The Takin, Bhutan’s Unusual National Animal
When travellers think of animal spotting in Asia, their minds often turn to the continent’s Big Six: the giant panda, the Bengal tiger, the Asian elephant, the orangutan, the rhino and the snow leopard.
It’s a wonderful experience to see these noble animals - all endangered, some critically – in their natural environment. This is particularly true for conservation-minded senior travellers, well aware that time is running out for some of these species.
But Asia’s wildlife extends far beyond its most famous creatures. There are other, lesser known, Asian animals that visitors are also likely to enjoy getting acquainted with, and are just as interesting in their own way.
For visitors to Bhutan, for instance, one of these is the country’s national animal, the takin.
And it’s a most unusual animal, the large but generally docile takin. An ungulate (hoofed mammal) related to goats and sheep, it looks something like a combination of a goat, a cow and a muskox, with yellow to brown fur and a large, moose-like snout. It’s found in a region of the eastern Himalayas covering Bhutan and parts of northeastern India and southwestern China.
The Bhutan takin is a distinct sub-species in its own right, the Budorcas taxicolor whitei, one of four such sub-species.
It lives in a wide area of Bhutan, primarily the large Jigme Dorji National Park, where it prefers high-altitude, forested valleys and, in winter, grassy alpine slopes. It’s also found across the border in areas of India and China. But the best place for visitors to see it is the Motithang Takin Preserve, in the hills on the outskirts of the capital, Thimphu.
How the takin ended up in the reserve outside Thimphu is an intriguing story. A former King of Bhutan is said to have ordered the release of a small number of them from a zoo in the city on the grounds that a Buddhist country should not keep animals in confinement.
But once freed, the takin refused to leave the city and remained on the streets, wandering tamely in search of food. So the Motithang Takin Preserve was set aside for them to live in.
More colourful is the story of how the takin came into existence. According to legend, a Buddhist monk known as the Divine Madman – his name was Drukpa Kunley – was asked to perform a miracle. He requested that he be served a cow and a goat for lunch, and after eating them both, he created a live animal from the goat’s head and the cow’s skeleton - the takin.
The Divine Madman incidentally plays a key role in Bhutan’s history. He is said to have introduced Buddhism to the country from Tibet in the late 15th century.
It’s hard to get accurate figures on the number of takin in Bhutan – one estimate puts it at around 5,000 – but the total is reported to be declining steadily. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies them as vulnerable.
They are threatened by the loss of their alpine habitat to logging and road building, by competition with yaks for grazing land, and by predators such as bears, wolves, and snow leopards – and of course humans, who have been known to hunt them for their meat and pelts.
Those in the Motithang Takin Preserve are free from such threats and it’s an enjoyable 15 minute drive into the hills on the edge of Thimphu to see them.
Both males and females have horns but males are distinguishable by their darker faces. There are plenty of opportunities to photograph them as they graze contentedly on the forested slopes, watched over by preserve employees.
The takin in the 3.4 hectare preserve are well cared for, partly because of their status as the national animal. Efforts are taken to prevent visitors over-feeding them through gaps in the fence.
As a sign at the preserve notes, the takin “continues to befuddle taxonomists” because of its uniqueness, and for this reason is classified in a category by itself.
Travellers can combine a visit to the preserve with a stop at the nearby Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) tower. The tower itself is off limits but the hillside offers excellent views of Thimphu in the valley below.
Many visitors also stop off along the way to watch women at work weaving colourful cloth.
Visiting the takin preserve may not have the excitement of seeing a tiger or snow leopard in the wild, but it makes for a memorable outing of its own.
Header image: © Alan Williams