It was a good news for Bhutan and perhaps, more so to the environment conservation society in the country to learn that Gangtey-Phobji wetlands has been designated as the third RAMSAR site in June 2016. The news comes after four longs years since Khotokha and Bumdeling were designated as Site No. 2033 and Site No. 2032 respectively in May 2012. The news was made public in September 2016 by the Department of Forest and Park Services. Since the establishment of Watershed Management Division under the Department, it has been the nodal agency in the study of wetlands and watershed in the country and also the lead agency to process the Ramsar Information Sheet through the government.
In particular, Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) received the news with excitement. RSPN has been involved in the conservation of the cranes and the wetlands of Gangtey-Phobjikha as early as 1987. RSPN started its conservation journey quite modestly. In fact, RSPN’s founder Dasho Paljor J. Dorji, began the organization by counting the cranes in Gangtey-Phobji valley. It can perhaps be labeled as the genesis of RSPN as the pioneer environmental NGO in Bhutan. Since then, the desire of having some sort of legal status for the area as conservation area was always there. Though the Royal Government of Bhutan has always bestowed support to conserve the wetlands, it was a challenge in absence of a legal status and definite demarcation. RSPN welcomes such designation and applauds the pro-conservationist government.
Gangtey-Phobji with 975 hectares is Ramsar Site no. 2264 and it is the largest Wetland of International Importance for Bhutan. The wetlands fall with in the two Gewogs (Block) of Gangtey and Phobji. The other similarity among the three Ramsar site is that, it is winter habitat for the vulnerable Black-necked Cranes (Grus nigricollis) in Bhutan and also holy Buddhist pilgrimage sites. All together, the three sites measure 1,226 hectares (12.26 km2) which shall remain protected under this designation for good. The recognition for all the sites in Bhutan are principally on the basis of its importance as it provides fundamental ecosystem services, such as water regulation, filtering and purification, as well as numerous scientific, cultural and recreational values. It is often referred to as the the “kidney of the landscape” and considered as water storage “sponge”. These wetlands are important for the conservation of global biological diversity and for sustaining human life through the maintenance of their ecosystem components, processes and benefits or services.
The wetlands of Gangtey-Phobji is the largest natural wetland and also the largest winter habitat of the Black-necked Cranes in the country. Its existence values; ecological, cultural and aesthetics are irreplaceable. The valley, in general, represents exceptional natural beauty and holds outstanding universal value as a high altitude inland wetland. It is a significant natural habitat for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, especially for the vulnerable Black-necked Cranes which is listed as protected bird species under Schedule I of Forest and Nature Conservation rules of Bhutan (FNCR 2006). It also represents Bhutan’s unique conservation style and integration of culture, science and sustainable livelihoods. The valley is also one of the most important tourism destinations in the country. The designation is a symbol of forward-thinking of the Bhutanese environment conservation sector. The site certainly deserves long term management and conservation in which every stakeholder is party starting from community to the government. And the designation asRamsar site is timely and appropriate.
Today there are 2,242 Ramsar sites world wide covering 215,253,719 hectares (2,152,537.19 km2), almost equivalent to Greenland in size. In terms of regional comparison, Nepal has 10 sites, Pakistan with 19, Bangladesh with 2 and India with 26. However, the size of the sites is much larger with diverse ecosystem services.
In retrospect, the 8th Session of the National Assembly of Bhutan (Winter Session, 2011) ratified the Ramsar Convention after 1 hour 30 minutes’ discussion. Thirty-six out of thirty-six members of parliament present during the session voted to ratify the 12 articles of theRamsar Convention. The then Minister, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, Dr. Pema Gyamtsho said that the decision is only going to further benefit the country in its effort to conserve wetlands in Bhutan. He stated that being a member and having Ramsar wetland sites in Bhutan will not only help the people and government of Bhutan avail fund for conservation but also help in enhancing research activities in Ramsar Sites. He asserted that it will only increase Bhutan’s stringent tradition of environmental conservation. In the same year Bhutan became the 161st contracting party to the Ramsar Convention. The Parliament approved the proposal of the three sites as Ramsar sites in 2012. Article 5, of the Constitution of Kingdom of Bhutan explicitly mentions that the “Parliament may, by law, declare any part of the country to be a National Park, Wildlife Reserve, Nature Reserve, Biosphere Reserve, Critical Watershed and such other categories meriting protection”.
The WWF Bhutan Program has been supporting the Watershed Management Division towards Bhutan’s accession to the convention including research and consultations. It is expected that Gangtey-Phobji will have robust management plans and that the continuity of conservation efforts will only magnify.