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Coexistence with Critters: Lessons in Harmony from Bhutan’s Countryside

In parts of rural Bhutan wild animals like gorals, and birds like the Himalayan monal, satyr tragopan and black-necked crane share close living spaces with villagers

Text and Photos by: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Across the world, there are 290 species of fowl- or chicken-like birds. They belong to the order Galliformes: largely ground-dwelling birds that spend their days scratching the ground for insects, worms, and seeds. They are found in nearly every habitat on Earth except Antarctica, from snow-capped mountains to tropical coastal landscapes. The most common of these is, of course, the domestic chicken, but the order includes turkeys, quails, peacocks, grouses, pheasants and many others.

Among the lesser-known Galliformes are the Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus) and satyr tragopan (Tragopan satyra), both residents of the Himalayas. Monals are striking pheasants characterised by iridescent plumage in blue, green, and coppery red colours, somewhat similar to peacocks. Satyr tragopans are also vibrant, with crimson feathers, speckled with black-and-white dots. Both species inhabit dense forests of rhododendron, conifer, and bamboo, and are known to be extremely elusive.

I had been trying to photograph the satyr tragopan in India since 2008, and made several visits to Singalila National Park in West Bengal, and parts of Northeast in pursuit of this rare species. I would see them, but from a distance, and they would run away the minute they spotted me. On one trip, I stayed in Singalila for 40 days trying to photograph the tragopan, with no luck.

This happened repeatedly until 2013, when I finally got close enough to photograph the bird in all its glory. It was extremely difficult to photograph these birds, so imagine my surprise six years later, when I saw not one, but eight satyr tragopans peacefully foraging around a house in Bhutan! That was February 2019 and my third visit to the country. I travelled to Bhutan because I’d heard of communities in Bhutan coexisting harmoniously with this species and I wanted witness this for myself. I saw satyr tragopans, Himalayan monals, gorals, and black-necked cranes in close proximity to humans, sometimes as close as a few inches away. These animals were not at all skittish, and seemed fearless and unbothered by human presence.

On my first visit to the city of Punakha, the erstwhile capital of Bhutan, my guide Phub Dorjee and I travelled about 40 km out of the town, then hiked uphill two hours until we reached a monastery and settlement perched on the mountainside. Beyond this village we hiked another half hour to a remote house where this image was taken. The day I arrived, I saw a few satyr tragopans (pictured here) foraging right outside this gentleman’s main door.

On my first visit to the city of Punakha, the erstwhile capital of Bhutan, my guide Phub Dorjee and I travelled about 40 km out of the town, then hiked uphill two hours until we reached a monastery and settlement perched on the mountainside. Beyond this village we hiked another half hour to a remote house where this image was taken. The day I arrived, I saw a few satyr tragopans (pictured here) foraging right outside this gentleman’s main door.

Male satyr tragopans are brightly coloured birds, with a bright blue patch near the throat. This is called the wattle, and is a morphological feature exhibited by many male members of the order Galliformes, including roosters. The birds would visit this house in Punakha most mornings and evenings, hang around for an hour or so, and then return to the rhododendron thickets around.

Male satyr tragopans are brightly coloured birds, with a bright blue patch near the throat. This is called the wattle, and is a morphological feature exhibited by many male members of the order Galliformes, including roosters. The birds would visit this house in Punakha most mornings and evenings, hang around for an hour or so, and then return to the rhododendron thickets around.

Like many species of Galliformes, tragopans display significant sexual dimorphism. Females are smaller in size, and have pale brown plumage, speckled with white. During breeding season, in March-April, males display courtship behaviour by puffing up their gular wattle (chin sac) and tail feathers. The fact that these wild birds were engaged in breeding right outside the house is testament to how comfortable they felt. It was really quite unique to see these otherwise elusive birds sharing space with a human.

Like many species of Galliformes, tragopans display significant sexual dimorphism. Females are smaller in size, and have pale brown plumage, speckled with white. During breeding season, in March-April, males display courtship behaviour by puffing up their gular wattle (chin sac) and tail feathers. The fact that these wild birds were engaged in breeding right outside the house is testament to how comfortable they felt. It was really quite unique to see these otherwise elusive birds sharing space with a human.

I was struck by the nature of relationship between this man and the birds. It’s not as if he would spend hours talking with them. He went about his day, meditating, praying, and they went about theirs, barely interfering with each other. There was, however, an element of care extended to the birds. Every morning, he would throw food scraps in a corner, which the birds would eat. He fashioned bird bowls for water, using old plastic bottles propped on a stick (pictured here). It was a coexistence derived from making an effort, not just indifference. I was struck by the nature of relationship between this man and the birds. It’s not as if he would spend hours talking with them. He went about his day, meditating, praying, and they went about theirs, barely interfering with each other. There was, however, an element of care extended to the birds. Every morning, he would throw food scraps in a corner, which the birds would eat. He fashioned bird bowls for water, using old plastic bottles propped on a stick (pictured here). It was a coexistence derived from making an effort, not just indifference.

I was struck by the nature of relationship between this man and the birds. It’s not as if he would spend hours talking with them. He went about his day, meditating, praying, and they went about theirs, barely interfering with each other. There was, however, an element of care extended to the birds. Every morning, he would throw food scraps in a corner, which the birds would eat. He fashioned bird bowls for water, using old plastic bottles propped on a stick (pictured here). It was a coexistence derived from making an effort, not just indifference.

Near Paro, I visited a monastery frequented by the Himalayan monal. The plumage of female monals (seen here) comes in shades of light and dark brown — excellent camouflage against the mountainside where scraggly grasses and mosses grow on rocks. Here too, the birds seemed very much at ease. While I watched them forage for food, I remembered the number of trips I had made to Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, hiking through forest and snow, just to get a glimpse of them.

Near Paro, I visited a monastery frequented by the Himalayan monal. The plumage of female monals (seen here) comes in shades of light and dark brown — excellent camouflage against the mountainside where scraggly grasses and mosses grow on rocks. Here too, the birds seemed very much at ease. While I watched them forage for food, I remembered the number of trips I had made to Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, hiking through forest and snow, just to get a glimpse of them.

Himalayan monals are found at altitudes between 2,100 and 4,500 metres, in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar, and China. In India the birds are found in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim, though their numbers are falling and sightings rare. Like many members of the pheasant family, monals spend much of their time scratching the ground and picking through leaf litter, looking for food. Their diet comprises largely of insects, tubers, small rodents, seeds, and flowers.

Himalayan monals are found at altitudes between 2,100 and 4,500 metres, in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar, and China. In India the birds are found in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim, though their numbers are falling and sightings rare. Like many members of the pheasant family, monals spend much of their time scratching the ground and picking through leaf litter, looking for food. Their diet comprises largely of insects, tubers, small rodents, seeds, and flowers.

At the Cheri monastery near Thimphu goral roam around unperturbed by the presence of monks. Himalayan brown goral (Naemorhedus hodgsoni) inhabit mountainous, woody forest areas of northeastern India, Nepal, China, and Bhutan, and are famous for their agility on steep mountain slopes. It was quite inspiring to see this kind of relationship between humans and wild animals. Especially coming from India, where poaching is a serious problem, and conversation about human-animal relationships are all about conflict.

At the Cheri monastery near Thimphu goral roam around unperturbed by the presence of monks. Himalayan brown goral (Naemorhedus hodgsoni) inhabit mountainous, woody forest areas of northeastern India, Nepal, China, and Bhutan, and are famous for their agility on steep mountain slopes. It was quite inspiring to see this kind of relationship between humans and wild animals. Especially coming from India, where poaching is a serious problem, and conversation about human-animal relationships are all about conflict.

Every year, Gangtey Monastery in the Phobjikha Valley hosts a three-day festival in honour of the black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis), an endangered species that spends the winter months in central Bhutan. The elegant birds are classified “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. They are considered a symbol of longevity in Buddhist culture. In Bhutan, they are celebrated with song, dance, and much aplomb — a joyous example of the ways in which the Bhutanese are bonded with their habitat.

Every year, Gangtey Monastery in the Phobjikha Valley hosts a three-day festival in honour of the black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis), an endangered species that spends the winter months in central Bhutan. The elegant birds are classified “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. They are considered a symbol of longevity in Buddhist culture. In Bhutan, they are celebrated with song, dance, and much aplomb — a joyous example of the ways in which the Bhutanese are bonded with their habitat.

Stalls at the festival in Phobjikha brim with colourful paraphernalia: painted stones, scarves, scrolls, shawls, prayer beads, and embroidered patches, all featuring the crane. Hundreds of Bhutanese travel great distances to attend the event. Among the more popular events are the masked dance performances by resident monks.

Stalls at the festival in Phobjikha brim with colourful paraphernalia: painted stones, scarves, scrolls, shawls, prayer beads, and embroidered patches, all featuring the crane. Hundreds of Bhutanese travel great distances to attend the event. Among the more popular events are the masked dance performances by resident monks.

Over 60 per cent of Bhutan is mandated by the constitution to remain under forest cover. Even those parts inhabited by people have a relatively low population density. This lack of competition for resources could be another factor contributing to the bond between humans and their habitat. According to the WWF more than 51 per cent of Bhutan’s land is protected. This is the largest percentage of any Asian country, and most of it is intact forests interwoven with free-flowing rivers. It’s hard to say how or why this relationship exists. Is it their spirituality? Or is it because they live so close to nature? Whatever it is, there is a genuine respect for wildlife and sincere dedication to the environment — this is something I have rarely seen anywhere. It really makes me wonder, can’t we all learn to live like this and establish a similar healthy relationship with nature?

Dhritiman Mukherjee
Dhritiman Mukherjee

is one of India's most prolific wildlife and conservation photographers. His work has been featured in leading publications. He is also a RoundGlass Ambassador, and an RBS Earth Hero awardee.

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