Photo: Yee Getaway

Plan to open Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary to tourism

There is a plan to open up the 269 sq km Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary (PWS) to tourism. A soft opening was supposed to happen on 17th December 2023, but the plan has been put on pause as the opening up will be a part of the larger Gelephu Mindfulness City project masterplan.

The opening has also been put on pause as around 5 km of the safari road trail needs to be realigned properly. Some of the bush also needs to be cleared around and near the road.

In the meantime, the sanctuary already has an eco-tourism plan ready for visitors that includes toilets and amenities and a business plan that includes glamping, camping, safari jeep ride, bird watching, zip line. Bhutan for Life supported these plans.

As per the original plan the park was to be open from October till March and kept closed for 3 to 4 months due to the rains and flooding rivers and streams.

While Phibsoo is the smallest of the 10 national parks in the country it has a very high level of biodiversity and some unique traits.

According to WWF Bhutan two unique characteristics that sets PWS apart from other protected areas in the country is the presence of the Spotted Deer and natural Sal forests, found nowhere else in the country.  Besides these, PWS also harbours other important tropical species such as elephant, gaur and golden langur.

Historically, PWS’s origins dates back to as early as 1974 when it was first designated a Reserved Forest. It was only in 1993 that PWS was upgraded to a wildlife sanctuary.

WWF Bhutan said that PWS had long remained a paper park; it was only in 2009 that the first steps toward conservation efforts began.

Yee Getway’s Pema Choden in her documentary on the PWS said while the sanctuary is considered small in size it is important in protecting some of the world’s most endangered species. The sanctuary has the rare Agar tree.

Among the animals found here are four varieties of the hornbills can be found in Phibsoo, White Bellied Heron and it is a paradise for birds as more than 60 percent of the country’s birds can be found in PWS with five new bird species being found here in the last five years which are new to Bhutan.

There are 421 species of birds and more than 60 species of water birds. They also come in large numbers as there is not much disturbance.

Pema said camera trapping methods also found 36 species of various mammals in PWS. In 2018 there was only one tiger but with enhanced habitat management and anti-poaching measures the numbers of tigers increased to 7 in 2021.

A challenge of the PWS has been its location along a porus international border and so poachers come and poach animals and valuable timber. Rangers apprehend armed poachers and conduct regular patrolling.

Foresters have to watch out for elephants or the unpredictable Guars.

Pema said that the eco-tourism plans are located in safe buffer zones and transit zones, river side camping and picnic activities, spotted deer trail.

They will also provide jungle treks along rivers to the salt and mineral lick mountains of Phibsoo. There can also be exclusive birding tours unlike any other birding tours in Bhutan.

The PWS plans will now also have to factor in the Sarpang to Lhamoizingkha highway that will have to go along the edges of the park (see separate story on pg 1).

A park official said that park or environmental clearance will not be given in the core areas and the road in fact will be a big help to them to do border patrolling against poachers and also for enhanced security.

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