Raven’s roost for a king’s crown
Lt-Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

BHUTAN is the only country in the world that around 1980 had declared that the measure of its prosperity shall not be its GNP (Gross National Product) but its GNH, that is the Gross National Happiness. Axiomatically, by the first decade of the 21st century, through a legislation enacted by a constitutionally elected Assembly, Bhutan opted to retain 60 per cent of its landmass under the natural forest cover.

The Emperor of Bhutan wears the raven crown
The Emperor of Bhutan wears the
raven crown

Little wonder, therefore, that the dynastic ruling house of Bhutan would choose to have a raven roosting atop their monarch’s crown. Not for them the conventional gold plate, encrusted with diamonds, as the symbol of kingship but rather the everyday elements of pristine nature from their animist beliefs as embodied by the ubiquitous raven.

May be that is why today Bhutan is the only country which comes close to zero noise pollution, its rivers free from chemical and biological contamination and its agriculture powered by organic nutrients. The country’s forests come close to the 40 per cent canopy grade which is the highest attainable under the current forestry practices.

Cynics would dismiss all these achievements simply to a fortunate conjunction of low density of human population, together with governance through kingly diktats. The truth, however, lies in having had a dynasty of visionary kings. Take for instance, the Sherubtse college, not far from Thimpu, which offers a wholesome exposure to students of its course in environmental science encompassing ecology, population dynamics, natural resource management, environmental impact assessment, besides water, soil and vegetation analysis and mapping.

Now in 1973, Jean Paul Getty (JPG), a billionaire American industrialist and oil tycoon, set up an annual international nature conservation award. A Peruvian became the first recipient in 1974 and in 1975 this $1,00,000 sum was conferred on Salim Ali for the study and conservation of the Indian avifauna.

Two decades later, the international jury of the JPG unanimously declared that the environmental science course at the Sherubtse college, Bhutan, was the most focused and comprehensive and that it will meaningfully accelerate the nature conservation consciousness in the entire South Asian region. And Bhutan’s only post-graduate college became the recipient of the JPG award for 1994.

With the passage of time, the Getty family increased the cash component of the annual award to $2,00,000 and enlarged its scope to also include individuals who provided political leadership in this field. This was also the period when the Bhutanese assembly was debating the ideal countrywide forest cover for their chosen way of life. Ultimately, in the 84th session in May 2003, the Bhutan assembly settled for the 60 per cent figure unanimously.

Happily, in 2004 the first JPG award in this new category was conferred upon His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the 4th king of Bhutan who on November 6, 2008, passed on the Raven Crown of his kingdom to his eldest heir. The citation of the award declared that "His Majesty’s leadership resulted in the establishment of government policies and laws that have had substantial positive impact on conservation and help ensure environmental sustainability in Bhutan. The kingdom of Bhutan today possesses some of the most pristine ecosystems in the world because of the King’s exceptional leadership to enthuse the people of Bhutan to environmental protection." Not many in the world can boast of such an accomplishment.

Of course, the nit-picking ornithologists would emphatically pronounce that, in fact, the Himalayan nutcracker has been mistaken for the raven as the crown bird of Bhutan. Be that as it may, but there is no mistaking the migrant black-necked cranes, among the most threatened in the world, which find refuge in winter in the lower valleys of Bhutan. Its black slender neck, bushy tail and stout legs contrast sharply with the all grey-white body plumage. But at close quarters, what attracts attention the most is the bright red head, eyes and the base of the beak. Human eyes may falter to detect the crane but even the deaf among them will stand up to the loud trumpet-calls of the cranes. Just imagine the reverberating echo of the 352 black-necks calling in unison as they wintered in the Wangdu district of east Bhutan in 2005. Ah! for the Raven Crown and hurrah for the head that wears it. May nature and Bhutan prosper forever.