31 July 2023

BHUTAN’S SUCCESS IN INCREASING ITS TIGER POPULATION AND THE CHALLENGES THAT LIE AHEAD

Nestled in the eastern Himalayas is the Kingdom of Bhutan. In this small country you’ll find high mountains, lush forests, free-flowing rivers and an abundance of wildlife. The country’s long-standing commitment to preserve over half of its land under forest cover ties into their cultural connection with nature and Buddhist values. It was in 2010 that Bhutan continued its commitment to protecting its wildlife when the country joined the global effort to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022, also known as TX2. Over a decade later on Global Tiger Day 2023, the Royal Government of Bhutan has announced that tiger populations continue to increase in the country, a fantastic achievement. The latest survey estimates there now to be 131 tigers in the country, a 27 per cent increase from the last survey in 2015.

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Bhutan's tiger numbers in 2015 © WWF
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Bhutan's tiger numbers in 2022 © WWF

A 12 year journey… A collective effort between the Royal Government of Bhutan, local partners, communities and NGOs such as WWF-Bhutan has been the foundation of this success. At the forefront of the government's tiger conservation programme is the Bhutan Tiger Centre. They lead efforts to monitor and research the country’s tiger population, as well as working with local communities, radio-collaring tigers to study their movements, and conducting national tiger surveys. In 2016 Bhutan nationally adopted the Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS) which is a tool that has improved the effectiveness of protected and conserved areas in the country. The Royal Manas National Park and Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park are now CA|TS approved sites, meaning the management of these protected areas has proven to be of high quality. Bhutan is also one half of the successful Transboundary Manas Conservation Area, a cross border tiger conservation programme, with India being the other half. Data from the last survey in 2018 estimates tigers in both sites to have more than doubled since 2010, proving it is possible to protect tigers across political borders. Rangers have also played an integral role in protecting Bhutan’s wildlife and protected areas, ensuring the tiger population is safe from the threats of poachers. SMART patrolling, a monitoring and reporting tool, was rolled out nationwide in 2016 and has greatly improved the effectiveness of ranger teams across the country. In addition to this a rangers curriculum for wildlife enforcement has been set up in collaboration with the South African Wildlife College and is being rolled out across Bhutan. The 2021-2022 national tiger survey unlocked new insights to the growing population of tigers in the country. Regions that previously weren’t known to have tigers reported sightings, and tigers known to be breeding were recorded at high elevations which supports the popular theory that Bhutan is a source site for tigers in the region.

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Tigers recorded on camera trap in Bhutan during the 2021-2022 national tiger survey. © DoFPS

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Tigers recorded on sensor cameras in Bhutan during the 2021-2022 national tiger survey © DoFPS
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Tigers recorded on camera trap in Bhutan during the 2021-2022 national tiger survey. © DoFPS
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Tigers recorded on camera trap in Bhutan during the 2021-2022 national tiger survey. © DoFPS
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Tiger in snow recorded on camera trap in Bhutan during the 2021-2022 national tiger survey. © DoFPS

The cost of living with tigers While the data showed a healthy and growing population of tigers, it also reinforced the ongoing challenges faced by communities living alongside this big cat. Located in central Bhutan is the Trongsa District, a mountainous town surrounded by forest. Communities here know the realities of living alongside a large carnivore, between July 2019 and July 2021, a total of 560 of their livestock were killed by tigers (data provided by the Bhutan Tiger Centre, 2022). Despite the high number of livestock being killed by tigers, retaliatory killings of tigers have been low here. This tolerance of tigers comes in part from the value and compassion Buddhism encourages towards nature. Over the last few years WWF-Bhutan has been working with communities in Trongsa to address the damage human tiger conflict is having on their livelihoods. But the situation is complex and this level of tolerance isn’t sustainable. A recent survey conducted by WWF-Bhutan indicates that tolerance here is lowering and the work in partnership with communities needs to be increased. The survey reached 610 households in four gewogs of Trongsa District and showed most of the community's livelihoods were dependent on livestock. The research revealed communities here didn’t want to see more tigers in the area because they are the ones that bear the high socio-economic costs of increased tiger conflict. The psychological impact of living in shared spaces with these large big cats was also a well documented concern in the survey. Comparative studies are yet to be undertaken across Bhutan but it’s likely that other communities in Bhutan who are facing increased human tiger conflict share the same issues. Working towards a solution The Trongsa District lies within Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park and WWF-Bhutan has been a long time supporter of work in this region, focusing on how CA|TS and better protected area management can improve the lives and protection of both wildlife and people. In 2022 the Royal Government of Bhutan worked with local communities in Trongsa to establish six Gewog Tiger Conservation Tshogpa (GTCT). These are community led tiger conservation groups that encourage community stewardship to manage human tiger conflict and provide livestock insurance. The GTCT has been set up in tiger conflict hotspots which include four communities in Trongsa. WWF-Bhutan is helping create another GTCT in a fifth gewog in Trongsa and will provide financial support and capacity building to its members. In addition, WWF will be working with local communities in Trongsa to better understand their tolerance for living alongside tigers and implement a holistic conflict management system that will work towards human-tiger coexistence. Managing human tiger conflict remains a key priority for WWF. Bhutan has shown that with government support, the right conservation interventions, a robust ranger workforce, and community partnerships tiger populations can recover. While the national tiger survey captured many tigers, it also captured a snapshot of the abundance of wildlife that lives alongside the iconic big cat. Proving that when we protect tigers, we protect so much more.

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Asiatic golden cat and young recorded on camera trap in Bhutan during the 2021-2022 national tiger survey © DoFPS

WWF congratulates Bhutan on their success in increasing the country’s tiger population, but even in the diverse and vast forests of this Kingdom tiger conservation progress is fragile. Bhutan is evidence as to why we need robust and measurable goals focusing on living with tigers in the next Global Tiger Recovery Programme 2022-2034 in order to ensure the future of this iconic big cat.