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Geography and Environment

Bhutan is a land-locked country lying in the eastern Himalayas and is nestled between Tibet (to the north) and India (to the south, east, and west). Its total area is about 47,000 square kilometers. The country can be divided into three geographic regions. The northern and western borders of Bhutan contain the highest mountains in the country, the Great Himalayas, reaching heights of approximately 7,550 meters. The mountains gradually lose height as they extend southward, becoming the high forested hills and valleys of the Inner Himalayas. These central districts contain Bhutan's largest towns, and altitudes across the central region range from about 1,100 meters to 3,750 meters. The altitude of Thimphu is about 2,300 meters. Southern Bhutan lies at the foothills of the Himalayas and is mostly semitropical forest and bamboo jungle, and the altitudes there range from roughly 300 meters to 1,350 meters.

There are four distinct seasons in Bhutan, with spring being the most beautiful time of year, when the rhododendron begin to bloom. The summer months are warm and rainy. When the monsoon ends, the skies become brilliant blue and clear and remain so through November. Autumn is the most popular season for travel to Bhutan, in part because it's a great time of year to view the Himalaya mountain range and to trek. The winter months are cold and clear, and in Thimphu, it frequently snows. The temperature in Thimphu ranges from approximately 0 degrees Celsius in January to 25 degrees Celsius in July. The southern plains near the Indian border are warmer and more tropical than the higher central regions, thus the climate is more temperate and the winters tend to be warmer. In the Great Himalaya areas at the northern and western borders, it snows year-round.

Map of Bhutan
Map from Bhutan Lonley Planet

The people of Bhutan have always valued and respected their environment. The Buddhist belief that nature and life are sacred is ingrained in the people, and this influence from Buddhism is seen even in the government's policies toward conservation. Because of its isolation and small population, Bhutan has been able to protect its natural resources, but as the population grows and the infrastructure develops, more work will be necessary to conserve the natural wonders of the country. Bhutan is currently involved in conservation efforts through such organizations as the Conservation Trust Fund, the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, and the World Wildlife Fund.

Almost three-quarters of the country is covered in forests, and a vast number of plants are found throughout Bhutan--more than 5000 species, including more than 50 species of rhododendron and numerous species of orchid. There are various classes of vegetation in Bhutan: tropical (up to 1000m), subtropical (900m to 1800m), temperate (1800m to 3500m), subalpine (3500m to 4500m), and alpine (4500m to 5500m). The national flower of Bhutan is the blue poppy, and it grows above the tree line, from 3500m to 4500m. It's a treat to see this beautiful flower, as it's quite rare. Because of its variety of plants and animals, Bhutan has been designated as one of the global "hotspots" for biodiversity conservation by Conservation International.

There are roughly 165 species of mammal in Bhutan, including takins (Bhutan's national animal--it's smaller than a yak, has short legs, and resembles a moose, with a big face and a thick neck), monkeys, tigers, deer, yaks, elephants, Himalayan black bears, golden langurs (which are found nowhere else in the world), and snow leopards, which are extremely rare. Bhutan has at least 700 species of birds, including the endangered black-necked crane. Bhutan's Phobjika Valley and Bomdeling village are winter habitats for the cranes, which migrate there from Tibet.

The government has declared about 26 percent of the country as protected land and has set up a system of nine national parks, most of which have not been developed for tourism. Many of the wildlife areas have not been fully studied yet, and it is not known how many indigenous species inhabit them. Bhutan's Nature Conservation department has worked with the people living in these protected areas to develop a program that allows them to farm, collect plants, and graze their animals in such a way that the environment is preserved.

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