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Explorer of the Week: Tshewang Wangchuk

Explorer Tshewang Wangchuk possesses an unusual collection of three hundred scat samples from elusive snow leopards in Bhutan. He gathered these samples with a grant from National Geographic in 2009 to examine the snow leopard population status and its relation to livestock predation using non-invasive tactics. More recently, Wangchuk just returned from the field this summer where he was part of a team that collared four takins, Bhutan’s rather odd-looking national animal. In addition to this work with the animals of Bhutan, Wangchuk—in his role as executive director of the Bhutan Foundation—strives to serve the people of Bhutan by sharing their culture with others. If all this wasn’t enough to keep him occupied, Wangchuk also is completing his doctoral degree in Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana.

What project are you working on now?
We are helping initiate a community-led snow leopard monitoring and conservation program in Bhutan, in collaboration with various local and international partners. We are helping local partners in two communities with a history of relatively high livestock depredation by snow leopards.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your field of work?
I am constantly reminded of the innate goodness of humanity. Often people who live with less material resources or under tough conditions are the most forgiving. Many yak herders who experience a high level of loss of livestock due to predation by snow leopard in Bhutan still have an unbelievable level of tolerance and lack of ill-will towards the predator. You hear of angry herders stoning snow leopards to death in other countries. This is hardly the case in Bhutan. However, that could change if they do not see benefits from conservation coming directly to them. The correct thing to do is to appreciate and reward such exemplary levels of tolerance, with dignity, and in a timely manner through innovative self-sustaining means, not small handouts.

Have you ever been lost? How did you find your way back?
Once I was lost in the Sumatran rainforest, for about an hour. With no landmarks in a flat jungle, I got separated from the groups in front of me and behind me. I could only use the position of the sun to back-track to camp. Then a guide took me back to the road where everyone was waiting.

What one item do you always have with you?
A Buddhist talisman.

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
James Cameron. It would be fascinating to see the depths of the Mariana Trench!

What do think you National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?
Mars, maybe? But exploring the human mind – it is an endless frontier.

What is your favorite National Geographic article?
A 1914 article on Bhutan called ‘Castles in the Air: Experiences and Journeys in Unknown Bhutan” by John Claude White, the British Political officer in northeast India is one of my favorite articles. This was one of the first times an elaborate article on Bhutan was published in a reputed western magazine and contained detailed accounts of his visit to an intriguing country. It had all the elements of adventure, intrigue and mystery and really introduced Bhutan in a special way to the west. The photographs in that article inspired the wife of the president of the University of Texas (who had never visited Bhutan) to influence the style of architecture while rebuilding the university in El Paso. That is why you see a strong resemblance to Bhutanese architecture at UTEP.

What is your favorite food?
I love Ema Datshi—the Bhutanese chillis and cheese dish—because it is hot, tasty and easy to make.

What are you reading?
I’m re-reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, and a collection of short stories by H. Murakami. I like to read a work of fiction and non-fiction simultaneously.

What are you listening to?
I am listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops on the roof. It is monsoon season in Bhutan right now, and the rains are very important for the farmers.

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?
Don’t worry, you’ll turn out okay!

If you won the lottery, what would you buy? Where would you travel?
A more sustainable way of living. I want to spend some time around Mt. Kailash in Tibet.

If you were a baseball player and came up to bat, what song would be played?
I don’t understand baseball, but my ringtone is “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees.

See The Bee Gees perform “Stayin Alive”:

Do you have a hidden talent?
Once in a while I compose songs.

If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
A few dinosaurs—often we humans need a lesson in humility.

All photographs courtesy Tshewang Wangchuk