“We love tigers,” says Pema Lhamo Magmi, a community leader from central Bhutan. “They are part of our heritage, culture and landscape. But we’re reliant on our livestock to make a living. When a tiger kills our livestock, we lose our income. This is a huge problem in our communities.”
Resolving this “problem” for the hardy farmers and herders of cattle and yaks in mountainous Bhutan, who graze their animals at altitudes of up to 4,800 metres during summer, is an issue the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Vanishing Treasures programme is seeking to address.
The programme’s work to restore grasslands and water holes in eastern and central Bhutan is supporting the survival of the Royal Bengal tiger – an iconic endangered species – while reducing human-wildlife conflict.
Reduced grassland drives human-tiger conflict
Over time, due to intensive agriculture and climatic changes, the amount of grassland in upland areas of Bhutan has dwindled, according to the Bhutan Tiger Center, a key partner in the Vanishing Treasures programme.
Grassland is also dwindling because it is being overgrown by bushes and shrubs. One of the reasons for this is that there are fewer livestock keeping the bushes at bay, and this is because many pastoralists have abandoned pastoralism and moved to towns in search of more lucrative employment.
“There used to be more than 20 pastoralists from my village a few decades ago, each with more than 100 cattle, but now we have only two,” says Ap Tshewang La from Bumthang district, who still moves his livestock between summer and winter pastures in Trongsa district, central Bhutan, and Bumthang further northeast.
The reduced area of grassland is driving two processes that exacerbate human-wildlife conflict. On the one hand, as herders take their livestock higher up the mountains in search of pasture, the risk of predation by tigers, snow leopards, common leopards and wild dogs increases. Tigers tend to stalk and ambush their prey where they can hide among bushes, so the danger of tiger predation is greater when cattle stray into scrubland in search of fodder.
On the other, when grasslands are overgrown with shrubs and bushes wild ungulates such as sambar deer, barking deer, serow (a goat-like mammal) and wild pigs move to patches of grassland nearer to homesteads. Tigers follow them, leading to human-tiger conflict.
In recent years human-tiger conflict has increased in Trongsa district, where about 20,000 people live. According to the Bhutan Tiger Center, since 2016, more than 600 cattle have been killed by tigers, including 137 since the beginning of 2021, creating serious economic problems for the villagers.
The Bhutan Tiger Center estimates there are 40-50 Royal Bengal tigers in eastern-central Bhutan out of a total of 103 in the whole country, according to a 2015 estimate. The Center, under the Department of Forests and Park Services in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, is working with local communities on the Vanishing Treasures programme, which is funded by the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
"Bhutan is committed to the conservation of tigers and we are doing everything we can to conserve this iconic species,” says Lobzang Dorji, Director of the Department of Forests and Park Services. “Today, the greatest threat to tigers in Bhutan is the human-wildlife conflict. It is undermining our conservation efforts.
How does grassland restoration work?
Grassland restoration is a community effort involving local forestry and livestock officials. Herders and farmers identify locations which were once grassland and need to be restored. Communities decide which grass species are sown in the cleared patches of land. Good quality pasture is vital for quality livestock products, incomes and livelihoods, as well as for wild ungulates, and the tigers that feed on them. Clearing shrubs and bushes every 10-15 years would be sufficient to maintain these grasslands, according to the Bhutan Tiger Center.
As part of the Vanishing Treasures programme, around eight hectares (20 acres) of grassland have been restored since 2019. This doesn’t sound like much, but restoration is labour-intensive. Thick bushes and small trees are cleared by local volunteers who often have to walk for several hours to reach an area designated for restoration. Ultimately the aim is to restore 100 hectares of grassland.
Restored water holes keep tigers away from cattle
During dry seasons, natural or artificial waterholes are crucial for both domestic animals and wildlife in Bhutan as elsewhere. Unlike other large cats, tigers enjoy spending time in the water, especially in hot weather, and even catch prey there.
To discourage them from coming close to homesteads in search of water, the programme has been restoring water holes in remote upland areas. This is a vital part of the conservation and restoration management plan.
For example, water hole improvement work was carried out in Tshonemona, Trashigang district. A six-hour uphill walk from the nearest road brings you to the remnant of a lake in a cool broadleaf forest dominated by rhododendron, with mixed conifer species and an understory of bamboo thickets. This isolated water source is used by wild dogs, red pandas, wild cats including tigers, sambar deer, barking deer and serow.
Restoration work included cutting and clearing bushes, weeds and bamboo thickets from in and around the water hole, and the opening of corridors to ease access for wild animals.
“The programme reflects key UNEP priorities of addressing biodiversity loss by conserving healthy ecosystems, including predators and prey species, and is aligned with Sustainable Development Goals 2 (No hunger) and 15 (Life on Land), among others,” says UNEP Programme Management Officer and mountain ecosystems expert Matthias Jurek. “It also allows for a better understanding of the climate change impacts on Royal Bengal tigers and their prey, as well as the climate change impacts on local communities. Part of the programme involves looking at alternative livelihoods to increase resilience in the face of climate change, and therefore contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 13 (Climate Action),” he adds.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, 95 per cent of the world’s wild tigers have been lost since the beginning of the 20th century. International Tiger Day, celebrated on 29 July each year, is an opportunity to raise awareness about this majestic, yet endangered, species, its habitat and efforts, like those being undertaken as part of the Vanishing Treasures programme, to restore degraded landscapes to enable local wildlife and local communities to coexist.
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and partners, covers terrestrial as well as coastal and marine ecosystems. As global call to action, it will draw together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration. Find out how you can contribute to the UN Decade.