birds, often intolerant of close proximity to humans.
By Nima | Kuensel
Conservationists and bird watchers are concerned about the increasing disturbances of the White Bellied Heron’s (WBH) prime habitat and feeding site at Phochhu River in Punakha.
The site was declared as an Important Bird Area in 2014 while the WBH is a critically endangered bird species.
Source: Species on the brink
Bhutan is home to about half of the world’s white bellied herons. Twenty-four individuals and five juveniles out of less than 60 white bellied herons in the world are found in the country today, according to the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN).
Locations of the White Bellied Heron’s habitats in Bhutan
Based on the multiple surveys conducted by the RSPN between 2003 and 2010, the river systems harbouring potential WBH habitats are: Phochhu, Mochhu, Punatshangchhu, Sunkosh, Dagachhu and its tributaries in the west, Mangdechhu and Bertichhu.
The bird was also recently sighted at Kurichhu. However, researchers from the RSPN, birdwatchers and rafting operators revealed that the population of WBH at Phochhu and Mochhu has declined over the years.
A regular bird watcher, Hishey Tshering from Thimphu, said that in 2001 he saw five WBHs along the Mochhu.
Source: The Mileage.org
“Now it is very rare to see even a single WHB along the Mochhu. In 2016, there were three along the Phochhu. Today, we can see only one and that is also being continually disturbed,” he said.
According to the population count of WBH during nesting and non-nesting seasons between 2003 and 2010, two birds were spotted at the Tshekathang Pochhu and one at the Phochhu-Mochhu confluence.
Chief of Communications and membership division with the RSPN, Tashi Phuntsho said that WBHs are secretive birds, often intolerant of close proximity to humans.
Threats faced by the White Bellied Herons
“Disturbance from humans and loss of habitat undoubtedly attributed to their extirpation over much of their former range. Threats to these birds are further intensified by the growing tourism activities like rafting and kayaking along the important habitats,” he said.
“There are more than three rafting companies operating along the Phochhu and Mochhu rivers in Punakha.”
This situation of the birds being frequently disturbed by tourists and rafting activities caught the attention of a group of bird watchers in the country.
Tshering Tobgay, a bird watcher wrote in the social media platform called ‘Birds of Bhutan’. He lamented that it was the threats driven by anthropogenic causes.
“We are getting late and it will be too late to wait for a few more years. There is a need for our support to bring back WBH to Punakha to a stable number.”
One of the rafting operators in Punakha said that river rafting at Phochhu was done only upon request from visitors.
“It is unfair to hold rafting activities, which is our livelihood, for a single bird. Moreover, I have not seen the bird in the last four years.”
Kencho from ‘Explore Bhutan’ said that his clients, after seeing the signage installed at WBH’s habitat, did not stop for photography and other activities so as not to disturb the birds.
He also said that there have been no awareness courses related to the bird’s conservation conducted with the rafting operators yet.
Constructive steps taken to lessen adverse impact on the habitats of the White Bellied Heron
RSPN monitors the daily behaviour of the bird by collaborating with the community through the Local Conservation Support Group.
The initiative also helped reduce the harvest of timber, collection of firewood, fishing and picnicking at the bird’s feeding and roosting areas.
The Executive Director of the RSPN, Kinley Tenzin (PhD) said that the WBH were ‘ambassadors’ of a healthy ecosystem of rivers.
“The extremely low population of the WBH along its habitat area is an indication that the ecosystem of the river and its surrounding is very unhealthy,” he said.
“If WBH goes extinct, it is an indication that the river and its surrounding ecosystem are also on the verge of collapsing. Therefore, conservation is not only about saving any particular species but eventually it is all about saving ourselves.”
An ecologist and researcher with RSPN, Rebecca Pradhan said that the population of WBH at Phochhu could not have declined but instead, the birds migrated to a better habitat where there is a minimum disturbance.
“There is a need for collaboration among all the stakeholders because the conservation of the birds will benefit all in the long run,” she added.
This article first appeared in kuensel and has been edited for the new Bhutan Times.