Tiger tales from the Himalayas

Bhutan’s 20,000 sq km unbroken tiger habitat, a mountainous landscape, can support 100 more adult tigers provided there is an abundance of wild ungulate prey to turn the predator’s attention away from the livestock that it seems to relish now.

Published : Mar 21, 2013 00:00 IST

The first camera-trap picture of a tiger at 2,765 metres, in the Thrumshingla National Park.

The first camera-trap picture of a tiger at 2,765 metres, in the Thrumshingla National Park.

THE morning mist had not been cleared by the just risen sun when Tsagay, 32, a resident of Dorji Goenpa village, near Trongsa (Central Bhutan), set out to look for his cattle that had strayed into the rhododendron-oak-conifer mixed forest. There were no alarm calls of either sambar or barking deer to warn of a tiger nearby. The tiger was possibly stalking a wild pig; as Tsagay, carrying a rope and a knife in his hand, walked between the prey and the predator, the prey possibly ran away and the tiger, perhaps in annoyance, pounced on Tsagay, pinned him to the ground and with one bite on the nape of his neck ensured his end. The jump forced the tiger to carry the body a little beyond the trail, where it remained, bleeding; and the tiger left without even licking the blood. Had Tsagay walked with a branched stick across his shoulder the tiger would not have dared to attack him, fearing that he had hard antlers in front and on the back of his head.

When Tsagay did not return home until evening, his friends and relatives launched a search and found his body just after nightfall.

This was the second incident of a man being killed by a tiger in Bhutan. It appears that the first, which happened a long time ago, was not recorded properly.

Although this incident happened on August 1, 2010, it was brought to the notice of some of us attending the Second Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in Thimphu in October 2012. We took the opportunity to visit the site of conflict and talk to the residents. Depredation on cattle by tigers was reported to be common in central Bhutan. On the drive to central Bhutan from Thimphu one observed patches of red in the forest canopy as a response to early winter by species such as Himalayan woodbine ( Parthenocissus himalayana ) and wax tree ( Rhus succedanea ). A golden tinge was provided by maple ( Acer campbellii ).

Landlocked Bhutan is on the southern slopes of the Himalayas. With 81 per cent of its 38,394 sq km area covered with forest, the country is aptly named the “oxygen tank” and “carbon sink” of the world. National parks, wildlife sanctuaries, a nature reserve and biological corridors form 51.4 per cent of the landmass, a figure possibly not exceeded by any other country.

Bhutan believes in managing wildlife, with people living within the protected areas and biological corridors. Agriculture provides the main livelihood for more than 80 per cent of the population and agrarian practices consist largely of subsistence farming and animal husbandry. It has a nearly 20,000 sq km unbroken tiger habitat whose landscape, being mountainous and with species such as the sambar, the wild pig and the takin (the national animal, confined to the upper reaches), has the potential to support a maximum of 100 adult tigers.

Bhutan is the only country where tigers have been photographed at varying altitudes: at 200 m, in the Royal Manas National Park, and at 4,200 m, in the Jigme Dorji National Park. The excellent connectivity is brought out in the popular joke that a tiger can have a wild buffalo for breakfast at Manas and a takin for dinner at Jigme Dorji. Four major river systems drain out of this landmass and flow into India and eventually into the Brahmaputra. All the rivers support different species of trout in the upper reaches and golden mahseer in the lower reaches.

What is remarkable about this small country is the immense effort that goes into keeping the landscape and the waterways clean. According to Bhutan’s National Environmental Commission, washing of either vehicles or clothes in streams, rivers and other waterbodies is a punishable offence. Periodically, volunteers and schoolchildren go around collecting garbage in an effort to keep the surroundings clean.

A recent rule is that every vehicle going through Bhutan should have a garbage bag so that trash is not discarded along the roads, which is usually what tourists driving into or out of Bhutan do. Monasteries and the trails to them are kept exceedingly clean.

Low ungulate population To increase the tiger population by a 100, there is a need for an abundance of wild ungulate prey, which will also reduce the depredation on livestock. One of the writers of this article, A.J.T. Johnsingh, has made six road trips through Bhutan, all in the daytime, but has so far seen only two barking deer, one wild boar and groups of Assamese macaque and Himalayan langur. The habitat in most places along the road is such that one would expect to see sambar and more barking deer. But that is not happening. Since vehicles cannot go fast on the winding roads, it must be rare for large mammals to be killed on the road, which is a serious problem in India where more animals are probably killed by vehicles than by poachers.

One practice that may be limiting wild ungulate abundance is the right of people to snare and kill animals when they raid fields. Since snaring cannot be species specific, all animals —barking deer, wild pig, black bear and leopard—can be caught by the snares. However, people do not snare or shoot animals using bows and arrows in the forest because hunting is prohibited. Use of guns is exceedingly rare. Leaving aside macaques, which cause considerable damage to crops, one can confidently say that among wild ungulates wild pigs cause the greatest damage to crops. It will be useful to develop a wild pig-specific snare/trap so as to avoid snaring of other animals, particularly the sambar. Maybe, as decided in the human-conflict workshop Bhutan had in December 2007, hunting of wild pigs must be planned as part of the ecotourism programme, which can bring in some revenue to the residents and reduce depredations by the animals.

Available scientific information on tiger prey species in South and South-East Asia indicates that the sambar is the most suitable prey for the tiger not only because of its large size but also because of its preference, similar to the tiger’s, for dense cover; being crepuscular to nocturnal, again like the tiger; and occurring either alone or in small groups, enabling the tiger to stalk and kill it much more easily than it could a group of wild pigs. There is also no report of a sambar stag, even when it is sporting hard antlers, killing a tiger in an encounter even while there are several reports of wild boar fatally injuring tigers.

Therefore, in a mountainous tract such as the one in Bhutan, it will not be an exaggeration to say that “sambar conservation is tiger conservation”. The takin can also be an ideal prey for the tiger, but it occurs in the high mountainous tracts of Jigme Dorji and the Wangchuck Centennial Park. The sambar can, with good protection, occur in most parts of Bhutan.

Dog menace One problem that may be suppressing the numbers of barking deer and sambar and even other wild ungulates could be the large number of free-ranging dogs, which are reported to injure and kill these ungulates.

An October 3, 2012, report in Kuensel , Bhutan’s government-owned English daily, indicates that between 2010 and 2012, as many as 158 animals, including takin, sambar, barking deer, goral and wild pigs, were rescued from such conflict situations. Of these, 20 barking deer and 10 sambar died soon after.

The Government of Bhutan has an agreement with Humane Society International since 2009 to vaccinate and sterilise 50,000 dogs in a three-to-five-year period. This effort is made not to protect wild ungulates from dogs but to have fewer dogs; their non-stop barking at night is a nuisance for tourists. Tourism is a major source of revenue—around 40,000 tourists visit the country every year. In 2010 the gross annual tourism earnings were over $31 million. The government should give utmost importance to the control of stray dogs, which is essential to enable the wild ungulate populations to grow.

Livestock in Bhutan includes sheep, mules, horses, buffalos, yaks, mithun and Jersey-Brown Swiss cows, hybrids of mithun-Jersey-Brown Swiss and hybrids of mithun and local cattle, siri. The tradition among the Bhutanese living in the countryside (which is forested) is to leave their livestock (excluding sheep) unattended in the forest, sometimes for several days. This makes the livestock vulnerable to predation by the dhole, the black bear, the leopard and the tiger. On an average, 52 head of livestock are killed by tigers in a year and the compensation paid on this account is around Nu.2,48,000 (one Nu, or ngultrum, is equivalent to one Indian rupee). Many kills in remote areas go unreported and the good-natured Bhutanese, although they are fond of beef, do not remove the meat even from fresh kills because they believe that if they do so the tiger will kill another animal. Besides, they realise that the government does not have that much money to give compensation. When people take the livestock for grazing and bring them back to the village, then depredation seems to be either negligible or absent.

Threat to livestock Cattle sheds are fragile because predators can get in easily at night and kill the livestock. In vulnerable areas predator-proof night shelters for penning cattle may be a better option. Where three or four houses are nearby, they could build a common pen where animals of great value can be tethered at night. This suggestion is expensive but it can protect the high-quality cows and horses from predation at night.

The all-time goal of the government is to have 60 per cent forest cover (Article 5, Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan). This should be a quality forest to provide an optimal habitat to the wildlife. A fact to be kept in mind in this context is that the Bhutanese use lots of timber and firewood in the kitchen and fodder for livestock, and the growing population can put enormous pressure on the habitat.

One suggestion to reduce the pressure and maintain a forest cover of 60 per cent all the time is to encourage, as part of a nationwide programme, every household/village in the wildlife habitat to grow its own fodder and firewood around the village. Alnus nepalensis , for example, can be a great source of firewood and Ficus roxburghii a valuable fodder species. Such species specific to a region can be identified and grown in large numbers with the involvement of people so that fodder and firewood will be available at the doorstep and the growing impact on the forests can be reduced.

Oak should never be felled for firewood as it is vital for water conservation and provides forage to ungulates and black bear. In fact, there should be a programme to grow 10,000 oak trees in and around Thimphu so that the heat radiated by the mushrooming buildings can be ameliorated. The benefits to Thimphu out of this suggested programme will be enormous some decades later.

Bhutan has nearly 30 per cent area under conifer forests, which are usually not good ungulate habitat like the broad-leaved (oak-castanopis) forests. We wonder whether it will be possible to convert conifer forests near broad-leaved forests as sambar habitats by promoting suitable understorey forage plants such as Neillia thyrsiflora , Rubus spp , Lonicera spp and ringal (hill bamboo). This is one area conservation managers in Bhutan should think about and decide quickly. The image of Bhutan as a clean country with extensive and intact forest cover, clean waterways, scenic landscapes, spectacular ancestral monuments and snow-capped mountains should remain unchanged forever.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India, and Sonam Wangchuk is Chief, Wildlife Conservation Division, Department of Forest and Park Services, Thimphu, Bhutan.

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