To most people, the Kingdom of Bhutan is the land of mountain top monasteries and religious experiences. But when you visit Bhutan, you realize that there is much more to it than meets the eye.
It lies among a spectacularly rugged terrain coated in lush greenery. More than 72% of Bhutan’s territory is covered by forest and more than half of the country’s landmass falls within protected areas.
Bhutan is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and the world’s first and only carbon negative country. The kingdom is home to 90 species of mammals, 770 species of bird and at least 5,400 species of plants.
If you don’t know much about Bhutan animals, read on to discover what wildlife you could spot on your travels in the Kingdom and what are the best National Parks for spotting wildlife in Bhutan. To get the most from your visit, book your wildlife adventure with a local travel agency like Tourism Bhutan, who are familiar with all locations and can help you experience the best of Bhutan’s wildlife.
Wildlife in Bhutan
Bhutan’s mountainous landscape is home to an outstanding range of biodiversity and ecosystems. The lush tropical forest in the southern lowlands are home to tigers, rhinos, clouded leopards and sloth bears. The forests of the temperate zone are home to leopards, goral and serow among others. The wildlife of Himalayan mountains in the north of the county is similar to the species found across the Tibetan Plateau, including the enigmatic snow leopard, blue sheep, marmot, Tibetan wolf and Himalayan musk deer.
National Animal of Bhutan – Takin
To Bhutanese people, the most iconic animal is the takin. It is the national animal of Bhutan. With a nose like a moose, horns like a wildebeest and body like a bison, Bhutan takin is such an odd looking animal that even the biologists didn’t know what to call it. So they settled on calling it a goat antelope. Sadly, Bhutan takin is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, mainly because of overhunting and habitat loss.
Bhutan is home to four big cats: snow leopard, Bengal tiger, leopard and clouded leopard. Not many people know or talk about the snow leopards in Bhutan but they are found living in the high altitude valleys of the Himalayas. Bhutan has about 10,000 sq km of the potential snow leopard range that is thought to contain 100-200 snow leopards. If you hike the Snowman trek in northern Bhutan, you will be walking through the snow leopard’s habitat and might have a chance to spot this elusive cat.
Globally endangered, the tigers are thriving in Bhutan. The kingdom is home to 103 tigers according to the latest population census. They can be found across the country from the lowlands in the south to the elevations of over 4000 metres in the north. What is even better, the tigers move between the different populations in Bhutan, maintaining the much needed genetic exchange.
The smallest of the world’s big cats, the clouded leopard is almost as elusive as the snow leopard. Its preference for dense jungle habitat makes one of the most difficult animals to spot in the wild. Luckily for Bhutan most sightings come from Manas National Park in India, that lies adjacent to the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan.
The clouded leopard is an excellent climber. Its bag of tricks includes the ability to descend from trees head-first, hang off tree branches by a back foot or climb along horizontal beaches hanging upside-down. Although, if you do encounter it, it will most likely be on the ground.
Another mountain specialist, goral is a goat-like ungulate that prefers rocky hillside habitat at the higher elevations across the great Himalayas. To keep warm on the windswept mountain slopes, goral have woolly undercoats covered by long, coarser hair, which gives them a somewhat shaggy appearance.
Similar in appearance to goral, the Himalayan serow is another odd-looking goat antelope. Slightly larger than the goral, serows also like the rocky hillsides, though they are not as agile as their larger relatives. Serow is a protected species in Bhutan, Threatened mainly by habitat loss and hunting for its meat.
The White-bellied Musk deer is found at high altitude habitats in Bhutan, Nepal and northern India. This hornless deer has a special gland on its abdomen that secrets a waxy substance called musk. Male musk deer use it to Mark their territories and to attract females. Sadly, humans find the musk sent appealing as well, and the deer has been hunted almost to extinction for the sake of the perfume industry. As a result, it is currently listed as Endangered and protected by law in Bhutan.
Dhole is not a well-known animal in Bhutan and it is often mistaken for a wolf. Also known as Asian wild dogs they are highly social animals that live in large clans with strict social dominance structure, not unlike the African wild dogs. And just like their African cousins, dhole are threatened with extinction and listed as Endangered. In Bhutan, they are found in the Jigme Dorji National Park.
Also known as the Himalayan blue sheep, bharal is a medium-sized sheep which is predominantly found in the high altitude regions in Bhutan. The bharals are the most agile animals in Bhutan, and possibly, the world. They are capable of easily navigating the near-vertical sheer cliffs of the Himalayas. And they put their skills to good use to escape the attacks of their main predator – the snow leopard.
Often overshadowed by the popularity of its larger namesake, the giant panda, to which it’s not closely related, the red panda is one of the most charismatic Bhutan animals. It is a small arboreal animal with a thick reddish-brown coat and white tip of its face and ears. Sadly the population of the red panda is declining and it is listed as Endangered.
Another tree-dweller of Bhutan, the binturong, looks somewhat similar to the red panda but lacks some of its charisma. It prefers a warmer climate and feeds mainly on fruit. Binturong is completely at home in the trees and even has a prehensile tail that it can use to hang of tree branches when it’s reaching for fruit with its forefeet.
The most endangered primate on the Indian sub-continent, the golden langur has an exceptionally small distribution range. It is known from only two populations: one on the border between the Indian state of Assam and Bhutan and another in the Indian state of Tripura. Due to such a small distribution range, this golden-coloured monkey is listed as Endangered with the population on the India-Bhutan border doing slightly better.
The greater one-horned rhino, also known as the Indian rhino, is the largest of the rhino species and the second largest land mammal in Asia after the Asian elephant. It once roamed across most of the northern part of the Indian sub-continent but was subsequently hunted almost to extinction.
Thankfully, once the adequate protection was afforded to the rhino, it’s recovery became one of the best conservation success stories in the world. In Bhutan, your best chance of spotting the rhino is in the Royal Manas National Park.
About the same size as an Asian black bear, the sloth bear is immediately recognizable by its shaggier coat, whitish claws, and lanky build. It walks with a slow, shuffling gate and appears quite clumsy, but don’t let it fool you. It’s capable of galloping faster than a running human.
The sloth bear feeds primarily on fruit, nuts and termites that they can suck up from their nests in huge quantities.
A subspecies of the gray wolf, the Tibetan wolf is native to the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas. It is slightly larger than its European cousins and has a thicker and lighter fur.
The wolves get a bad rap for hunting domestic stock, particularly sheep and goats which makes them unwelcome neighbours for the local herders. For the best chance of spotting wolves in Bhutan, visit Wangchuck Centennial National Park.
National Parks of Bhutan
Bhutan’s protected areas cover a total of 19,750.57 square kilometres – nearly the size of Switzerland. And even more importantly, all of Bhutan’s National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries are connected to each other either directly or by the biological corridors that allow for the movement of animals between the different reserves, maintaining the genetic diversity of wildlife populations.
Here is the list of all Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks of Bhutan.
Wangchuck Centennial National Park
Spanning across the high-altitude wilderness of Northern Bhutan and covering over 4,914 square kilometres, Wangchuck Centennial National Park is the largest national park of Bhutan. The snow-covered mountain peaks of Wangchuck Centennial are the source of water for Bhutan’s four major rivers. This is one of the coldest areas in Bhutan with 85% of the park remaining under snow cover through the winter months.
Northern Bhutan has the highest proportion of land designated as protected areas. Wangchuck Centennial National Park is adjacent Jigme Dorji National Park, Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary and Thrumshingla National Park. It is also connected to Jigme Singye National Park by a biological corridor.
Wangchuck Centennial is home to 23 species of large mammals including the tiger, snow leopard, wolf, takin and Himalayan black bear, as well as over 100 species of birds.
Jigme Dorji National Park
Jigme Dorji National Park is the second biggest and one of the oldest National Parks of Bhutan. It lies in the north-western of the kingdom and covers 4,316 square kilometres. It is home to a great number of Bhutan animals and the only place in the world where both: the Bengal tiger and the snow leopard occur.
Overall, the park is home to 328 species of birds and 36 species of mammals, including musk deer and Asiatic wild dog and Bhutan’s largest population of Takin. The best way to explore Jigme Dorji National Park is by taking one of the popular treks: Jomolhari, Laya Gasa, or Snowman trek. The last two treks are quite challenging and require a good level of fitness.
Royal Manas National Park
Lying adjacent to Manas National Park in the Indian state of Assam, Royal Manas National Park is the oldest and 4th largest national park in Bhutan. Stretching over 1,057 square kilometres in the south-central part of the country it shares boundaries with four other national parks and wildlife sanctuaries of Bhutan.
The park is composed of four habitat types: monsoon forest, subtropical forest, warm broadleaved forest and cool broadleaved forest. These forests are home to Bengal tiger, Indian rhino, Asian elephant, water buffalo, pygmy hog and an extraordinary diversity of birds. Royal Manas National Park is one of the top birdwatching spots in Asia with at least 430 species of birds recorded in the park.
There are a number of options available for exploring Royal Manas, from trekking to rafting in the shadow of the snow-covered mountains.
Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park
Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park stretches over 1,730 square kilometres in Central Bhutan. It is home to at least 39 species of mammals including tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, Himalayan black beer, musk deer, red panda and the Endangered golden langur.
More than 270 species of birds occur at Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, including the globally threatened species like the black-necked cranes, monal pheasant, satyr tragopan, rufous-necked hornbill and white-bellied heron.
There are two treks in the park: Nabji-Korphu and Adha-Rukha. Neither is particularly strenuous.
Phrumsengla National Park
At just over 900 square kilometres, Phrumsengla National Park is the smallest national park in Bhutan. But despite its modest size, the park provides habitat for 71 species of mammals. It is also one of the best birdwatching destinations in Asia. An impressive 361 bird species have been recorded in the park, including rufous-necked hornbill, beautiful nuthatch, Pallas’s fish eagle, chestnut-breasted partridge, yellow-rumped honeyguide, Ward’s trogon, tawny fish owl.
Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary
Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is the second largest wildlife sanctuary in Bhutan, covering 740.60 square kilometres in the eastern-most part of the kingdom. It is best known for the diversity of Rhododendron species, which is a bushy plant.
This remote sanctuary protects a wide diversity of wildlife species, including snow leopard, red panda, Himalayan black bear, barking deer, Himalayan red fox, the hoary-bellied squirrel. But Sakteng’s most controversial claim to fame is the presence of Yeti in its wilderness.
Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary
Bhutan’s largest wildlife sanctuary, Bomdeling stretches over 1,520 square kilometres in the north-east of the country. It is home to a high diversity of wildlife species including tiger, snow leopard, red panda, Himalayan musk deer, rufous-necked hornbill, chestnut-breasted partridge, wood snipe and Palla’s fish eagle, as well as Bhutan’s only endemic butterfly – the Ludlow’s Bhutan swallowtail.
Like Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, Bomdeling provides wintering habitat for the black-necked crane. Around 150 cranes spend their winter in Bomdeling each year.
Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary
The relatively small Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary covers just over 268 square kilometres in southern Bhutan, near the Indian border. It is the only natural sal forest habitat in Bhutan, and it is primarily known for providing habitat for the chital deer.
Apart from chital, the sanctuary is home to 27 species of mammals, including the Asian elephant, gaur and golden langur. The birds are abundant in Phibsoo as well, with 132 recorded species, including the hornbill.
Jomotshangkha Wildlife Sanctuary
Another relatively small protected area is Jomotshangkha Wildlife Sanctuary in the southeast of the country. It protects 334 square kilometres of sub-tropical forest, broadleaved forest and some grasslands. The sanctuary provides habitat for some of Bhutan’s most threatened wildlife, including pygmy hog and Hispid hare. It is also home to four different species of hornbills.
Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve
Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve is the only strict nature reserve in Bhutan’s network of protected areas. Lying in the border region with India and Tibet, the 609 square kilometre wilderness is free from human settlements which makes it one of the most pristine temperate alpine ecosystems in the Himalayas. A biological corridor connects Jigme Khesar with Jigme Dorji National Park.
The reserve is home to a wide range of wildlife species, including the clouded leopard, takin, serow, red panda, Tibetan snowcock and rufous-necked hornbill.