White-Bellied Heron population shows signs of stability in Bhutan


The critically endangered White-Bellied Heron (WBH) population in Bhutan has shown signs of stability with a total of 25 individuals recorded during the 2024 annual nationwide population survey. This news provides a much-needed glimmer of hope for the future of this majestic bird.

The Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), along with the Department of Forests and Park Services (DoFPS) and Local Conservation Support Groups (LCSGs), has been conducting the annual WBH population survey since 2003.

This year’s survey, carried out from March 1st to 5th, covered major river basins in Bhutan, such as Wangchhu, Punatshangchhu, Mangdechhu, Kuri-gongri, and Jomori, which is known for their WBH populations or potential habitats.

While the overall count of 27 individuals remained steady compared to 2023, the distribution pattern across these river basins shifted slightly. The Punatshangchhu basin continues to be the stronghold for WBHs, harboring nearly 55 percent of 12 individuals out of the total population. Mangdechhu and Wangchhu followed closely, contributing 18 percent of 5 individuals and 14 percent of 3 individuals, respectively.

However, a cause for concern remains. The survey documented a decline of two individuals from the previous year, one each from the Wangchhu and Punatshangchhu basins. Encouragingly, there was an increase of one individual sighted in the Mangdechhu basin.

The survey also documented four active WBH nests, three in Punatshangchhu and one in Mangdechhu. While breeding activity offers a positive sign, the 2023 breeding season saw limited success, with no chicks fledging from any of the three nests located that year.

Despite these challenges, the RSPN’s unwavering commitment to WBH conservation is evident in their multi-pronged approach. This includes habitat monitoring, population surveys, restoration efforts, threat mitigation strategies, and community outreach programs.

A significant aspect of the conservation program is the WBH Conservation Breeding Program, initiated in 2021. This builds upon the successful pilot project of ex-situ conservation conducted in 2011. The program aims to establish a captive breeding population to act as a safety net for the wild population and potentially contribute to future reintroduction efforts.

The annual population survey not only provides crucial data on WBH population trends and distribution but also offers valuable insights into the overall biodiversity of the WBH landscape. This year’s survey documented a rich tapestry of wildlife, with 806 sightings of other wildlife species, including 18 mammals and 207 birds.

The presence of threatened species like the Asian Elephant, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Eastern Imperial Eagle, and Great Hornbill highlights the ecological significance of the WBH habitat. Unfortunately, these ecosystems face numerous threats, including habitat loss due to developmental activities, river pollution from sand and gravel extraction, illegal fishing, and disturbance from recreational activities.

The data collected during the survey revealed threats present across 69 locations in the river systems. These findings underscore the need for a multi-faceted conservation approach that addresses not only the immediate threats to WBHs but also fosters a sense of stewardship among local communities residing along these crucial riverine landscapes.

RSPN’s community-based conservation approach is a cornerstone of their efforts. By integrating local communities into threat mitigation strategies and providing them with livelihood opportunities that incentivize sustainable practices, the program fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility for the well-being of WBHs and their habitat.

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