Dechen Dorji at high elevation in the mountains

Bhutan’s Dechen Dorji wins YSE Distinguished Alumni Award

Dorji helped raise $40 million for sustainable financing of Bhutan’s park system under the Bhutan for Life initiative.

In order to make good on its constitutional mandate to be the first carbon neutral country for its entire existence, Bhutan, a small land-locked country in the Himalayas between India and China, relies heavily on its forest cover.  The forests there sequester about three times more carbon dioxide than the population of 800,000 emits.

Bhutan is not only the first country to pledge that it will remain carbon neutral, but also the first country that is carbon negative. Its constitution also requires that 60% of its lands must remain under forest cover to help meet its carbon neutral pledge. The responsibilities of protecting those forests have fallen on conservationists that include Dechen Dorji ’01 MEM.

For his efforts, Dorji has received the Yale School of the Environment’s Distinguished Alumni Award, which honors the contributions and achievements of YSE graduates who have made significant contributions to the field of conservation, environmental science, and management.

Dorji, who was an international student at Yale from Bhutan, began his conservation work in the remote Eastern region of Bhutan. He was founding director of the country’s Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental and Research and he led the Bhutan for Life initiative, which raised more than $40 million to finance the protection of the country’s pristine network of protected areas. For his work on the initiative, in 2017 he received the National Order of Merit Gold from Bhutan’s king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, for whom he served as a professional assistant during the country’s peaceful transition to democracy in 2008.

As the World Wildlife Fund’s Senior Director for the Asian Wildlife Program, Dorji continues to work on land preservation and protection of endangered and threatened species, such as tigers, snow leopards, elephants and the Golden Mahseer.

“It is no accident that the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan is today one of the only countries where its full floral and faunal assemblages exist in a state largely unchanged by the centuries. This remarkable situation is the result of the strong, clear environmental vision of dedicated civil servant conservationists such as YSE's own Dechen Dorji,’’ says Jon Miceler ’01 MEM, who is WWF’s managing director for the eastern Himalayas. “Over the last two decades Dechen, often single handedly, has ensured Bhutan's environmental integrity through a powerful combination of quiet charisma, innovative thinking and deep learning. In his new Washington, D.C.-based position as WWF's head of Species Conservation for Asia, Dechen's outstanding contributions to conservation at a global scale are already apparent.”

Dorji started his environmental work in the remote parts of Bhutan before there was television or internet. There was no electricity after 9 p.m. and roads through the forested lands were scarce.  His primary source of transportation for his extensive field work was his feet.

After he met YSE’s Frederick C. Hixon Professor Emeritus of Natural Resource Management William Burch, a senior research scientist who had come to Bhutan, he decided to pursue his master’s degree at Yale. After graduation, he returned to eastern Bhutan, which now had television and internet, to continue his work on forestry management and community forestry through a program funded by the World Bank and the Swiss government.

We cannot have one formula for all countries. We need to be more sensitive to local cultures and socioeconomic and political realities to address the complex challenges of wildlife conservation.

Dechen DorjiDistinguished Alumni Award winner

Over the years, Dorji has worked to help Bhutan balance its economic development with its desire to preserve its land and the environment and deal with the effects of global climate change. Because of its extreme altitudinal variation, the country is prone to increased impacts caused by a warming world. Where once there were frozen glaciers there are now lakes, he notes, and there is more risks of glacial lake outburst flooding and severe landslides now than ever before.

To balance development with conservation, Bhutan devised a different index than any other country in the world to measure economic progress. It developed a happiness index and has set environmental preservation as one of its pillars. Any proposed land development projects must go through the Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index screening, which is akin to an environmental impact assessment, before it can get approval. More than half the country is in protected areas envisioned by the Kings of Bhutan, who have focused on the importance of conservation and sustainability.

The heaviest lift of protecting the pristine lands and biodiversity has been the sustainable financing of the conservation work, Dorji says. In partnership with the royal government, private donors, foundations, and multilateral financing institutions like the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility,Dorji traveled around the US and Europe to present Bhutan for Life – a project that uses the financial rigors of the corporate world to fund conservation programs at scale over the long term.

In his work for WWF-US, which he began in March 2020, Dorji oversees its wildlife program for Asia. The biggest threats to Asian wildlife, specifically tigers and elephants, he says, is poaching, snaring and wildlife trafficking across Asia and beyond. Severe habitat loss and degradation from unplanned development and agricultural expansion as well as the increasing impacts of climate change are leading to rising extirpation of wildlife from many parts of Asia. The most effective approach to conserving wildlife, he says, is partnerships with local communities and political commitment from the leaders in the region.

“We cannot have one formula for all countries. We need to be more sensitive to local cultures and socioeconomic and political realities to address the complex challenges of wildlife conservation’’ he says.

Dorji has not been back to Bhutan since the Covid-19 pandemic began. He says he’d like to return to his country in a few years and focus on writing, teaching, and working with Bhutan’s youth to find innovative and sustainable solutions to the pressing challenges now and ahead.