Photograph courtesy Tshewang Wangchuk
Photograph courtesy Tshewang Wangchuk
Birthplace: Thimphu, Bhutan
Current City: Washington, D.C.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
As a kid you want to be many things. At one point, during high school, I wanted to be a Buddhist monk! My parents were quite psyched about it, but after a while I guess I changed my mind. I have always liked the outdoors; at boarding school we would often run away from school to go swim in the river or to collect wild berries. My friends and I would often go on camping trips to visit lakes. There was a time when we would collect scarab beetles and large ants to watch them "fight," or catch dragonflies and tie little pieces of paper with messages on them. Being with animals and nature was always enjoyable and fascinating. Around my last year of high school I wanted to have a career in conservation. I wanted my work to be fun as well.
How did you get started in your field of work?
Growing up in Bhutan, we were always close to nature—the mountains, rivers, forests, and wildlife. Right after high school, in 1988, I worked with the first conservation NGO in Bhutan, the Royal Society for Protection of Nature. While in college in the U.S. I spent a summer as a backcountry ranger in Yosemite National Park, through the Student Conservation Association. I got to spend another summer in the Grand Tetons and in the forests of Alberta, Canada, and a short stay in Alaska. After finishing college, I went back to Bhutan and was lucky to get to work in setting up some of the earliest national parks in Bhutan. We were among the first park managers in Bhutan, and our workplace really was the amazing outdoors.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to nature?
Coming from a country like Bhutan, it is easy to be drawn toward nature—so much of our existence depends on it. I have always loved the mountains; they are beautiful, grand, and awe-inspiring, and these qualities often ground you and make you realize how insignificant humans are in the bigger scheme of things. Yet, we can be the cause of so much destruction for our environment as well.
The snow leopard is an elusive, majestic large carnivore that roams our mountains. In learning about them I get to understand and appreciate so many other facets of harmonious coexistence in the mountains. While this cat is threatened in many parts of its global range, Bhutan offers a safe haven for the snow leopard. It is important that we continue to conserve this beautiful cat, but also address challenges faced by yak herders who live among the snow leopards, occasionally losing livestock to the predator.
It is important that conservation is guided by good science, and it is this that we hope to achieve through the work that we do. Inspiring the next generation of local biologists is another goal I hope to achieve.
What's a normal day like for you?
These days I divide my time between our offices in Washington, D.C., and Thimphu, Bhutan. While in D.C. we are mainly coordinating with other institutions in the U.S., such as the Smithsonian, the University of Montana, and WCS to help guide our ongoing work in Bhutan with our partners, the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) and Royal Manas National Park (RMNP).
While in Bhutan, I get to be in the mountains of Jigme Dorji National Park or the jungles of Manas in RMNP.
Do you have a hero?
I have not one but many heroes who inspired me, and continue to inspire me. If you look around and pay attention, humanity is full of heroes—we have to learn to appreciate them. Generally they teach me to appreciate altruism, compassion, humility, and the innate goodness of human beings.
However, if I were to mention just one, I'd go with Drukpa Kuenleg, the Divine Madman, a crazy-wisdom teacher from the 15th-16th century. In his own ways, I admire how he cuts through hypocrisy to reveal the truth.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
When you are alone in the mountains, even when you are in the company of others, you find a lot of time for reflection and introspection. Among some of the most fascinating landscapes in the world, it is indeed rewarding to be following a beautiful large cat, even if you rarely get to see it. It is also rewarding to learn so much wisdom from the local residents who, over time, become your friends. For all of these reasons, I enjoy being in the field overall.
Fieldwork is enjoyable and therefore easy when you enjoy it. The biggest challenge comes from people who often find ways to obstruct your work, for whatever reason. However, with clear intentions good work can be accomplished. So, no challenge is big enough.
What are your other passions?
A good book is always good company. I try to bike to work as much as I can. I enjoy listening to and making music. I also value spending as much time as I can with my family. Next, I want to learn kayaking. Most of all, I find myself looking for the next fun project!
What do you do in your free time?
These days free time is often just on the weekends. I try to spend as much time as I can with my wife and two growing boys. I keep in touch with my parents and relatives through Skype, phone, and the Internet. Free time during weekdays is mostly filled up with reading and writing. But when you enjoy your work, you don't need separate free time. You just make the most of every day!
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Tshewang Wangchuk tracks the elusive snow leopard and the mythical takin in his homeland of Bhutan.
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