The Mountain Tigers of BhutanNovember 1 2017
A group of scientists from Bhutan’s Department of Forest and Park Services and the University of Montana in the U.S is using camera traps and non-invasive genetics to gain critical insights into the ecology of Bhutan’s mountain tigers.
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Trip to Manas
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------The fieldwork in Umling ended well, and I made a lot of new friends. It is always a great experience talking to people in the field and listening to their stories of fun, adventure, and camaraderie. Then, it was time to focus my fieldwork in the eastern side of the park in the Manas Range where the working environment is no less different than Umling.
The Manas range in Royal Manas National Park is perhaps one of the most popular places visited by nature tourists in Bhutan. There are many attractions in the area such as whitewater rafting, eco-camps, and bird watching. The range headquarters is located just next to the mighty Manas river, and a few hundred meters away from the Indo-Bhutan border. You will need to cross the river by a boat to get to it.
The range is a treasure trove of biodiversity: it is a hotspot of mammals, birdlife and many other taxa. The nearby forests had once active Indian militant base camps, and movement was restricted. Though it is much calmer now, precautions are still taken while entering these forests and rangers are armed at all times during patrols. Our team decided first to search the further east of the range towards Tanzema in Pema Gatshel district. We spent an entire week looking for tiger poop and had little luck. However, we saw tiger pugmarks which continued to excite us. One of the rangers recollected seeing a tiger sun-basking in the area. Lucky him!
To enter some parts of the forest, we had to cross the border into India and even spent a night in Deomari guard post of the Manas National Park in Assam. The Indian forest guards were very kind and gave us room for a night. We cooked and enjoyed good food and liquor. There is a good friendship between the two parks. Royal Manas National Park and Manas National Park often carry out joint patrolling along the border to keep a check on poaching activities and illegal movement of people. The two parks along with few other protected areas in Bhutan form the Transboundary Manas Conservation Area popularly known as TraMCA. Besides the joint patrolling, they collaborate on research surveys and capacity building and is a thriving enterprise to conservation at the landscape level.
On the last day of our search to the further east, our vehicle was supposed to pick us up on the Indo-Bhutan border towards the evening. We had walked for almost 6 hours, and the border must have been around 3 hours away. On reaching a place where the phone service was accessible, we called our driver. To our disappointment, some ethnic groups in Assam had called a strike on that day and movement of private vehicles was not allowed. There were even chances that it might prolong for a few more days. We found ourselves in trouble. We were in the forests in a no man’s land; there were dangers from wild animals, insurgents and even from Indian border patrols. We were six, and only three carried ammunition, and we had no ration. We could not risk staying there. We knew about the excellent relationship between the Indian Manas and the Bhutan Manas park. Upon our request, the chief of Royal Manas National Park called the Indian Manas Park Director, and thankfully, he agreed to provide us assistance. We treaded along a river bed for hours in the harsh hot, humid climate, but we remained steady and careful. Finally, after entering India, we saw three tall men by a road carrying guns and standing in front of an old government jeep. The park had sent some of their rangers to escort us to the Bhutan border. We were delighted, and they were super cool. We survived that day.
Next, it was time to head west of the range, towards one of the feared areas in the park. The Rangers were hesitant of spending nights in those areas. When they had to go there, they would start early in the morning before the daylit and would come back by nightfall. It was the routine. It was crazy. It was my first time, I was scared, but did I have a choice? No, there were tigers, and I needed to go, and it was just not possible to do it in a day because I had to look for tiger poops, signs and check camera traps. It was going to take more than a day. In the past, there used to be a lot of rangers working in Manas, and they would be at least 15 rangers in one patrol scouring the jungles for surveys and while looking for poachers. But many had gone on transfers and were not replaced. Now, it was difficult to manage even 6 or 7. But life has to go on. They have to follow orders; they pack up their gear, pick up their guns and get ready to go. The first day was incredible. The park provided us with two elephants to help carry our ration to the nearest night halt at Specialthang. Specialthang is a straight two-hour walk from the range headquarters, and just as the name suggests, the place is unique. It is a vast grassland surrounded by forests. It also has a watch tower which was a significant relief. We were at least protected from rain and wind. Our team broke into two: one group was sent directly to the watchtower to set up camp and prepare lunch while I led the other side through a different route to look for tiger signs. It was an arduous journey. We saw wild buffalos along the way, even sighted some beautiful birds and the landscape was marvelous. Only if it was not that hot, I could spend my whole life there, in those wildernesses. Before the hills started rolling, we saw fresh pugmarks of tigers, gaur, and sambhar. We checked the camera traps and then they were there. The ghosts could not escape the remote cameras. It seemed like a tiger was following a herd of gaurs. To our utter dismay, we didn’t find poop in the area or the vicinity.
I enjoyed the sunset in Specialthang- it was terrific, and the occasional calling of the peacock made the nights even more magical. While having dinner, the Rangers informed me that there was no use going further west for more than a day-firstly we were fewer people and secondly, they were retrieving the cameras after two weeks, and so they were going to these areas anyway and more importantly, in a bigger team. I didn’t want to push them hard, and they have more field experience in these forests, so I agreed.
The next day was early and a long one. Breakfast was ready by dawn; we packed our lunches, and we were moving by 6. After walking for nearly an hour, we reached to our first camera trap of the day and checked the memory card; it had photographed a melanistic leopard, and the animal looked beautiful. We continued to check camera traps along the way, and the species photographed included clouded leopard, Asiatic golden cat, tiger, marbled cat, leopard cat, wild dog, and Asiatic elephant. The diverse assemblage of carnivore species is a result of the presence of a rich abundance of prey such as the gaur, sambhar, barking deer which in turn, is supported by plenty of natural vegetation. The climate is sub-tropical, and there are moist deciduous trees and grasslands around. The weather was humid, and I was glad it didn’t rain. The weather there can be quite unpredictable, particularly during the monsoon. Rivers and landslides appear out of nowhere after a heavy shower of rain. This is one of the reasons why fieldwork is nearly impossible during the rainy season. The Rangers would show me the locations of the abandoned insurgent basecamps on the mountain tops and share their stories about life in the forests with poachers, militants, and wild animals. It was terrifying, but I was inspired by their courage and admired them for doing a great job of protecting the land and wildlife under such circumstances. I felt safe in their hands, and generally, over the course of time, I also started thinking to myself that if I were to die, how would “being afraid” help me? I was beginning to accept impermanence more than ever; the Rangers were already practicing it. I was careful but was ready for the consequences. We walked for almost 6 hours, had our lunches and then decided to return. We collected a few scats on the way; the collection wasn’t that satisfactory, but it was okay. My feet were sore, my mouth was dry, and my body was tired. We made it back to the Manas range headquarters by around 5 in the evening. While I had my supper, the young ranger boys came up to me carrying a volleyball and asked me if I would care for a game of volleyball match. I thought they were either crazy or superhuman. We just had a long walk back to camp. There were also a few other researchers at the field who were attempting to radio-collar tigers in the nearby forest; they had successfully collared one tigress and were trying hard to get few more. The boys had challenged them for a game, and I had to say yes. We loved volleyball, and it was our favorite time pass when we were not working. We played, and the game lasted five sets. I knew that I will not be able to get up the next day but who had seen the next day? It was almost dark by the time the game ended. We won!
I defended my proposal at the wildlife biology program, the University of Montana in the fall of 2017. Within the next few months, 2017 ended, the fall semester was over, and it was time to head to Bhutan for fieldwork. It was exciting: tigers, genetics plus I was going back home after a year. After reaching Bhutan, I spend some time in Thimphu getting all my approvals ready and went to my office at the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research at Bumthang and held a couple of important meetings. I arranged the field logistics, and my team was all set to collect tiger poop. With my research crew which included a botanist, a lepidopterist, and a driver, I headed to Royal Manas National Park in Gelephu. I wrote an account of the first stage of my fieldwork on the National Geographic Blog which is reposted below:
We are settling into one of our many nights in the forests of Umling, to the western part of Royal Manas National Park. The night is devoid of any human voices, and all we could hear is the river gushing below, and the wind blowing in the trees. There is only the light of the moon, penetrating through the canopy and we are cautioned not to light fire nor switch on torches. The rangers check their guns, put the safety lock on and put it under their pillow. It is 7 p.m., and we are done with dinner. We are at Kukulung, a place very close to the Indian border and infamous for militant activity and armed poachers. There have been infrequent past encounters between these intruders and the Bhutanese counterparts, and the tales of these encounters sends chill down the spine. There are dangers also from the elephants and gaurs (also known as the Indian Bison), both known to be notorious for attacking people. Here, they can be seen in big herds.
I am in Royal Manas National Park, studying tigers. Royal Manas National Park is the oldest protected area in Bhutan and was established in 1964. The national park is located in the southern foothills of the country and is known worldwide for its incredible biodiversity and scenic landscapes. It has seven species of wildcats in an area of 1054 square kilometers, one of the highest density of cat species in the world and I have always wanted to come here and work. I am currently a wildlife biology student at the University of Montana, and as a part of my thesis research, I am studying the genetic make-up of tigers in the Bhutan Himalaya landscape. I am using non-invasive survey techniques to collect poop samples for obtaining DNA which would provide information on genetic diversity and connectivity in tigers of Bhutan. Insights on ecology and spatial distribution are increasingly becoming available, but information on genetic make-up and diversity is highly lacking and thus, lack explicit consideration in tiger conservation strategies in the country.
I come to Royal Manas National Park because it has tigers, a lot of them compared to the rest of the country and the national park has enjoyed momentous success in tiger monitoring and conservation over the years. The park was applauded recently for an amazing feat: the tiger numbers have doubled over the last three years.
With a team consisting of two research assistants, myself, six armed rangers and three porters, we set off to collect tiger poop. With every poop we found, we celebrated immensely; there was joy on each of our faces. But we were always careful and alert. Few rangers would walk ahead, we would walk in the middle, and few rangers would be at the back. We had to be quiet and maintained a steady pace; some eyes looked up front, some sideways and there were few of us looking at the trails for poop, scrapes, and pugmarks. It was one of the most enriching and adrenaline filled days of my life.
We were always ready by 7 a.m. in the morning, and the day’s journey would take a walking of at least 7 hours. We would cross dense forests, grasslands and rivers, tread river beds and climb ridges. By noon, our porters would cook us delicious food. We would retire by 4 in the evening, cook dinner near a water source, have it there, put out the fire and go somewhere else to sleep. We would choose a vantage point to camp, under a tree canopy and close to a river. The weather seemed erratic and we prayed it never rains for we had no tents with us; it was February and it hardly ever rained in February. The camping sites were always shifted, we never camped at the same place. We would be sleeping scattered across the forest floor and never together. It was the usual drill, and quietly, we would slip into our sleeping bags by dusk. We would watch the moon and the stars and fall asleep. This would be our routine for all the days we were in the forest.
I feel extremely lucky to be getting a sizable number of tiger poop in Umling, and the fieldwork went much smoother than I anticipated. Next, I will be visiting Manas Range on the eastern side of the park. The fieldwork will be equally daunting. I will also be visiting other tiger hotspots across the country to collect more samples. Many of whom I had consulted with had not observed much tiger poop deposits in the forests, and I was very nervous. I visited monasteries and lit butter lamps for blessings, and it is typical of what many Bhutanese like to do when they need something urgent. I was also nervous because of the history of some of these places I was visiting. But I was determined to take it as a challenge, and, I didn’t have a choice.
Fieldwork and patrolling along the borders are always this nerve wrecking. Park rangers are on average 15 days away in a month in the jungles patrolling, camera trapping, and carrying out fieldwork for other research purposes. Many decades have passed this way, and they handle it well; their families have learned not to miss them more. The rangers put their soul into their work and their love for nature is genuine. Their sweat and perseverance are returning results: tigers are doubling in numbers and illegal logging is subsiding. They are very happy about these positive developments, and I could it feel from their smiles as they spoke about it. However, they train every now and then and are always alert and fit; complacency has no room in these jungles.
Acknowledgement: My masters is supported by WWF-EFN Fellowship, University of Montana, Wildlife Conservation Network and Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research (UWICER). The current study is funded by National Geographic Society, Bhutan Foundation, Animal Ark Sanctuary, UWICER and National Tiger Center, Bhutan. I am also very thankful to the management and staff of Royal Manas National Park for rendering support in the field. I remain grateful.
The blog post can be accessed at https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/04/09/chasing-tigers-in-royal-manas-national-park-to-umling/
I work for the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research in Bhutan, and I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in wildlife biology with Dr. L. Scott Mills at the University of Montana.
My current research looks at understanding the ecology of Bhutan’s tigers through camera traps and non-invasive genetics. Bhutan has an estimated 103 tigers, and the population is a priority for global conservation. However, surrounded by the human landscapes of India and the growing population and development within Bhutan, the species hang in a precarious balance and hence need careful and long-term monitoring. Bhutanese scientists use camera traps to monitor tigers but at intermittent intervals and mostly at smaller scales due to the high expenses and logistical constraints involved. So, my project aims to compare non-invasive genetic sampling (NGS) to camera trapping as an alternative approach to facilitate frequent monitoring of tigers in Bhutan. Insights on ecology and spatial distribution are increasingly becoming available, but information on genetic makeup and diversity is highly lacking. Therefore, my project also aims to measure the genetic variation in our tigers, to assess their genetic health and connectivity in the country.
The project is funded by the National Geographic Society, Bhutan Foundation, Animal Ark Sanctuary, Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research, the National Tiger Center in Bhutan and the University of Montana.