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Buddhist Bhutan Celebrates International Tiger Day by Reporting a Jump in Wild Tiger Population

Renowned for prioritizing Gross National Happiness over the profit-driven acquisitiveness of unrestrained capitalism, the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, nestled high in the rarified air of the eastern Himalaya, is also making strides in the field of wildlife conservation. The fourth Bhutan National Tiger Survey Report, recently published by the Bhutan Tiger Center in cooperation with the Bhutanese government to coincide with International Tiger Day, reveals a promising 27 per cent jump in the country’s wild tiger population since the previous report in 2015, bringing the latest official count in Bhutan to an estimated 131 adult tigers.

International Tiger Day, or Global Tiger Day, is observed annually on 29 July to raise awareness about tiger conservation and the protection of natural tiger habitats. The day was initiated in 2010, when the 13 tiger-range countries came together with a a commitment to boost populations of the endangered species. 

“The findings from the nationwide survey confirmed that Bhutan now has 131 tigers in the wild, with an overall density of 0.23 tigers per 100 square kilometers. This is an increase of over 27% from its baseline population of 103 individuals in 2015,” the Department of Forests and Park Services, under Bhutan’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, said in an announcement. “The increase in the tiger population indicates the success of Bhutan’s conservation efforts—its commitment to the Global Tiger Recovery Program to maintain a viable tiger population. Further, the target of a 20 per cent increase in tigers under the 12th Five-Year Plan of the erstwhile Ministry of Agriculture and Forests and Bhutan for Life’s conservation milestones has also been achieved.” (Bhutan Foundation)

There are a total of 13 remaining tiger range countries—nations that are home to natural tiger habitats: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF),* however, studies have shown that despite recent success in improving tiger numbers, declines in protected areas remain a major risk—in particular due to habitat loss and the poaching of tigers for bush meat, trophies, traditional medicines, and other illegal activities.

Thumbtacks represent the locations of tiger camera traps for the 2021–22 survey. Image courtesy of the Bhutan Foundation

“More than 50 percent of Bhutan’s total landscape is declared as a protected area. This, combined with a constitutional mandate of maintaining at least 60 per cent forest cover in perpetuity, offers one of the best hopes for maintaining a viable tiger population in the wild,” said the Bhutan Foundation, which works closely with the Bhutan Tiger Center. “Bhutan is a unique tiger habitat, as the species’ known trek routes extend across the whole country, from lowland subtropical jungles all the way up to frozen subalpine forests. It’s no wonder then, that the highest altitude recorded for tigers in the world is in Bhutan at 4,400 meters above sea level in Wangchuck Centennial Park. Given this incredible altitude, Bhutan is also the only place in the world where snow leopards and tigers can be found in the same landscape.” (Bhutan Foundation)

Bhutan’s survey revealed that tigers were sighted in eight protected areas and nine forest divisions, during the year-long survey. Three hundred foresters from 10 protected areas and 14 territorial divisions were involved in the undertaking. A total of 184 camera stations covering 26,075 square kilometers also showed four out of five female tigers with cubs captured in camera traps at higher than 2,500 meters above sea level. 

A survey of 68,854 trap nights resulted in 6,611 still images and 59 videos of tigers captured by these camera stations, of which 4,934 images and 43 videos were used as the basis for the capture record. Other images were discarded due to poor quality. Individual tigers from two camera traps could not be identified and so only 182 camera stations were used for the analysis of tiger numbers. Tiger cubs were not included in the analysis.

“Particularly noteworthy is the situation in Royal Manas National Park, where the tiger populations have not just grown, but doubled,” the Bhutan Foundation shared in an announcement seen by BDG. “This growth, however, is not without complexities. The rising numbers of tigers has inevitably intensified human-wildlife conflict, primarily through predation on livestock—an issue with far-reaching consequences, affecting both the livelihoods of local farmers and the safety of the tiger population.”

Royal Manas National Park, home to the Bhutan Tiger Center. Image courtesy of the Bhutan Foundation

“Recognizing this intricate problem, the Bhutan Foundation, in collaboration with the Bhutan Tiger Center, is taking steps to mitigate the impact on local communities,” the Bhutan Foundation noted. “We are supporting an initiative to insure farmers against livestock loss, an intervention aspiring to preserve the balance between human activity and wildlife conservation.” (Bhutan Foundation)

Originally founded in 1986 and relaunched 2002, the Bhutan Foundation operates via offices in the Bhutanese capital Thimphu and Washington, D.C., with a stated mission to “support the people of Bhutan to reach their full potential by developing local capacity and facilitating global support.” The foundation operates four programs focusing on: environmental conservation; sustainable development; cultural preservation; and good governance, aiming to serve the people of Bhutan in living and sharing the principle of Gross National Happiness through training and access to global expertise, new technologies, and resources.

“Tigers play an important role in the Bhutanese culture and religion. Manifesting as the wrathful Guru Dorje Drolo, in the eighth century, Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, came from Singye Dzong riding on a flying tigress, believed to be his consort Nibni Trasgu Khydron, to Paro Taktsang (literally translated as the Tiger’s Nest) in western Bhutan,” the tiger population survey noted. “It is believed that the Guru and his Khandro meditated in a cave where the main monastery is located today and the site is extremely sacred for Buddhists around the world even today.” (Bhutan Foundation)

Image courtesy of the Bhutan Foundation

Remote, landlocked, and perched in the rarified air of the eastern Himalaya, the Kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between two political and economic heavy hitters India and China, is the world’s last remaining Vajrayana Buddhist country. The ancient spiritual tradition is embedded in the very consciousness and culture of this remote land, where it has flourished with an unbroken history that dates back to its introduction from Tibet by Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, in the eighth century.

Almost 75 per cent of Bhutan’s population of some 770,000 people identify as Buddhists, according to the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, with Hindus accounting for the majority of the remaining 25 per cent. Most of Bhutan’s Buddhists follow either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma schools of Vajrayana Buddhism. Bhutan held its first elections as a constitutional monarchy in 2008.

* Formerly the World Wildlife Fund, although this name is still used in the US and Canada.

See more

Status of Tigers in Bhutan: The National Tiger Survey Report 2021-2022 ([PDF] Bhutan Foundation)
Press Release: Bhutan has reached a new milestone with a 27% increase in the tiger population since 2016. ([PDF] Bhutan Foundation)
Bhutan Foundation

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