Bhutan and global top 10 biodiversity hotspots – A “fact” check. My Opinion Piece for Kuensel (July 13th, 2019 Issue)

Is Bhutan recognized as one of the top ten global biodiversity hotspots?

The straight answer is NO.

Unfortunately, we see this being said again and again, in conferences as well as in our media. If we look deeper in the world of literature, Bhutan was never recognized as a stand-alone biodiversity hotspot but just as part of Eastern Himalayas, in the10 global hotspots concept of 1988 (explained the concept in the following sections).

But hold on, before we get too excited about being recognized as a biodiversity hotspot, let’s know the term “biodiversity hotspot”. Biodiversity hotspots are defined as those large regions containing an exceptional concentration of plant endemism and experiencing high rates of habitat loss. At present, there are 36 identified biodiversity hotspots in the world, which according to the published scientific works of literature, is just 2.3% of Earth’s land surface, but home to around 50% of the world’s endemic plant species and 42% of all terrestrial vertebrates.

Existence of biodiversity ‘hotspots’- a bit of history!

In 1988, a British Environmentalist Norman Myers published “Threatened Biotas: ‘Hot Spots’ in Tropical Forests” in “The Environmentalist” wherein he proposed ten localities in the tropical forests by virtue of their floristic richness and deforestation rates. Myers called these ten localities as “hotspot” areas, thus, giving ‘birth’ to the concept of biodiversity hotspots. A year after the publication of Myers’ paper, the concept of hotspots was adopted by the Conservation International as the guiding principle of investments. It was a “perfect” concept to function as conservation “blue-print” as we have many to protect but with little money.

In Myers’ proposed ten localities of hotspots of 1988, Bhutan featured in the Eastern Himalayas hotspot together with Nepal, neighbouring states of northern India and continuous sector of Yunnan Province in south-western China. For Bhutan to be included in the Eastern Himalayas hotspot, Myers cited A.J.C Grierson and D.G. Long’s “Flora of Bhutan” published in 1983, which estimated 5000 plant species of which, 750 species were estimated to be endemic to the Eastern Himalayas. While Flora of Bhutan provided a much-needed information on “exceptional concentration of plant endemism”, Caroline Sergent and teams’ paper of 1985, titled “The forests of Bhutan: a vital resource for the Himalayas?” provided the information on “experiencing high rates of habitat loss” (re-visit the definition of biodiversity hotspots). Their paper informed that increased commercial felling to build saw and ply mills; extension of the road networks; and forest regeneration failure due to un-enclosed livestock herding, as the identified threat to conservation.

Similarly, in 1990, Myers published another paper titled “The biodiversity challenge: Expanded hot-spots analysis”, and in this paper, he identified another eight such areas, four of which were in the tropical forests and four in Mediterranean-type zones. This took total hotspots in the world to 18.

Fast-forward, in the year 2000, Myers and team published yet another paper titled “Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities” in Nature. This time, the paper identified 25 hotspots and unlike earlier years, four vertebrate groups: mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, were included in addition to vascular plants, which was the only indicator in the earlier hotspots listing. The new classification put Bhutan in the Indo-Burma hotspots, which was, then, one of the nine identified leading hotspots.

In the year 2005, an additional analysis was undertaken by almost 400 specialists around the globe and brought the total biodiversity hotspots to 34, which was subsequently increased to 35 after adding the “Forest of East Australia”. This reappraisal classified the Indo-Burma as two hotspots: Indo-Burma and Himalaya (Bhutan is in the Himalaya biodiversity hotspot). The latest addition came in February 2016 when the “North American Coastal Plain” was recognized as the Earth’s 36th hotspot. This means, there are 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world now.

The “fact”

Well, it is a mistake to “glorify” (if one may like to use this word) Bhutan as one of the 10 global hotspots. When the hotspot is not necessarily a good thing. Let me reiterate that Bhutan was in the Eastern Himalayan hotspot of 1988 and currently we are in the Himalaya hotspot. Bhutan was never, and not a stand-alone hotspot and definitely not the top 10 global biodiversity hotspot. It appears that we just looked at the first part of the definition of hotspot: ‘concentration of plant endemism’ and began to get excited about hotspot and started to ‘label’ Bhutan as top 10 global biodiversity hotspots. We should be careful that the definition of hotspot also carries negative connotation: ‘experiencing high rates of habitat loss’. While we may have a higher concentration of plant endemism, it is hard to believe that we seem to embrace even ‘experiencing high rates of habitat loss’, when proudly proclaiming to be a biodiversity hotspot country. Let’s be clear that biodiversity hotspot is not as “glossy” as many of us seem to picture it.

Now, where should we be proud of?

The answers are our biodiversity. We are still one of the biodiversity-rich countries in the world and the addition of new species to science from Bhutan is a testimony to that. From 2009 to 2017, Bhutan added 31 new species of flora and fauna to science. The new species added to science were 16 species of plants; four moths; four mollusks; one dragonfly; three fish; one stonefly and two beetles. A story on it was covered by BBS on 20 May 2019. According to a recently published “Biodiversity Statistics of Bhutan 2017” by National Biodiversity Centre, Bhutan is home to 11,248 species. This is quite a diversity for a small country of ours.

However, are we biodiverse enough to feature in the top 10 biodiverse countries in the world?

In 2016, Mongabay published an article titled “The top 10 most biodiverse countries”. The ranking was undertaken through a weighted index using five groups for animals: amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles; and one group for plants: vascular plant. For obvious reason (country size), Bhutan could not even feature in the list of top 50 Earth’s most biodiverse countries. However, when the same article looked at biodiversity on per unit of area basis to ensure that small countries are not left out, Bhutan could feature in rank 12 on the list of Earth’s most biodiverse countries. In-case some of you are wondering, Brunei; Gambia; and Belize featured in the top three biodiverse countries in the world on per unit of area basis.

Now what?

Bhutan may not feature in the list of top 10 biodiverse countries in the world, yet we are probably the only country in the world where the constitution of the country requires us to maintain at least sixty percent of our area under forest cover for all times to come. We are probably the only country to have ‘raised our hands’ in 2009 at UNFCCC COP 15 and delivered a declaration titled, “Declaration of the Kingdom of Bhutan – The Land of Gross National Happiness to Save Our Planet”, wherein we committed to keeping absorbing more carbon than we emit. Today, a decade after the declaration, we are proudly walking with our heads held high, knowing that our forests are absorbing more carbon than we emit. We are probably the only carbon negative country in the world.

Similarly, in 2013, Ida Kubiszewski, a professor at the Australian National University and a team of scholars estimated that the value of ecosystem services provided by our forests to be about USD 15.5 billion/year. They also estimated that more than 50% of the total benefits from our ecosystem services accrue to the people outside Bhutan. This should be enough reason for all Bhutanese to be proud of, as we are contributing the much-needed ecosystem services by our virtue of preserving our natural resources, which of-course was meticulously crafted by our beloved monarchs. Guess what? We have always been a donor country of the most essential “intangible” goods: ecosystem services.

Do we live in a special place?

The currently recognized Himalaya hotspot, where we are in, overlaps the “boundary” with three other hotspots: Mountains of south-west China; Indo-Burma; and Mountains of central Asia. Our location in the Himalaya hotspot, which shares boundaries with these three biodiversity hotspots of the world signifies that we are indeed in a unique place on the Earth. Well, unique because it signifies that our area has an exceptional concentration of the endemic species but it is also of a concern, as it also signifies that our area is experiencing a higher rate of habitat loss.

Well, Bhutan may not even feature in the list of top 10 biodiverse countries in the world, but we live in a special place. We live in a country where the importance of co-existence is being taught through Thuen-Pa-Puen-Zhi. We live in a country where the six signs of longevity: Tshering Namdruk, features biodiversity with fresh-water. We live in a place imbued with the stories of the existence of mythical Mi-goe; Me-chum; Chu-drey; and many other fabled creatures. Our ancestors knew the importance of biodiversity, long before the term biodiversity was invented. We are probably the only place on Earth, where TIGERS and SNOW LEOPARDS share habitat.

Feel proud that we are one of the biodiverse countries in the world and feel proud that we don’t have conservation ‘islands’ unlike other countries, for our protected areas are well connected with biological corridors. We are indeed living in a magical place, the land of THUNDER DRAGON. Yes DRAGON, yet another fabled ‘creature’.

Acknowledgement: I would like to Thank Sangay Dema, PhD Student at University of New England, Australia [Principle Biodiversity Officer, NBC, MoAF] for reviewing the initial draft of this opinion piece.

[http://www.kuenselonline.com/bhutan-and-global-top-10-biodiversity-hotspots-a-fact-check/]

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