We Bhutanese love to eat meat, but most of us would prefer to be vegetarians. Confusing? As Buddhists, we believe that all lives are connected in a cycle of births and that every life is precious. So in Bhutanese society, killing any form of life is bad, although eating the meat is not. In the past, we mainly ate the meat of animals that had died from natural causes.
However, most farming families traditionally raised one pig for the annual prayers and feast. And nomadic yak herders also culled some yaks in the winter and sold the meat. The meat of the yaks that feed on plants and herbs at altitudes ranging from 3500m to nearly 5000m has a special taste that is coveted by all. But meat remained a rarity in our diets.
Today, consumers have easier commercial access and increased purchasing power, so we eat much more meat, especially in urban centers. Most of the meat is imported from India and Nepal. But people in rural areas still depend on their dead animals for meat.
Those who follow the old tradition of actually saving animals from being butchered make the meat dilemma even more complex. Aum Tshering Doma, a 65-year old grandmother, is an active member of the animal-saving trust called Jangsa. She works with a dedicated group of people who work tirelessly to save animals from being killed. Since its inception in 2000, the trust has saved close to 1000 yaks from being slaughtered. They raise funds and buy the yaks from the butchers, paying anything between Nu 16,000 to Nu 65,000 (US$400-US$1300 Euro) per animal. The saved animals are then left to range freely in the high mountains. Although I have always admired the wonderful work of these people, I have never contributed to their efforts. But I am trying to become a vegetarian!
As if it’s not hard enough to struggle between being a happy carnivore or a good Buddhist vegetarian, I am also distracted by outsiders who ask whether the Bhutanese respect for animal life is why Bhutan has no zoos. Although I had never thought about it, indeed it is true that Buddhist beliefs do not condone the confinement of wild animals in cages, for all sentient creatures crave freedom and happiness.
The Takin Park in Thimphu is the closet thing we have to a zoo. The takin is Bhutan’s national animal. According to legend, these creatures were miraculously created by one of Bhutan’s favorite saints, who placed the head of a goat on the body of a cow and brought it to life. The odd resulting animal has a cow-like body covered with a shaggy coat, a large and almost swollen goatish head, and stocky legs. It looks like a cartoon character and continues to befuddle taxonomists, who have not been able to link the creature to any other animal. So the takin has a taxonomic category to itself: budorcas taxicolor.
The takin reserve was not planned, it just happened. In 1974, the 4th King of Bhutan received a pair of young takins as a coronation present. The pair turned out to be couple, and prolific breeders, at that. At one time they had as many as 16 calves. But to avoid inbreeding, the park management service eventually had to introduce fresh genes by hosting a wild takin bull.
Today, the takins in their enclosed 20-acre habitat of sprawling blue pine forest have become a must-visit attraction for both Bhutanese and tourists. I never tire of looking at these strangely endearing creatures that push themselves against the fence to be touched and patted.
At the park, a young man once told me, “The takins and the pigeons along the streets of Thimphu share many things in common. One of them is their total indifference to the presence of people in their vicinity.”