4 Jan 2018

Nature’s Heroes Award for Bhutan’s Godfather of conservation

Dasho Paljor Dorji, 2017 Nature's Hero for his exemplary work in Bhutan's conservation.

Dasho Paljor Dorji, 2017 Nature's Hero for his exemplary work in Bhutan's conservation.
Dasho Paljor Dorji, 2017 Nature's Hero for his exemplary work in Bhutan's conservation. (image: RSPN)
By Nick Langley

Dasho Paljor Dorji (Dasho Benji) has been named one of Nature's Heroes by Bhutan's Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), for his exemplary work in conservation. Often referred to as the Godfather of conservation in Bhutan, he founded RSPN at the command of the Fourth King of Bhutan in 1987, primarily to protect Black-necked Crane Grus nigricollis, and Bhutan's biodiversity in general, outside the existing protected area system.

Prior to the establishment of RSPN, most of the conservation work in Bhutan was carried out by government agents, explained Tashi Phuntsho, Coordinator of RSPN's Communications and Membership Division. 

“His exemplary work, and the awareness of Bhutan's nature he has created, has inspired many citizen-based initiatives, and led to the rise of NGOs in the country.”

A substantial proportion of the global population of Black-necked cranes winter at three sites in Bhutan. In 1987, Dasho Benji began working for the conservation of the most important of these sites, the Phopjika Valley, part of the Phopjika and Khatekha valleys IBA. Thirty years on, although it is still listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, the crane's population has apparently increased or stabilised in recent years. If these increases prove to be genuine and sustained, downlisting to a lower threat category may be appropriate.

Thanks to Dasho Benji's work, there is an annual census of the wintering population of the cranes in Bhutan, where a festival is held in November to raise public awareness of crane conservation. Phobjikha was recently declared a RAMSAR site. At another wintering ground in Bhutan, the Bumdelling Wildlife Sactuary IBA, cultivation of winter crops is banned to maintain a supply of food for the cranes.

“Phobjikha Valley today is seen as a success story when it comes to finding that perfect balance between conservation and livelihood,” said Tashi Phuntsho. “Dasho Benji's work in conservation has paved the way for other activities such as the introduction of ecotourism, organic farming, waste management, energy-efficient options and women's empowerment programmes. Phobjikha is not only the largest wintering habitat for Black-necked Cranes, but one of the premier tourism hotspots in the country. Numerous projects were initiated for promoting alternative livelihood options for the local communities. Today, the main income sources of the community are tourism and farming.”

Dasho Benji helped draft Bhutan’s first National Environmental Strategy. He is a special advisor to the National Environment Commission, and an advisor to many other organisations that focus on environment and conservation in Bhutan. He is also president of the Bhutan Ecological Society, and as a result of his distinguished career as a government advisor, was awarded the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Outstanding Environmental Stewardship Award for Policy Leadership, instituted by the Fourth King.

He also advocates for environment and conservation through talks during events, and through his weekly radio show, Good Evening Dasho Benji . “He is revered as an icon, yet you can often see him chatting with young people on the importance of conservation”, adds Tashi Phuntsho.