How it all started. Forest Entomology in Bhutan

Heinrich Schmutzenhofer with Kaka, final degree of Kaka, November 2016
Heinrich Schmutzenhofer with Kaka, final degree of Kaka, November 2016

Our association member,  Heinrich Schmutzenhofer, can look back on a particularly long joint history between Austria and Bhutan. The official development cooperation between Austria and Bhutan began under his initiative. We asked him to tell us his very personal story, about his work and his impressions from this time and about how it all began….

1985 – my start in Bhutan

I am a graduate of the forestry studies at BOKU in Vienna and started as an assistant at the Institute for Forest Entomology [1] and Forest Protection. I was interested from an early age and specialized in this area, which is not very much sought after. In 1974 I was contacted by the FAO, the UN’s World Food Organization, and so my international project work began initially in Latin America. The start for Bhutan came at the beginning of 1985. I learned that some Austrian forest engineers had already been working there for the FAO from 1975, for forest road construction, forestry equipment training, flood protection and small power plant construction, and that some Bhutanese also came to Austria for training courses at the forestry training centers in Ossiach and Ort bei Gmunden via the FAO. As it later turned out, the future planning minister Lyonpo Chenkyab Dorji was also there, who later made a decisive contribution to the Austria-Bhutan forest project. Yes, he vehemently demanded it!

A misleading order

The FAO in Rome asked me over the phone whether I knew about a “large borer” from a technical point of view. For me as an entomologist, I translated “large” with larch longhorn. At the briefing in Rome I quickly realized that there was a mix-up, but I signed it – so let’s get into it! Longhorn beetles or wood-boring insects in the Himalayas are ultimately also a challenge, although larches are also found there.

Landing in silence

Dornier Turbojet, Druk Air, 1985, Landing in Paro
Dornier Turbojet, Druk Air, Landing in Paro 1985

With a small DORNIER turboprop machine, 18-seater, we started in hot, noisy Calcutta and landed in the mountain valley of Paro after an exciting flight in which the machine tried to touch the mountain slopes. Immediately I thought I had a hearing loss, because it was very loud on the plane, but on the airfield it was quiet, very quiet. I was worried, felt my pulse, but everything seemed fine. That was my first experience in Bhutan, lasting silence.

The Geddu project

Geddu is located at almost 2000 m in the subtropical rainforest (6000-8000mm annual precipitation) on the first monsoon mountain range. There in the mildly tempered mountain forest near the road from the border town of Phuntsholing up to Thimphu, the capital, which then had 19,000 inhabitants!

Stag beetle infestation (large borer)
Stag beetle infestation (large borer)

One of the most important things is the Geddu state wood combine, which at that time mainly produced peeled veneers from the pseudo-chestnut, Castanopsis indica, the quality of which suffered from “large borer” mass outbreak and which often looked more like a pasta sieve than valuable export goods.

In my final report I suggested a solution to the problem, a change in the felling and logging process, from the monsoon season to the cool winter months, in order to disrupt the breeding success of the pests, which cannot cause infestation in the cooler season. So, a highrisk, a low risk and a no risk period over the year were the management criteria. This measure was effective!


I especially remember the strong, annoying appearance of leeches, which crawl up like a caterpillar, unnoticed, suck in and, after often difficult detachment, leave behind a poorly healing, itchy, circular wound. So it was important to carefully search the clothes before each entry into the accommodation, to leave the shoes outside, otherwise you would have extremely unpleasant roommates indoors.

The bark beetle mass outbreak in Western Bhutan

My assignment in the Geddu project also provided for a trip to Bhutan in order to investigate possible further forest damage and to report it to the authorities. This extended my project to a few more years, as I diagnosed the mass outbreak of a bark beetle species that had worryingly affected the valleys of West Bhutan. It caused thousands of cubic meters of spruce and pine damaged wood and thus questioned Bhutan’s timber export plans to India via auctions on the border. I could not clearly identify the beetle, so handed the insect over to experts.

Ips Schmutzenhoferi, eight-spined Himalaya spruce bark beetle
Ips Schmutzenhoferi, eight-spined Himalaya spruce bark beetle

As luck would have it, it turned out that the species was still unknown and also needed a name. It was unbelievable that such a particularly harmful insect was still unknown, and so it came about that this beast now bears my name. It is now included in the Genus Ips, as Ips schmutzenhoferi. After 3 years, our extensive, arduous, strenuous, hard-hitting work to control the pest had progressed so far  that no new damaged areas were known. Forest hygiene, legally required debarking after felling and the development of a species-specific pheromone (gathering attractant for both sexes) were the cornerstones of the success.

Forest entomology in Bhutan

In the course of the work, in collaboration with my counterpart Dal Bahadur Chhetri, I discovered, among other things, several new tree pests and asked the Curculionid-taxonomist Dr. G. Osella to immortalize some of the high-ranking Bhutanese officials by name for the corresponding new weevil species. There are now ministrable beetles in the country: two large weevils that kill young plants, e.g. Hylobitelus cenkupdorjii, and Dyscerus paljordorjii and the ambrosia beetle Trypodendron dorjitensingii. Only Chief Justice Paljor Dorji had doubts about his lot of also being a bug, because as a devout Buddhist he could not leave the circle of rebirths because of his doppelganger. Lyompo C. Dorji in all friendship took it calmly, Dasho Dorji Tensing, who was responsible for forest and roads at the time and who unfortunately is already deceased, felt honored.

My counterpart D.B. Chhetri with wife
My counterpart D.B. Chhetri with wife

The introduction of the subject of forest and forest protection seems to be a fact in Bhutan. My counterpart Dal Bahadur Chhetri was the first student from Bhutan who studied in 1987/88 at the BOKU and Federal Forest Research Institute, today BAW, forest entomology and forest protection and received his certificate. He retired a few years ago after having worked successfully. Most recently, the student Kaka completed the two-year master’s course at BOKU in the field of forest protection with a topic on Ips schmutzenhoferi and climate change. All of this is also a contribution to the professional safeguarding of the forest and nature conservation in Bhutan.

The Ura-Thrumsingla forest project, starting phase 1989-1992

The traces of success of the Austrian forest experts, from 1975! impressed the then planning minister Lyonpo C. Dorji so much that he asked me to pave the way for a bilateral forest project in Austria, similar to a project of the Swiss organization Helvetas in central Bhutan. The project application was drawn up by the planning commission in Thimphu and brought to Austria by me. During a visit of Bhutan’s forest management in Switzerland, I was asked whether I could possibly arrange a follow-up visit to Austria. Thus, Dasho Dorji Tensing and his team visited Austria.

Signing of the bilateral project in 1989 in Thimphu. Planning Minister C. Dorji, Ambassador Erich Hochleitner, G. Stachel and H. Danninger, BMAA
Signing of the bilateral project in 1989 in Thimphu. Planning Minister C. Dorji, Ambassador Erich Hochleitner, G. Stachel and H. Danninger, BMAA

The Bhutanese visitors were received by the Austrian Federal Forests, ministries and the then state development cooperation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Shortly afterwards, a corresponding project application was accepted in Austria and the development cooperation organization ADC was entrusted with the implementation. The project management was entrusted to me, as the then secretary of the International Union of Forest Research Organisations, IUFRO. In this year 1989 the official diplomatic relations between Austria and Bhutan were established and sealed. 

The first step was the selection of a suitable forest area. Only the Ura – Thrumsingla Pass zone, at an altitude between 3200 and 4000 meters in the east of central Bhutan, was reasonably suitable for this. In 1989, field work with a team from Austria could begin. We built 3 houses near Ura, created an infrastructure plan, forest inventory and forest management.

BOKU, Dec. 2014, 25th anniversary, scientific cooperation Bhutan - Austria
BOKU, December 2014, 25th anniversary, scientific cooperation Bhutan – Austria

BOKU, Dec. 2014, 25th anniversary, scientific cooperation Bhutan – Austria [/ caption]In 1992 I left the project that was developed further by Professor DI Dr. Gerhard Glatzel with his team. Today the original project area is a protected area with a rhododendron nature park at the Thrumsingla Pass. 

(More on the successful continuation of the project from 1993 to 2014 can be found in the brochure “Austria-Bhutan. Years of Partnership 1989-2014”)

[1] Entomology is the scientific study of insects