Bhutanese conservationist’s Phuntsho Thinley mission to save Endangered alpine musk deer in trekkers’ paradise


A wildlife biologist from Bhutan has won a prestigious Whitley Award for his lifelong work to preserve the rare alpine musk deer.

Phuntsho Thinley works for the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), the first and only wildlife conservation organisation in Bhutan. Despite being a protected species under the Forest and Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan, the alpine musk deer is targeted by poachers for its musk pod, with an estimated 100 deer killed in Bhutan each year. Only found in male deer, a musk pod is worth more than gold on the international black market for its perceived pharmaceutical properties.

The Whitley Awards, often referred to as ‘Green Oscars’, are awarded annually to individuals from the Global South by UK-based conservation charity the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) and are each worth £40,000 in project funding. Phuntsho is one of six conservationists to be recognised this year for their achievements in nature conservation.

 Situated three days’ walk from the capital of Thimphu, Phuntsho’s project is located in the vast Lingzhi Park Range - a trekkers’ paradise with jaw-dropping scenery, lush forest cover, meadows and diverse fauna and flora. It is the only place in the world where the habitat of the Endangered Royal Bengal Tiger overlaps with that of the enigmatic snow leopard. About 700 people live in the area, mainly subsisting on yak raising and medicinal plant collection. The Alpine musk deer forms an important part of the food chain and its loss would have a catastrophic effect on the area’s ecological balance.

With just 16 park staff patrolling a massive 74,500 ha of park, there is an urgent need to scale up efforts and put boots on the ground. The £40,000 Whitley Award will allow Phuntsho and his team to increase anti-poaching patrols and monitoring, with a goal to reduce illegal incidents by 50% by training all park staff, as well as a quarter of residents living in the area. 

This approach is coupled with education activities to help local people understand and value the importance of musk deer, engaging them with conservation when their role as conservation partners has previously been underappreciated.

 Phuntsho said: “I am extremely humbled to have received this Award. From a young age, I have always felt the need to give back to nature. Bhutan has developed sound environmental policies which are globally acknowledged, and I intend to uphold this unique environmental stewardship and pass it on to future generations.”

WFN Founder Edward Whitley said: “Phuntsho is a great example of what we look for in a Whitley Award winner. Engaging people in conservation is central to his approach and his dedication to conservation is evident. We look forward to following him on his journey as he works to prevent local extinction of the alpine musk deer in Western Bhutan.” 

Phuntsho is among six conservationists to receive 2020 Whitley Awards to support their work to conserve some of the planet’s most endangered species and spectacular natural habitats. While normally presented to winners by charity Patron HRH The Princess Royal at an annual Ceremony in London, the 2020 Whitley Awards Ceremony was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst the winners will receive their funding now, they will be invited to attend a ceremony and related events in London later this year to celebrate their achievements, should circumstances allow. 

While the winners will receive their funding now, they will be invited to attend a ceremony and related events in London later this year to celebrate their achievements, should circumstances allow. Rebecca Pradhan was the first Bhutanese to win the Whitley Award in 2008.

 We would like to congratulate Phuntsho Thinley for Stepping up patrols to preserve the endangered alpine musk deer in Bhutan.






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