The human-tiger conflict


On an early Saturday morning this June, locals in the village of Semji reported the death of one of their cows that had been grazing at the edge of the village. Claw marks on the cow´s neck and large paw tracks left in the mud pointed to a tiger being the cause. 

The villages of Semji, Gagar, Karshong, Dorji Gompa, and Jongthang, which lie within Nubi Gewog County, Trongsa district in the very centre of Bhutan, are at the epicentre of a problem the country is now facing with tigers.

Bhutan is in a league of its own for the conservation of wild animals and biodiversity: more than 70 per cent of the country is under forest cover and more than 50 per cent under protection in the form of national parks and biological corridors. 

Bhutan’s constitution requires the government to maintain a minimum forest cover of 60 per cent for eternity. This unparalleled level of protection has led to the increase in wildlife populations in the country.

On the flip side, this has also led to increasing encounters between the wildlife of the country and its rural inhabitants who heavily depend on agriculture and graze livestock in forests, which is a preferred habitat of the tiger. 

Humans and tigers have historically coexisted in Bhutan, a result of the Bhutanese-Buddhist culture’s unique and strong commitment to conservation. But this is a delicate balance that needs to be maintained and nurtured.

Bhutan – a critical but sensitive refuge for the tiger


Bhutan has a special relationship with the royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). As early as the 8th century, the majestic cat was associated with divinities, made evident by a painting depicting a legendary tale in Taktshang monastery.

As of today, the Bhutan Tiger Center, under the Department of Forests and Park Services of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, estimates the number of tigers in the wild in the country to be 103.

The tigers inhabit almost every corner of Bhutan’s diversified landscape, from the sub-tropical plains to temperate forests to high-altitude alpine meadows. Bhutan also provides a critical link between tiger populations in the grasslands at the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal and Northeast India, helping to keep the populations connected and the genetic diversity strong.

Bhutan, like other mountainous countries and regions in the Himalayas, is strongly affected by climate change. Average temperatures are rising, glaciers in the north are retreating and forming large glacial lakes, and snow cover is changing. The country’s agriculture sector and the rural inhabitants who depend on it are highly vulnerable to changes in rainfall levels and timing.

Droughts are also affecting the country’s forests and other landscapes, increasing fire risk. At the same time, Bhutan’s socioeconomic situation is evolving rapidly and driving an increase in land use along with other changes.

All these changes are placing pressure both on human communities and wildlife, including tigers, and changing the ways in which humans and wildlife interact. There are still many open questions about how this will play out, but rising levels of conflict between tigers, other wild animals, and humans point to the need for urgent measures to better understand and mitigate this conflict.

A map of Bhutan shows the extent of the protected area and corridor network across the country and spots where tigers have been sighted. The Vanishing Treasures programme works in two core areas, one in the centre of the country (Trongsa district) and the other in the far east of the country (Trashigang area).

Work initiated in 2020 to address human-wildlife conflict


A community meeting held in Trongsa in early July 2020 (photo: (c) Tempa Tshering).

The Vanishing Treasures programme is taking a two-pronged approach to tackle the issue. The first is to address the immediate impacts of human-wildlife conflict by supporting measures to protect livestock against tiger depredation.

In early July 2020, community meetings took place in the Trongsa district, the programme area located in the centre of the country.

Human-tiger conflict has been a recurring issue in the district, where about 30,000 people live.

Since 2016, more than 600 cattle have been killed by tigers, including 137 since the beginning of this year, creating serious economic problems for the villagers.

The Vanishing Treasures programme plans to conduct household surveys to help understand the livelihood situation of the locals, help populations set up electric fences to protect their livestock, introduce high-yielding cattle breeds, and learn about fodder varieties to support agricultural practices.

The impacts of climate change


The second approach taken by Vanishing Treasures is to improve knowledge of the behaviour and distribution of tigers in Bhutan. This will be done in part through camera traps, an invaluable tool to monitor tigers in the wild. Hidden discreetly in forests and other habitats, they silently capture images, allowing researchers and park managers to understand where and how tigers use the landscape, identify specific individuals, and estimate population size. 

Activated by movement sensors, the cameras have to be camouflaged to remain hidden from view and mask the human smell the rangers might leave on the traps.

Tshering Tempa and his team from the Bhutan Tiger Center hide cameras along tiger paths. (photo: BTC).
A team from the Bhutan Tiger Center installing a camera trap. (photo: BTC)

With support through the Vanishing Treasures programme, the Bhutan Tiger Center has installed 70 camera traps within the two programme sites since 11 July 2019, helping to increase the coverage of camera traps across the country and filling important blank spots on the map.

The cameras have already helped to identify the source of the human-wildlife conflict in the Trongsa area. In the pictures below, a mother and one of her four cubs were photo-captured within the vicinity of the Nubi area where 5,100 inhabitants live in 20 different villages and where about 3,890 livestock are present.

Survival of cubs like these are essential for the tiger population of Bhutan, but the growth of the population currently comes at a high price for herders and their cattle. This makes it essential to address the socioeconomic impact on rural inhabitants alongside the tigers’ needs.

Images from camera traps are essential to study the tigers’ movement patterns, population, and behaviour. (photo: BTC, 2019).

Today, the four cubs have now grown into sub-adults and are still with their mother. The long-term monitoring of the tigers using camera traps will help us understand their population and behavioural ecology in-depth. This will also be crucial in setting on-ground conservation interventions based on science,

Tshering Tempa of the Bhutan Tiger Center.

In addition to the camera traps, the Bhutan Tiger Center plans to use scat sampling to undertake a state-of-the-art genetic analysis of the tiger populations. This information will be vital to evaluate the royal Bengal tiger’s genetic diversity and wellbeing. Over the four years of its duration, the Vanishing Treasures programme will also support studies on prey abundance and variability, the tiger’s habitat, and changes related to climate or grazing sites used by herders.

International Tiger Day 2020


Bhutanese people are particularly attached to the royal Bengal tiger. To celebrate this year’s International Tiger Day, the district of Trongsa is hosting a celebration on 29 July, with significant support through the Vanishing Treasures programme. 

The event, which will be attended by a large audience and high-level guests including Bhutan’s minister for agriculture and forests, includes the launch of a Cat Atlas of Bhutan, a book with short stories on tigers written by school children, the distribution of tiger posters, and a cultural programme.

Farmers who have lost livestock to tigers this year will receive a modest monetary compensation of about 65 USD and 25 USD for improved and local cattle breed respectively. This amount will be paid in token of appreciation for their support to the tiger conservation programme and for tolerating the huge losses caused by the tigers to their livelihood. 

This solution is hoped to be temporary, until the VT programme finds ways to improve the human-wildlife conflicts in Bhutan.

Sources:

  1. Thinley, P., Dorji, S., Tempa, T., Tandin, N. W., Namgyel, U., Tshewang, S., & Lham, D. (2015). Counting the tigers in Bhutan: report on the national tiger survey of Bhutan 2014–2015. Department of Forests and Parks Services, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, Thimphu, Bhutan.
  2. Tempa, T. (2017). The ecology of Montane Bengal Tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. University of Montana, Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers.
  3. Tempa, T., Hebblewhite, M., Goldberg, J. F., Norbu, N., Wangchuk, T. R., Xiao, W., & Mills, L. S. (2019). The spatial distribution and population density of tigers in mountainous terrain of Bhutan. Biological Conservation, 238, 108192.