Conversation with Bhutan’s Young “Dragon King”

By David Braun

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck with the National Geographic delegation, November 17, 2014. From left: Tshewang Wangchuk, Gary Knell, David Braun, His Majesty the King, John Francis, Peter Raven, Kamal Bawa, Terry Garcia, Carol Harden. Photo Courtesy of the Royal Media, Kingdom of Bhutan
King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck with the National Geographic delegation, November 17, 2014. From left: Tshewang Wangchuk, Gary Knell, David Braun, His Majesty the King, John Francis, Peter Raven, Kamal Bawa, Terry Garcia, Carol Harden. Photo Courtesy of the Royal Media, Kingdom of Bhutan

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is a young ruler connected deeply with the digital universe while remaining anchored in the teaching and wisdom handed down through generations. He surfs the Web to gauge the mood of the people, following the conversations of his subjects and engaging them through social media. He has his own Facebook page, and he knows about National Geographic’s Bhutan blog from perusing it on his iPhone.

From what he calls the attic of the world, his small Buddhist country high in the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountains, Bhutan’s constitutional monarch also monitors events outside his kingdom; he is very well informed about what is going on in the world, even following American sports teams. He is proud that Bhutan is able to navigate the daunting development challenges facing his country while remaining true to the legacy of its past, which includes a commitment to preserving the kingdom’s natural heritage. Sixty percent of the country, which is half the size of Virginia, remains forested. Sanctuaries set aside for elephants, big cats and other wildlife are connected by corridors. It’s a development path Bhutan’s kings chose for their people, although the current monarch acknowledges it is not easy or instinctive to always know the best way forward.

His Majesty received a delegation of National Geographic executives and scientists today, noting “with gratitude” that the Society had been promoting his country for 100 years. (Read the article published by National Geographic magazine in 1914, Castles in the Air: Experiences and Journeys in Unknown Bhutan.)

Meeting us in his office in Bhutan’s parliamentary complex, in the capital city Thimphu, the 34-year-old “Dragon King” treated the National Geographic team to a cup of fragrant tea and a wide-ranging conversation about his country, international conservation, and global challenges and opportunities for the people of Bhutan, especially the youngest generations.

National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell is leading the Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE) on a tour of the Himalayan country to meet with grantees, listen to briefings from government officials and environment groups, and observe science, exploration, and conservation in the field. The Society has funded nearly two dozen grants in Bhutan, two of which are active.

Building Bridges

Knell told the king that National Geographic was in Bhutan “to build bridges and understand what people want and how we can help them with training and in other ways.” CRE Chairman Peter Raven added that the Society had been awarding grants for a century in all countries. “Any citizen from any country is eligible,” he said.

A keen photographer himself, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck said he had studied the images of Bhutan published by National Geographic magazine in 1914. “In so many ways I am gratified when I go through the photos of John Claude White of the many places and people he saw a hundred years ago. I see that although we have embraced modernity and change we have also been able to preserve our culture. Almost all the dzongs [fortresses] and temples are in almost the same state today as when Claude White photographed them.” The thoroughly modern monarch noted that he did not have a physical copy of the April 1914 issue of National Geographic; he studied the photos and article on his iPhone.

Gary Knell said National Geographic’s model is education. The magazine is published in 41 languages but, as the king had demonstrated, millions of people read National Geographic’s content in digital media, where the Society is publishing on a daily and hourly basis. “This is part of how we also are modernizing after 125 years while keeping the traditions of our founders,” he said.

Age of Exploration

A century ago many parts of the world remained unknown and undiscovered, the royal host observed. “There could be few places today that have not been discovered, yet National Geographic still has a role to inform people about the world.” Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s Chief Science and Exploration Officer, countered that the Society believes that the 21st century is the greatest age of exploration because technology is opening doors once believed permanently closed, including in the fields of archaeology and paleontology. “For scientists and explorers it is a very exciting time to be alive,” he said.

Peter Raven added that of the estimated 12 million organisms believed to exist on Earth, only around 2 million have been named scientifically, and at least half of them are at risk of becoming extinct within the remainder of the 21st century. In Bhutan alone, there are an estimated 200,000 organisms, excluding bacteria, and so far only about 12,000 have been identified. Land use and climate change are threatening to destroy species before they can be understood, so there is an urgent need to move quickly and understand all that is out there, he said.

National Geographic Vice President for Research, Conservation and Exploration John Francis told the king that Tshewang Wangchuk, a Bhutanese recipient of a National Geographic research grant who accompanied the delegation to meet the monarch, is studying the country’s snow leopards with camera traps and DNA analysis, tools not available to researchers 20 years ago.

Fingers Crossed for a Sighting of Yeti

The king said he regularly receives camera trap images and videos produced by researchers in Bhutan. “We have been talking and hearing about clouded leopards in Bhutan for 100 years, so it is astonishing for us to see video of clouded leopards and discover how healthy they are and that their numbers are growing. The same is true also for snow leopards. I am keeping my fingers crossed, in a humorous way, that maybe we will still get an image of Yeti in a camera trap.”

“That would probably make the home page of our website,” Terry Garcia quipped.

Tshewang Wangchuk observed that research has also established that tigers live and breed in Bhutan, demonstrating that the country plays a critical role for the survival of all the big cats in the Eastern Himalayan region.

CRE member Carol Harden, a professor of geography from the University of Tennessee, noted that Bhutan is critical also for the freshwater of the region as many of the rivers start in the kingdom. The king said that there is still much to learn about the aquatic organisms in Bhutan’s lakes and rivers, “but we have not yet acquired the technology or expertise to make this exploration.”

The monarch then drew attention to another vital contribution Bhutan makes to the region through the establishment of wildlife corridors for elephants, tigers, birds and many other animals. The corridors link the country’s wildlife reserves and it is planned that they will also connect with corridors in India. “Biological corridors have become a No. 1 priority,” he said.

Wonder and Worry

Gary Knell said he liked to tell National Geographic colleagues that the Society should always inspire “wonder” and “worry,” to move information both in a positive direction to inspire change and also to make people concerned enough to make the right decisions. He asked the king what made him wonder and what made him worry.

“My chief wonder would certainly be the future,” the king said, noting that at 34 years old he is married and hopes to have children and “a beautiful journey as a family.” For his people, he hopes for modern medicine, technology and interesting lives. “But I worry about how we navigate collectively.” It is difficult to understand how 600,000 citizens should know instinctively what to do, whether to turn left or right, or make a leap, he explained. “We must know the risks and we must know whether that kind of decision-making comes instinctively. Looking back at my predecessors, I would say that their navigation was very successful. We have to know how to take advantage of that so that our generation can also be successful. I am very optimistic.”

“We have a tool to help you navigate,” John Francis declared. It was an opportune moment to present to the king a copy of the new 10th edition of National Geographic’s Atlas of the World. Kamaljit Bawa, member of the CRE, distinguished professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and founder of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) of Bangalore, India, presented the king with a copy of his book Himalaya: Mountains of Life, explaining to His Majesty that there was a section about Bhutan.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck asked all present to sign the National Geographic atlas, which he said he will add to his personal collection. “I want each one of my books to have its story,” he said, adding that at some point he wanted to turn the book collection over to a library where it can be used to inspire young people to read. Reading books is a skill and tradition he does not want the digital generation to lose.

From National Geographic

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