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Into the Heart of a Mountain-man

Dorji Wangdi a senior forester with Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, shares his heartfelt account of being a front-liner and an environment advocator on his own right. The following are excerpts from his writing published in WWF-Bhutan titled: “Journey to the Black Mountain.โ€

On 17 February 2012 I joined the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park (JSWNP) in the heart of Bhutan. I was posted at the Khebithang Nature Study Centre (NSC) which is located in Phobjika.  Exactly after a week of going to the office I could feel my dream of exploring the Black Mountain coming to fruition. I was right at the entrance but beginning my exploration was the biggest question, everywhere I glanced I could see endless mountains.

My question was answered on 1 May 2013 when I got the opportunity to join Dr. Tshering Tempa from the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental  Research (UWICER) while he was doing his PhD on Predator and Prey Dynamics in our Park. I was sure that I was going to explore the land of my dreams. Jaributsha was where we halted on our first night. This is the place where I first drank tea with the taste of clay soil because there was no other water source and we had to make tea with stagnant water that had absorbed a lot of the soil nutrients that were in the area.

During our trip we came across a Yak harder called App Dawa Gatshey who was surprised to see us. He told us that in his 30 years of running after yaks he had never seen forest personnel in these areas. I did not know whether to feel ashamed or guilty but I turned back and smiled to myself. On that trip we installed our camera traps till Nagtsela base. The Black Mountain was nowhere to be seen but I was satisfied with my first attempt to explore this mysterious land.  

After the first expedition it became a regular place to visit for camera monitoring, patrolling and for other survey work. But I couldnโ€™t proceed further into to my dream land, because I was not getting the appropriate time. As the saying goes โ€œif there is a will there is a wayโ€ on 23 August I made a second attempt with the company of Mr. Jamtsho, another Ranger from the Park. That was the time where I took on the role of three people, a local guide, potter and forest personal. To reach our first camp I felt like it was the longest distance I had covered in my experience we walked for over 10 hours that day. I felt like my muscle were about to burst and my uniform was drenched in sweat even at that high altitude. After reaching the camp and my load was on ground I felt as though I had suffered enough to wash away all the sins I had committed my entire life. 

Aap Trongchung, who was 60 years old at the time was a Yak herder who had grown old on those mountains. Although he didnโ€™t have any idea about the trail towards the top of the mountain he still offered to guide us till Dungshing Gho (door). I thought, that it would be easier to follow the old mans footsteps till the Japhu where we spent the night before reaching Dungshung Gho. I couldnโ€™t rest on that night although I was tried and had aches and pains all over my body. I was imagining what Dungshing Gho would look like. The next morning after an early breakfast on 26th Aug, 2015 I was making my way up towards Dungshing Gho, it took nearly 3 hours to reach but what I saw was really amazing, there is a huge hole which is big enough for truck to pass. When you enter the hole you enter in Trongsa and exit from Wangduephodrang.

We went through dungshing gho and entered into Wangdue district where everything was sliding with us. It took us more than an hour to reach the old track. From there we slowly moved towards the south, this was the first time any of us explored this area. Interestingly it was up to me to lead my companions whether right or wrong, but I was sure that we were going in the right direction towards the right place. At last we reached a lake called Sertsho. The old man had never been there. He was in awe and started prostrating towards the lake. This gave us a sense that this lake was not visited for over half a century. The peak of the Black mountain was however, still a dream. But I was happy that we were able to visit this mesmerizing lake and rediscover its whereabouts. Our guide then led us back to base via Yumtsho, a track that he knew perfectly.

On 4 June, 2016 I made another attempt as part of the Musk Deer survey team with Mr. Tshering Dorji  from our Taksha Range. This was my third attempt. We managed to explore many areas of the area but the Black Mountain was still out of my reach. This time I managed to get as far as Yotongla where I could see the Black Mountain closer than I had ever seen it before. Although I could not climb the mountain I was satisfied that I was getting closer to it with every passing year.

On 13 June, 2017, a year later, I was headed back to the Black Mountain for a Tiger survey to install camera traps. I was accompanied by Mr.Tshering Wangchuk the person in charge of NSC Khebithang, Phobjikha. I wasnโ€™t sure about finding Tigers but my main intention was to explore the Black Mountain. The presence of a tiger would be hard to determine but I was interested to learn of the different species that called this mysterious place home. It was this reason that kept making me pack my gear and trying to finally explore this area.

It took us 5 days to finally reach the summit; none of the days was comfortable for us, every day it seemed to rain harder, pouring like a stream. I was lucky to be accompanied by young, energetic and responsible team members. With this team I could face any kind of situation. Cooking and camping in the rain, although there was no track we managed to pass through rocky terrain and though we could see nothing around us we manage to climb the peak of the Black Mountain on 20 June, 2017. It was a surreal experience reaching there because no one had stood where we were standing but my team managed to do it. An article that I read a few years ago by Noltie 2000 says โ€œRoland Edgar Cooper visited the fascinating and still much unknown areas of the Black Mountain (Dunshinggang)โ€. But now, we could say it is no more unknown or mysterious instead we had explored beyond them, the comparison map is shown below.

It took me more than 5 years to finally explore the Black Mountain, which is not really a short span of time and of course it wasnโ€™t easy but all that anyone needs to accomplish anything is the inspiration to do so. The peak of the black mountain is more stone than grass lands, this is probably why it isnโ€™t visited often. But being a conservationist I took it as my duty to explore the Black Mountain because in my mind every area in nature is important. Exploring such unexplored areas helps us learn about the different species that call this area home. It helps us understand how important this area really is.

Today I am a happy man because by exploring the Black Mountain, I have covered almost every nook and cranny of the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park and understand better about the flora and fauna that call this park its home. I am elated that my attempts have come to fruition and now we can proudly say that Jigme Singye Wangchuck National is one of two places on earth where snow leopard and tiger habitats overlap.

This evidence will push for us to protect these flagship species that I have come to love and respect during the course of my work in conservation.

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