We are interning at the National Biodiversity Centre (NBC) Herbarium in Serbithang, Thimphu, Bhutan for the Spring 2013 semester with the Wheaton College Bhutan IV group. The NBC is approximately a forty minute walk downhill from the Royal Thimphu College campus. The NBC was founded in 1998 to address the needs of the Biodiversity Action Plan of the same year; a plan that outlines the policies and practices used to promote sustainable use of natural resources in Bhutan. This was part of a larger movement spurred by the International Convention on Biological Diversity that Bhutan joined in 1995.
To paraphrase the mission statement of the Centre: the NBC strives to ensure that
biological resources are effectively and sustainably conserved, and that ecological benefits are equitably shared for the enhancement of the livelihood, food security and environmental well-being of the country. The NBC falls under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests of the Royal Government of Bhutan. Within the NBC is the Botanical Diversity and Collection Division, which houses the National Herbarium, where we intern specifically.
The Herbarium was initiated by the Department of Forests and Parks Services as part of Flora of Bhutan project in the mid-1970s. This project aims to document the floral diversity of Bhutan; it is ongoing and incorporates specimens in house at the National Herbarium as well as those taken from Bhutan to international herbariums. For instance, British collectors started surveying the flora in the mid-19th century. Bhutan is now compiling these specimens from abroad in order to have a complete record in the domestic collection. After the National Biodiversity Centre was established, the Herbarium was moved to its present location in Serbithang, which opened in 2002, and currently houses over 10,000 specimens and counting. Among its primary goals, the Herbarium aims to: “Strengthen [the] botanical knowledge base through exploration, collection and documentation of floristic diversity in the country” (http://www.nbc.gov.bt/about-nbc/about-nbc). It also promotes international coordination in taxonomy and biodiversity assessment.
The Royal Government of Bhutan provides the NBC’s budget via the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. This funding covers the basic financial needs of the institution such as the facilities and employees’ salaries. For projects that require more resources and time, the Centre relies on outside funding. One such project was a survey of Bhutan’s 20 Dzongkhags, or regions. The government only provided enough funds to complete surveys of 12 Dzongkhags, leaving outside sources to cover the remaining eight.
Ms. Sangay Dema is the Chief Biodiversity Officer of the NBC. She is the administrative head of the Centre, but Ms. Rinchen Yangzom is our primary supervisor. Rinchen is a botanist and the curator of the Herbarium. She studied forestry and completed her bachelor’s degree in India in 2004. Upon receiving her diploma she began working as a botanist at the NBC. In 2008 she pursued her master’s in the Netherlands, after which she completed a research internship studying invasive species at Cornell University before returning to her current position at the Herbarium. She is now heading a three year project to assess the biodiversity of the country by systematically placing permanent survey plots at increasing altitudes in Western, Central, and Eastern Bhutan.
Our main task is assisting in compiling a complete digital record of the Herbarium by entering all specimen data into a computer database. We transfer the information recorded on the specimens’ mounting sheets into digital files, which includes species name, locality, collector, collection date, latitude, longitude, altitude, and any other relevant information such as the plant’s use or growth habit. Once this data is entered, we will analyze it in order to find gaps in the scope of the collections. One element of this analysis will be to create maps; these will guide future collectors in determining what areas of the country still need to be surveyed. Our work occasionally includes helping with field collections of future specimens. Time permitting, we may also work in the Royal Botanical Gardens at the NBC after completing the Herbarium data analysis.
This internship is rewarding because it gives us a great sense of contribution to such an international project. By digitizing these records, we are helping to create a more accessible dimension to the data, making analysis more comprehensive and consistent. The computer database will also serve as a secondary permanent record of the specimens’ information. It is also genuinely interesting to learn about the plants, their uses, and where and when they were collected. One of the most exciting tasks of the job is the field work, where we have learned about methods and selecting specimens for the collections. There are a few small drawbacks to this job. Doing the data entry is a mostly independent task, allowing for little interaction with the other staff. Also, the Herbarium specimens are preserved using naphthalene (mothballs), giving the collection room a strong chemical smell. The walk to and from the site more than makes up for these snags, with great views of the Ngabiphu valley, forest, and farms.
Rinchen suggested that when considering this internship it is most important to have a strong interest in Bhutan’s plants and the goals of the Herbarium, though expertise is not required.
– Carrie Decker and Annie Bennett