Community and Conservation in the Kingdom of Bhutan

Selina Tan

On 22nd April 2023, I embarked on the trip of a lifetime to Bhutan, a landlocked kingdom nestled between China and India. For this trip I invited Kew apprentice, Zoe Roberts and thus we set off for two weeks to the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon.’

Our travel scholarship was split into two weeks, the first was time spent at the Royal Botanic Gardens Serbithang and the second was spent trekking in the mountains of Jigme Dorji National Park.

During our time at the Botanic Gardens, we were able to observe their facilities and gain an insight into their conservation programs. It was fascinating seeing how integrated they were, how this small team of 5 were collecting and saving all the plant species of Bhutan as well as acting as a source of education. We also had a look at their Biodiversity Centre and how they design their horticultural projects to have a lasting effect. Every year they host a flower festival in a different town with the intent that it becomes a permanent display. Another project they are working on is their Bioprospecting project where they have collected indigenous methods on the use of local plants, data protected them and are now turning them into products. This is to create a sustainable use of their research on plants and allows for the income to go back to the villages as well as fund future research. Our time here was invaluable, some of the conservations we had whilst working with the staff gave me more insight into their culture and horticultural approach then I could ever read about in a book, and I am forever grateful for the time they gave us.

For our second week, we visited Jigme Dorji National Park, the second largest national park in Bhutan. I must admit, I was rather apprehensive about this part of the trip, suddenly everything I had learnt was going to be put to the real-life test. The time spent in the wild allowed me to quickly gain confidence botanically and it was really wonderful having another botanical horticulturalist with me. Not only for great company but to also bounce ideas off each other and have another set of eyes on the ground. Wider to the individual plants, it was incredible seeing the change in environment, how seamless it had all felt at the time. Each environment abruptly changing as the altitude gained yet harmonious as one ecosystem. In the 8 days we were there we saw countless habitats from temperate rainforest, dry riverbed to alpine and we weren’t even in peak flowering season! A big aspect, that I had perhaps overlooked, was how ingrained Buddhism was in their culture. They don’t climb mountains, cut trees nonsensically or swim in lakes because they are sacred, they believe deities live in nature and so therefore cutting a tree would mean destroying their homes. It would be nice to see more sacrality towards nature around other parts of the world, religion or not.

Selina Tan and Zoe Roberts