The South Asian nation of Bhutan is considered one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. Scientists say it is also among the least-studied areas of the world. That is about the change.
Bhutan has signed an agreement with the World Wildlife Fund and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago to conduct the country's first comprehensive wildlife inventory.
Bhutan is a small country located in the Himalayan Mountains between India and China. The majority of its 47,000 square kilometers are still forested. There is little automobile traffic in the country, no railroads and just two airports. Kinzang Namgay of the World Wildlife Fund says this has been good for the country's plant and animal life.
"We are fortunate because the country opened up to development initiatives very late. It is only about four decades now. Also, we have a very small population of just over 600,000 people. We are talking about a population density of something like 14 people per square kilometer," he says.
The president of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, John McCarter, says that makes Bhutan a gold mine of biological information.
"Bhutan is a country of magnificent variation. Altitude, temperature, north-south latitude. In that variation there are many species that are endemic to that country, some of which are threatened," he says.
Years ago, the Bhutanese government set a goal of keeping 60 percent of the country forested. Today, nearly 75 percent of the land is tree-covered. More than a third of the country is federally protected, either as a national park or a wildlife preserve. Bhutan's Agriculture Minister Kinzang Dorji says this is the result of the government's effort to promote what it calls "gross domestic happiness."
"While I think gross domestic product is an indicator of human development, in terms of economic development. There are certain things, not just material well-being, is not the ultimate goal," he says.
The minister says living in a beautiful place is more important than trying to make huge profits by selling off natural resources. Despite its wealth of wildlife, Bhutan has never inventoried its forests to see exactly what lives there. Beginning this year, scientists from Bhutan, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Field Museum in Chicago will inventory the country's plants and animals. Larry Heaney is a Field Museum curator involved in the project.
"We will probably use peanut butter as one of the baits. We will probably use live earthworms as one of the baits. Many of the animals we are after eat only soft-bodied soil invertebrates," he says.
Mr. Heaney expects the results of the inventory to be fascinating.
"Many of these things are very poorly known. In fact, many of them, initially in the field, we will not be able to identify. We will be able to say, 'This is Species A, and this is Species B,' but we will not be able to say what the name of those things is until we get them back here to Chicago," Mr. Heaney explains.
Later this year, two Bhutanese field researchers will come to the United States for training in biology and natural history education. Mr. Heaney says these trainees will work with other scientists in identifying the animals found in the inventory. Some will have to be compared to species from neighboring countries. Mr. Heaney offers a surprising fact - that scientists have identified only about two-thirds of the world's mammal species. "We would estimate right now about 5,000 species of mammals have been formally recognized. Most of us think that there probably are at least 8,000 out there," he says.
While the scientific community gains knowledge about the world's biological diversity, Bhutan benefits from this agreement as well. The Field Museum and the World Wildlife Fund will help Bhutan establish its first natural history museum. Agriculture Minister Kinzang Dorji.
"It would add additional value to the conservation efforts that we have already put in in Bhutan. We also consider this as a wide recognition of the commitment to conservation and the challenges we face in conserving our pristine environment," he says.
The Bhutan wildlife inventory is expected to take between five and 10 years.