Yuri and Elana have been working as interns at the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN). This organization, as the name suggests, works to preserve and protect Bhutan’s nature—by protecting biodiversity and forestry, implementing recycling and waste management, raising awareness, and educating teachers to teach school children about nature. We are working on an independent project called—“RSPN at Royal Thimphu College”, raising awareness about environmental protection on the college campus through student surveys. We plan activities for the students to learn more about the surrounding nature of RTC such as a hike with a professional bird watcher.
As part of our internship, we were invited to help out with the Annual Black Neck Crane Festival that is held every year in the Phobjikha Valley. Phobjikha is usually a five to six hours drive from Thimphu towards the east. We left the headquarters at 7am but since there was a road blockage and it actually took us 7.5 hours to our destination. When we arrived, we were welcomed by a stunning view of the valley— a very peaceful view with greenish yellow swampy valley where cows and various kinds of birds roaming around.
We were led to the RSPN Crane Observatory, where we were to sleep for the next two nights. One of the RSPN staff gave us welcome tea and brought us over to the two big binoculars by the big window of the observatory. There they were! A family of cranes! There were 28 cranes in total at that time, and about a third of them were juveniles. They had just come back the valley all the way from Tibet. During the peak-time, which is mid-December, there are around 300 of them in this valley.
After we observed the cranes for a while, we drove over to the Gangtey Monastery where the festival was going to be held the next day. It was located on top of a hill overlooking the valley. After setting up a RSPN information table on a side of the monastery compound, we went around the monastery for a little tour and saw the room where artisans make intricate carvings for the monastery. The entryway for the monastery is covered with carvings. That night, we had a good talk with the staff and learned how to cook emadatsi (chilies and cheese), naja (Nepalese milk tea) and dal (soup).
Everyone woke up before seven o’clock to get ready to go to the festival. We dressed in the national dress, kira, and joined the other staff with before-breakfast tea, where we observed another family of cranes, and had a nice talk about environmental education in Bhutan. On our way to the festival, the Executive Director of RSPN, Dr. Lam Dorji, stopped at a site before the monastery to show something extraordinary. The valley of Phobjikah is about to install electricity, but not in a conventional form with electric poles and wires. The government is very concerned about the migratory cranes and so is installing an electricity system that is underground, so that the birds would not die from getting caught in the wires. Phobjikha is developing in a crane-friendly way!
After this brief stop, we drove over to the monastery to help out with the festival. When we arrived, the monastery was already filling up with locals, visitors and tourists. Our job was to stand by the entrance and ask for donations for the RSPN Crane Observatory. The main objective for the festival was for the community to sustain themselves in a way that is not harmful to the environment. And the most active members of the festival committee were women. There were two women that were running around everywhere during the festival, who danced, prepared meals and cleaned up. They had so much energy and seemed so happy to be what they were doing. Dr. Lam Dorji told us that they were the ones in charge of the festival and RSPN only helps them when they absolutely need help (most likely for financial reasons).
Once the festival started we were invited to sit at the VIP veranda where the Executive Director of RSPN Lam Dorji and the monastery lama were seated. We had a great view of the events that included school children’s dances, mask dances, local dances, crane dances and there was even a skit by the monastery monks! The crane dance by the local elementary school children were adorable—it was a boys’ dance with costumes that dressed them like cranes. The skit by monks were extraordinary and very “Bhutanese.” there were group of “bad” monks who were acting like they were vandalizing stupas, drinking excessively and throwing trash away. Then, all of a sudden, there were a group of demons that came to bring them to hell, where bad people were thrown into fire and cut into pieces by a big saw! Once the demons punished the “bad” monks, Buddha came to rescue them from hell—he gently gave them his hand and robes for each monk. It symbolized the compassion of Buddha that transformed the bad people into goodness, under the guidance of Buddha.
The festival was a great success; there were more tourists this year than they ever had in the past and enough donations made to help fund this festival and the year after. This crane festival was started by RSPN to help the local community to gain income, to develop, and to raise awareness of the beautiful black-necked cranes that are endangered. It seemed to us that all those were being accomplished and felt very honored to take a part in such a wonderful experience.
The whole experience was just amazing. Everything, from food to the scenery to locals’ smiles, was filled with joy. We have never seen a valley like the one in Phobjikah—it’s serenity makes us feel like everything is okay. Things are so calm there, maybe it’s the cows that have birds on their backs or the cranes that do not stop pecking the ground for food or just the mushy wetland that smelled so good.
Another part of this trip that we absolutely loved was the talks we had with the RSPN staff. Because we do not work at the office, we have had a very limited time with them. We talked about so many different things: Buddhism in Bhutan, Kings, our experience here, cranes, education system, monks, and etc. We had so many interesting and deep conversations with Dr.Lam Dorji and learned so much about Bhutanese perspective of Bhutan and the reasons why Bhutan needs to develop carefully. The trip, the festival, and the conversations with Lam Dorji and the RSPN staff made it clear to us why we are both so happy to be interns at the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature.
Working at RSPN helped us realize the special connection Bhutanese have with nature. Bhutan is a mountainous country and the nation’s 74% is covered by trees. The government puts an enormous effort into protecting its nature, where even the constitution states that 60% of the nation must be covered by trees at all times. People really feel comfortable in nature and appreciates the environment. The Bhutanese people are spiritually connected to nature, perhaps because many monasteries require a rigorous hike up a steep mountain. Monks meditate in monasteries located in very remote places—on a cliff or top of a mountain—in isolation or with a community of monks. The Bhutanese people have connections to nature that we, the people from developed countries, lost a long time ago.
The RSPN Interns, Yuri and Elana