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‘Your tiger killed my cattle’: As big cats thrive in Bhutan, farmers struggle

A Bengal tiger.

A Bengal tiger.

  • Surveys suggest Bhutan’s tiger population is increasing, but so too are incidents of tigers preying on livestock.
  • While Bhutan’s people have historically been tolerant of tigers and other large predators, and retaliatory killings remain infrequent, research shows financial losses and other risks posed by tigers are a major source of stress for subsistence farmers.
  • A government fund to compensate farmers for lost livestock dried up in 2008; new efforts focus on community insurance schemes, protecting livestock and building conservation efforts at the community level.

The village of Rukubji, in Bhutan’s central Wangdue Phodrang district, lies in a valley at the intersection of three rivers, its surrounding hillsides scattered with yak herder tents or swathed in forest.

In October 2022, a camera trap set just outside the village recorded a female tiger and her two cubs prowling among the pine trees. Like many areas of Bhutan, the region seems to have experienced an increase in the big cats. But while the presence of breeding apex predators might sound like good biodiversity news, it’s not so simple for the people living alongside them.

Tigers are endangered, their numbers having fallen from a possible 100,000 a century ago to 3,200 in 2010, when they became the subjects of one of the world’s most ambitious conservation targets. TX2, as it became known, was the shared goal of 13 governments of tiger-range countries to double the global tiger population to 6,000 by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger. Though the target wasn’t met, the global population is now estimated at an average of 4,500 individuals.

Bhutan’s first tiger survey in 2014-15 estimated 103 individuals. The second survey, due to be published in early 2023, will show an increase, says Tshering Tempa of the Bhutan Tiger Center (BTC), part of the Department of Forests and Park Services.

Many villages in Bhutan are surrounded by hillsides that are scattered with yak herder tents or swathed in forest. Image by Terry Feuerborn via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The overall population increase has been hailed as a success, but many experts warn the new figures may be results of improved monitoring technology, such as camera traps, rather than a real increase in individual tigers. Abishek Harihar, tiger program deputy director at wild cat NGO Panthera, suggests “cautious optimism,” and points to wider survey areas and a better understanding of tiger habitat as possible explanations — conservation progress, albeit of a different kind.

Whether there are truly more tigers or the reality is as Harihar cautions, one thing seems clear in Bhutan: there are more cases of big cats preying on livestock.

Almost 60% of Bhutanese people live in rural areas, some of them in protected areas. Livestock roam freely, making them easy prey for tigers.

Tempa says that farmers in their late 60s and 70s have never seen killings at this level. Where previously a tiger might take a cow or two before disappearing, he says, there are now “a lot of tigers in the villages and they are killing on a regular basis — one or two cows every week.” Trongsa, where more than 600 head of cattle have been killed by tigers since 2016, is among the districts worst affected by human-tiger conflict — a tricky, unintended consequence of what may be a rare conservation success.

There appear to be more cases of big cats preying on livestock in Bhutan now than ever before. Image by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz via Pexels (Public domain).

Bhutan’s unique case

For Bhutan, a tiny, mountainous Buddhist kingdom sandwiched between China and India, the latter half of the 20th century was transformative. Before the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, began a program of development in the 1950s and ’60s, there were virtually zero trappings of modernity: no telephones, televisions or cars. Today, though tradition and culture remain important, smartphones and internet access are widespread, paved roads snake around steep mountainsides, and young people are increasingly choosing to work in the fast-growing capital, Thimphu, or abroad over rural farm life.

Despite such major changes, Bhutan’s attitude to development has been cautious and considered. About 71% of the country is still forested and the government has committed to maintaining at least 60% forest cover. As such, it’s a rare example of connected tiger habitat, from the southern subtropical lowlands to the Himalayan highlands in the north, and an important corridor potentially linking tiger populations in India and Nepal.

“For most of South Asia, fragmentation is a big problem and tiger populations are not connected,” Harihar says. “In that way, I think Bhutan is very special because there is a great forest network.”

A village in Wangdue Phodrang. Almost 60% of Bhutanese people live in rural areas, some of them in protected areas. Livestock roam freely, making them easy prey for tigers. Image by Baron Reznik via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Human-tiger conflict

Growing tiger numbers are just one potential explanation for the increase in livestock predation. Bhutan’s grasslands have been reduced due a shift from pastoralist lifestyles along with climate change, which has led to more plant growth in high-altitude areas.

As grasslands turn into shrub landscapes, the ungulates that tigers prey on have less food, says Matthias Jurek, manager of the U.N. Environment Programme’s Vanishing Treasures program, which is working with the BTC on understanding the role of climate change in tiger conservation.

Tigers either have less available wild prey or they follow ungulates to the remaining grasslands surrounding communities, in both cases increasing the likelihood of livestock predation. Additionally, droughts drive tigers toward livestock waterholes.

Despite the number of reports of livestock losses, retribution killings aren’t yet as prolific — and not just because of harsh penalties, which include a prison sentence and a fine of 1 million ngultrum ($12,200).

“Many Bhutanese are very tolerant to large predators like tigers,” Tempa says. “They are respected or feared. Some associate them with the local deities — some associate this kind of human-tiger conflict with defilements of the mountains or deities.

“But we are fully aware that there is a threshold that can be broken. And once that is broken, it is a choice between livelihood and your belief system and respect,” he says.

“I’m increasingly telling communities and the government and my colleagues that we need to face this reality. If there is one threat to the tiger population in Bhutan, it will be human-tiger conflict.”

Cattle grazing in a wheat field in Bhutan. Image by Caleb See via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

In the early 2000s, the government ran a compensation scheme for people who had lost livestock to predators, but those funds ran dry by 2008.

“We had given people a false hope that they would get compensation if they reported the cases … It was not sustainable,” Tempa says, adding, “We are a developing nation. Providing compensation for livestock killing is not a priority when there are schools and roads to build.”

Farmers, of course, might disagree that compensation is not a priority: financial losses, alongside other risks tiger pose, are a major source of frustration and stress. A 2022 paper found that Bhutanese subsistence farmers were affected by “constant worries about food insecurity, fears for physical safety, frustration of movement restriction due to fear of being attack[ed] by wildlife, feelings of economic insecurity and anger over loss of crop and livestock due to wild predators.”

Community-based conservation

The BTC’s Conservation Through Compassion program aimed to improve the livelihoods of communities experiencing human-wildlife conflict, for example by providing poachers with other means to make a living. But Tempa says their efforts didn’t reach all affected communities and didn’t involve enough people on the frontline.

“We still encourage people to join the Conservation Through Compassion program, but we have now also initiated a community-based tiger conservation program,” he says.

The Gewog Tiger Conservation Tshogpa (GTCT), still in its first year, is an organization run locally by communities, decentralizing the system of compensation and management, with seed money from the BTC. Livestock owners pay an annual premium (around $2 to $5 depending on the breed) to insure their cattle in the program. The pilot project has been rolled out in six gewogs, or counties, with a fund of 1 million ngultrum each, which also accrues interest for the communities.

Community members use a mobile app to immediately report livestock killings to the Tiger Quick Response Team, which follows up to verify and, if appropriate, compensate.

“It has been very successful, so we are implementing it in six more gewogs,” Tempa says. “My colleagues are in the field now, meeting the communities, educating them on the programs we want to introduce.”

A livestock manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says only a few farmers in his gewog have received insurance money. Generally, he says, any compensation is considered a positive, but many of them are disappointed by the amount of money available; farmers who pay 200 ngultrum ($2.50) in annual premiums receive 3,000 ngultrum ($37) when a cow is killed by a tiger.

A woman with her cow in a farm. A recent study found that subsistence farmers in Bhutan are highly stressed by the financial losses of depredation and other risks posed by tigers. Image by Eileen Delhi via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Communities set the rates, Tempa says, and it depends on breed: a Jersey or Brown Swiss cow might command a premium of 500 ngultrum ($6) a head, and fetch a payout of 10,000 ngultrum ($122). He adds that while the payout isn’t enough to buy a new cow, through the sale of meat from the carcass “they can recover almost 70% of their cattle cost.”

Talking to communities is a major part of the GTCT’s work. “It has been quite encouraging for us to see the how committed they are,” Tempa says. “They decide how the funds are used. Even the mode of verification — they might say the livestock has to have an ear tag.”

Community-based programs also allow people to find solutions that work for their specific needs. “The problems that Trongsa people have are totally different from those of people in Geylegphug, where we are based,” Tempa says.

“The Bhutanese model of decentralizing conflict management might be a great way to move forward, in terms of the way people perceive what conflict is and therefore, [how they] manage conflict,” says Panthera’s Harihar. “One of the problems in many countries is the separation between the tiger being an animal of the state and people being something other than that … it becomes ‘your tiger killed my cattle,’ and that’s where the conflict actually begins.”

The BTC also aims to reduce conflict by protecting livestock from predation in the first instance, providing communities with electrical fencing, cattle corrals and improved breeds of livestock, so farmers are less likely to let them wander into the forests. Some biogas projects require cow dung, which also encourages farmers to keep cattle close.

According to UNEP’s Jurek, five power tillers were distributed in the gewog of Nubi in 2021, replacing oxen and bulls to reduce reliance on livestock that spend months at risk of predation in the forests outside harvesting season.

“[The tillers] are more efficient. They also use fossil fuels — but I had to make some compromise on that,” Tempa says.

“It’s a continuous challenge,” he adds. “[These ideas] cannot solve all the issues.”

There have not yet been detailed studies on Bhutan’s carrying capacity for tigers, but experts say some areas may already be reaching their limits. Image by Keyur Nandaniya via Unsplash (Public domain).

Beyond the numbers

It’s unlikely there will be another target as ambitious or simplistic as doubling the tiger population, Harihar says.

“Numbers take up a lot of the conversation in tiger stories,” he says. “We should stop focusing on global numbers and start looking at sites to see if they have functional populations — is there a decent number of individuals? Are they actually dispersing? Do we have problems and barriers around dispersal?”

A modeling study published in 2021 suggested Bhutan could support 138-151 tigers, precluding a doubling of the population from the 2014-15 baseline of 103. It advised expanding protected area networks as well as conserving prey populations.

Although there’s no detailed study on tiger carrying capacity in Bhutan yet, places such as Trongsa may have reached their limit. “We know that when tigers start coming into the village and killing, there are probably enough tigers inside the main forest and they’re spilling over,” Tempa says. “But the issue could also be that maybe these tigers are used to killing livestock.”

But he adds he isn’t worried about an increase in tigers in the immediate future. “It is a very long-term plan,” he says. “Tigers are special in our religious districts, and I think with good management and good programs, we will be able to handle [more tigers].”

“When two top predators share a landscape, some level of conflict is bound to happen and you cannot blame each other,” he adds. “As biologists, our job is to make it less severe. How can we make it tolerable for both sides, the tigers as well as the farmers, where our communities can accept a certain level of conflict, but the tigers do not undermine their livelihood? A community-based conservation program can address this.”

Banner image of a Bengal tiger by Robert Stokoe via Pexels (Public domain).

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Citations:

Yeshey, Ford, R. M., Keenan, R. J., & Nitschke, C. R. (2022). Subsistence farmers’ understanding of the effects of indirect impacts of human wildlife conflict on their psychosocial well-being in Bhutan. Sustainability14(21), 14050. doi:10.3390/su142114050

Thinley, P., Rajaratnam, R., Morreale, S. J., & Lassoie, J. P. (2020). Assessing the adequacy of a protected area network in conserving a wide‐ranging apex predator: The case for tiger (Panthera tigris) conservation in Bhutan. Conservation Science and Practice3(2). doi:10.1111/csp2.318

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