AFC Flag Expedition #4
In March 2007, Pollyanna Pickering became the first western artist to comprehensively document Bhutan’s wildlife and habitat in a series of paintings.
The journey was made possible in large part by a Fellowship grant under the AFC’s Flag Expeditions Program and served to support the conservation of the rare and unique flora and fauna of the remote Himalayan country.
“Who knows what undiscovered secrets this mystical terrain is hiding? My aim is to capture the atmosphere and spirit of the Himalayas, and document the breathtaking diversity of life in this mountain kingdom,” said Pickering, prior to embarking on her 21st expedition, her most ambitious and challenging project yet. Pollyanna is a seasoned traveler with past excursions including treks into China, Namibia, Transylvania, India, Siberia, Kenya, Central America and the Arctic, to name a few.
Bhutan jealously guards its lifestyle and ancient traditions, and respecting these values was first and foremost on Pickering’s agenda.
The month-long journey into Bhutan began on March 28th, 2007, taking Pickering and her daughter, Anna-Louise, an accomplished wildlife photographer, the entire width of the Himalayan kingdom. This gave them the opportunity to experience firsthand the incredible range and diversity of the habitat, forestation and wildlife found in this land.
Bhutan is home to 165 species of mammals, many of which are extremely threatened. The most remote of the Himalayan countries, Bhutan is the least touched by modernity and is included in Conservation International’s list of 19 Global Hotspots for conservation of biodiversity. This ‘hotspot’ list identifies high biodiversity ecosystems under the greatest threat of destruction as well as wilderness ecosystems that remain virtually intact. These priority ‘hotspots’ occupy less that 2% of the earth’s surface between them, but contain more than 50% of earth’s terrestrial biodiversity, and house almost 75% of the world’s most endangered plant and animal species.
Because of the unique variety of plants and animals found within Bhutan, ecologists consider this eastern Himalayan kingdom to be an area critically important to global efforts to preserve biological diversity. A total of 26% of the country is within protected areas – either wildlife sanctuaries or national parks, providing habitat for the many endangered species. Large areas of the country remain virtually unexplored. Even the protected areas have not yet been fully studied, and the indigenous species have not yet been comprehensively catalogued.
As ambassador of the AFC, Pollyanna visited the National Art School in Thimpu and spoke to final year students about her work, as well as a primary school which lies within the Jigme Dorje national park to learn about their program of environmental education for the children. She arranged several meetings with conservation organizations including WWF and Green Dragon to learn more about the conservation issues facing the country. “These meetings gave me tremendous insight into the conservation programmes and challenges within Bhutan and the Himalayas from the people most closely involved,” Pollyanna commented. “We hope to be able to assist with funding of future projects with money raised from the exhibitions of work inspired by the expedition, and through the Pollyanna Pickering Foundation.”
The main threats to the environment come from poaching and logging. Many of the endangered species in Bhutan are sought after for body parts, which have supposed medicinal or other valuable properties. The Bhutan Forestry Services Division operates an anti-poaching programme, which encompasses endangered plants, animals and trees.
All animals in Bhutan are protected by the Buddhist ethic, which prohibits killing, thus respecting all life and holding that a healthy environment is essential for both material and spiritual happiness.
Pickering had four key target species that she hoped to sight. She was fortunate in finding three – the Red Panda, the Golden Langur, and the Clouded Leopard. The Snow Leopard was her fourth target species, but like the yeti, it too remained elusive. Pickering, however, did manage to speak to several older Bhutanese villagers, who told stories of encounters with the Migoi (yeti), who have the power of becoming invisible; hence, why so few people see them. Myth? Hard to tell, since in a monastery temple, Pickering was shown a yeti scalp, which she was able to sketch.
Pickering sketches extensively while in the field, working in pencil and charcoal, making quick studies to capture the essence of her subjects. She works in a variety of media, but primarily in gouache, on board and canvas. Her work, following an expedition, includes landscapes of the area studied, wildlife portraits, and ‘study sheets’ showing typical behavior of her subjects.
“The paintings will bring visions of a Himalayan landscape to many people who will never have the opportunity to travel to this remote and unspoiled region of the world. There is no substitute for the inspiration which comes from the visit to the habitat, and the sketches made in situ,” notes Pickering, adding that some of her motivation came from the symbols of Bhutan’s religion – the colorful prayer flags which flutter throughout the landscape, as well as the temple paintings.
“Buddhist art aims to transmit, in symbols or signs, a spark of the eternal stream of life and consciousness – a noble tradition to aspire to. We have rarely left a country so optimistic for the future of its habitat and wildlife. Bhutan will remain an invaluable sanctuary for some of the world’s most endangered species,” concludes Pickering.
At the time of printing, Pollyanna was in the process of completing 50 pieces of original artwork for a major exhibition and gallery shows. These will highlight the natural history of a kingdom about which remarkably little is known in the west, and also stress the importance of conserving the ecology of the region. Along with her sketches, paintings, photography, and video clips, Pickering has prepared a detailed journal documenting her experience during the month-long adventure. She will also be publishing a book on her findings, and has an ongoing schedule of lectures.
Pollyanna was accompanied by her daughter and business partner Anna-Louise, who photographed and documented the expedition. Anna-Louise has collaborated with Pollyanna on four books to date, writing the text, and providing the photographic images. An accomplished wildlife photographer, she recently won the Gold Medal in the photographic section of The Wildlife Art Society International’s annual exhibition. Anna-Louise was also responsible for organizing the expedition. Her organizational skills gained her the title ‘P.A. of the Year’ in a national competition in 2004. She was previously a finalist in the Cosmopolitan Women of Achievement awards for her expeditions and work on the books.