There are five national parks, four wildlife sanctuaries and one nature reserve, which together constitute about 43% of Bhutan, or 16,396 sq km. An additional 3307 sq km is designated as a network of biological corridors linking all nine protected areas, putting 52% of the country under some form of protection.
All but three of the protected areas encompass regions in which there is a resident human population. Preserving the culture and fostering Iocal tradition is part of the mandate of Bhutan’s national-park system.
Government has developed an integrated conservation and development program to allow people living within a protected area to continue to farm, graze animals, collect plants and cut firewood. Bhutan established its national-park system to protect important eco systems, and for the most part they have not been developed as tourist attractions.
Apart from one or two exceptions, you won’t find the kind of facilities you may normally associate with national parks, such as entrance stations, camping grounds and visitors centers. In many cases you won’t even be aware that you are entering or leaving a national park
1. Jigme Dorji National Park & Hot Spring
The road along the MO Chhu valley leads north out of Punakha and enters Gasa Dzongkhag and Jigme Dorji National Park. Until recent times you had to trek much of this route, and though the road is steadily being improved, it remains a rough, slow drive. The drive from Punakha to Gasa (about 133km return from Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten) takes a full day. The rewards are the magical views, wonderful bird-watching, and the dzong. The hot springs, on the other hand, are primarily a destination for the sick and elderly seeking relief in the thermal waters.
Just 19km from Khamsum Chorten is the village of Tashitang . Here the road hugs the MO Chhu and is wrapped in verdant forests that sing with bird life, Just stop the car and wander quietly along the roadside to spot shimmering sunbirds, pure blue flycatchers and crested laughing thrushes. Even non-twitchers will be amazed at the bird show.
It’s another rough 47km drive through forests, terraces and villages to Gasa’s Trashi Thongmoen Dzong, a venerable and remote fortress nestled in a rugged mountain setting. Though damaged several times by fires, the dzong’s eclectic treasures remain on display in the Chanzho Lhakhang: the skeleton of the sheep that followed the Zhab-drung on his journey from Ralung Monastery in Tibet, and the Zhabdrung’s remarkably preserved saddles in a metal chest.
The steep trail down to the Gasa tsachhu (hot spring) is punishing on the knees, so it’s just as well that the hottest of the four communal baths is beneficial for joint pains The other baths are beneficial for a plethora of other ailments. The ‘vapour spa’ above the baths is a stinky grotto where sulphurous fumes whoosh out of soft-drink bottles that have been fashioned into funnels and jammed into crevices. Good for the sinuses apparently.
Itineraries which visit Jigme Dorji National Park includes:
2. Royal Manas National Park
After years of being off-limits due to security concerns this remote and enticing national park is now open to visitors. The park is little known, even among agents in Thimphu, and facilities are still limited: only 27 foreigners visited in 2011.
The park’s forests are home a wide variety of animals, including elephants, water buffalos, leopards, between 30 and 50 tigers, clouded leopards, civets, rhinoceros and 350 species of birds. The park abuts the Manas National Park in Indian Assam, forming a transnational conservation area.
Tourism is very much in its infancy here. Agencies can arrange jeep and elephant safaris from the central from the central Manas camp ranger office, as well as boat trips down the Manas between Panbang and Manas camp. NOvember to March are the best months to visit. There are several tsechu festivals in the region in the 10th Bhutanese month (November).
Access is still tricky as there are few roads into the park. Perhaps the best way to experience the park is to make the three- or four-day hike from Gomphu (1460m) to Panbang, overnighting in community-managed campgrounds at Pangtang (240m), Shilling-toe (420m), Changzam bridge and Pangbang river junction (160m). Expect to walk between four and six hours per day.
All campgrounds have toilets, water and twin log cabins. Gomphu is itself a three- hour drive from Zhemgang and boasts a Ihakhang, a cremation site and the Duenmang Ikhachhu (hot spring; a two-hour walk away). A new road shadows the trek route, but a lack of bridges across the Mangde Chhu means there is currently little traffic.
The easiest road access to Pangbang village is actually from Mathanguri in India, just a short boat ride across the Manas River from Manas camp. A little-used 25km road leads from Gelephu to Kanamakra at the southwestern corner of the park and there is also a road entering the park from Nganglam in the east. Depending on your itinerary you may need double-entry Indian and Bhutanese visas, so check with your agent.
3. Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary
Set up in 2003, Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is the latest protected park to be set up in Bhutan. Measuring just 650 square kilometres, it harbours 35 of 46 species of rhododendrons as well as 203 tree species including herbs, shrubs, and small trees. Bird-watchers can keep a lookout for Assamese macaw, blood pheasant, grey backed shrike, grey headed woodpecker, common hoopoe, rufous vented tit and dark breasted rose finch.
The mystical creature Yeti, locally known as migoi or strongman, is believed to inhibit this forest. This creature has been mentioned in Tibetan and Bhutanese literature. They are believed to be 8 feet tall, about 2.5 meter, walk backwards and can make themselves invisible. Visitors to this area, however, will meet the nomadic people of Bhutan who are mainly depend on cattle-grazing for their livelihood.
4. Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary
Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary is located in northeast Bhutan, in the districts of Trashiyangtse, Lhuntshe, and Mongar. Created in 1994, the sanctuary covers 1,545 square kilometer, and is known for being the home of black-necked cranes in winter. Black-necked cranes also make Gangtey and Bumthang its home in winter. About 150 cranes stay in Bumdeling from mid-November to early March.
The santuary is home to 296 species of birds. Rare birds include Gloud’s Shortwing, Pallas’s Fish Eagle and the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide (Indicator xanthonotus). Close to 100 species of mammals stay in this sactuary including Snow leopard, Bengal tiger, and Red panda, Musk deer, Serow and Goral. Additionally, more than 130 species of butterflies and 46 species of orchids have been recorded in this sanctuary.
Additionally, travelers can find scenic, cultural and religious monuments including Rigsum Gompa, the mystic Singye Dzong and Dechenphodrang Lhaghang.
5. Jigme Singye Wangchuk National Park
Protecting the Black Mountains that separate eastern and western Bhutan, it harbours tigers, Himalayan black bears, red pandas and golden langurs. An amazing 450 species of bird have been catalogued.
The Phobjikha valley, wintering place of black-necked cranes, is included in the park.
6. Khaling Wildlife Sanctuary
In far southeastern Bhutan, the Khlaing Wildlife Sanctuary protects wild elephants, gaurs, leopards, pygmy hogs, hispid hares and other tropical wildlife. This sanctuary adjoins a comparable reserve in India
7. Phibsoo Wildlife sanctuary
On the southern border of Bhutan, it was established to protect the only remaining natural sal forest in Bhutan. Several protected species thrive here, including chital deer, elephants, gaurs, tigers, golden langurs and honrbills.
8. Tosa Strict Natura reserve
Torsa reserve is located where Torsa Chhu (river) enters from Tibet. The reserve was set aside to protect the temperate forests and alpine meadows and is the only protected area with no resident human population.
9. Thrumsing La National Park
This national park was set aside to protect old growth temperate forest of fir and chir pine. It is also home to red pandas and several endangered bird species including the rufous-necked hornbill and satyr trapogan pheasant.