Reader's Digest World Presents The Living Edens Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La
Land of the Thunder Dragon
Although it measures only 110 miles from the north to south and 200 from east to west, Bhutan - called by its people Druk Yul, "the Land of the Thunder Dragon" -- is home to a remarkable variety of climates and ecosystems. Essentially, the country is divided into three major land regions: plains and river valleys in the south; a mid-Himalayan (5,000 to 14,000 ft. high) area north of the valleys; and the mountainous lands in the Himalayas, which range from 14,000 to 24,000 ft. above sea level.

A Wealth of Life: The Himalayas Himalayan Valley

In particular, the Himalayas are noteworthy for their biological richness. Since the Himalayas' geologically recent origin less than 25 million years ago, they have molded the region's fauna and flora by limiting Indian species from moving northward, and Tibetan species from moving southward. Because of its youthfulness, the Himalaya has not yet evolved plant and animal life uniquely adapted to its terrain; flora and fauna are instead an amalgam of forms native to India, Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe.

Himalayan rivers were in place before the mountains were, and consequently, the river courses have remained unchanged while they have cut ever deeper gorges and valleys. These valleys have provided the main avenues of contact between Indian and Eurasian wildlife. Animals adapted to cold climes, such as wolves, brown bears and rose finches, moved south from Eurasia,

Himalayan Valley

while tropical species moved north into the foothills, eventually meeting in the high mountains.

The main Himalaya, stretching for 1,900 miles and varying in width from 50 to nearly 200 miles, really consists of three parallel ranges: the low hills of the Outer Himalaya that do not exceed 3,000 feet; the Middle Himalaya, whose peaks vary in height from 6,000-14,000 feet. This zone supports extensive and magnificent forests of conifers, oaks, maples, laurels and magnolias that are now almost totally unique to Bhutan, not having suffered the mass-deforestation of other Himalayan countries. The Inner Himalaya is distinguished by its snow and ice clad peaks. These peaks border plateaus, and in turn form the southern edge of Tibet.

Tibet, a vast area of plains, mountains and gorges, is only now being explored fully by naturalists. Tropical heat and Arctic cold are telescoped into a span of little more than 40 miles in Bhutan. The entire region boasts a richness and variety of plants and wildlife that are perhaps unequalled in the world. Botanists have estimated that at least 6,500 species of flowering plants grow in Nepal alone.

Bhutan, far less explored and catalogued, is acknowledged as having more. A new order of amphibians was discovered in Nepal in the early 1970s, one can only wonder at what awaits discovery amidst the forest clad hills of Bhutan.

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