A most unusual sanctuary, where the Yeti roams free

  The Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist country nestled in the Himalayas between India and Tibet, sounds like an enchanting place. People who’ve traveled there describe snow-capped peaks, lush valleys and ancient monasteries. The country is known for its progressive environmental laws, and is sometimes even called "the last Shangri-la" for its unspoiled natural environment.

Recently, I learned an odd detail about Bhutan’s approach to conservation, something that might sound preposterous here in the American West. World Wildlife Fund’s Bhutan program has received a $700,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to help the Bhutanese government upgrade management of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, the country’s newest protected area.

Temperate forests of eastern blue pine and rhododendrons cover this 253-square-mile sanctuary. "Sakteng is unique," reported the Environment News Service, "as the only reserve in the world created specifically to protect the habitat of the Yeti, known in Bhutan as the migoi, or strong man."

Excuse me? The Bhutanese have created a 253-square-mile wildlife sanctuary for the Yeti? They are officially setting aside habitat for a giant mythological hairy dude known for scaring campers?

At first, I thought the story must be an error, but a little online research confirmed it. Indeed, the Bhutanese have officially given the migoi its very own home among the blue pines and rhododendrons of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary.

Here’s what we know about the migoi, which goes by the names Bigfoot and Sasquatch in other parts of the world. The ape-like creature has been a legend in the Himalayas for centuries and is even mentioned in ancient Tibetan and Bhutanese texts. It stands 8 feet tall, walks backward to evade trackers, and can make itself invisible, which explains why so few people have observed it. Skeptics have suggested that the migoi is actually a Tibetan bear, a rare species related to the grizzly; the Tibetan bear places its back feet in the footprints of its front feet while traveling through snow, thus giving the appearance of a two-legged animal. But if the Bhutanese accepted this explanation, they probably would have created a bear sanctuary.

Back home in the American West, we have enough trouble getting land set aside for fully real and often endangered species that we’ve tracked, collared, tagged and documented for decades, creatures that don’t walk backwards or make themselves invisible. Our most iconic wild animals — wolves, salmon, bears, lynx — are some of those that our society has been least willing to accommodate.

Case in point: In May, the Bush administration repealed the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, potentially opening tens of millions of remote acres in the West to logging, mining and drilling. Supporters of the rule, which provided protection for some of our country’s last remaining wild places, called it one of the most important conservation efforts of recent times.

Yet over in Bhutan, the migoi gets its own personal wildlife sanctuary, just in case one of these "strong men" exists to need it.

I wonder what sort of political wrangling the Bhutanese went through to create the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. The Bhutanese king has been in the international spotlight for measuring his country’s progress in terms of Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product. But despite such enlightenment, it’s often a challenge for developing countries to set aside wildlife sanctuaries.

Bhutan is a small nation, just a bit larger than Switzerland. But it’s much poorer than Switzerland: The annual income per person is a paltry $730. Only 42 percent of Bhutanese are literate, and they can expect to live only 52 years.

And timber is one of this poor country’s main exports. Even so, the Bhutanese have apparently decided that conserving their trees is worth it to provide habitat for their "strong men."

Here in the American West, we have an abundance of land, and we live in relative affluence. Why is it so hard for us to convince each other and our local and national leaders to protect our wildlands? Perhaps we need some more strong men and women of our own.

Nicole Gordon lives and writes in Boulder, Colorado.