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
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.
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
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
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
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.