Thursday, 8 May 2008

Tigers in snow leopard land

Fresh pictures and pugmarks from the Jigme Dorji national park (JDNP) show that royal Bengal tigers in Bhutan are being found at altitudes never seen before. In fact, authorities say that the tigers are going so high that they are overlapping the habitat of the elusive snow leopard.

“We’ve realized that Bhutan is now officially the only country in the world to have tigers at such high altitudes and also the only country where the habitat of the snow leopard and the tiger are overlapping,” said ‘Tiger Sangay’ of the nature conservation division (NCD). Sources say that pugmarks and pictures can be seen between 3,700 to 4,300 m in the latest study.

The study, which started in April 2008, is using 38 strategically placed GPS-marked and infrared-trigger cameras to find out the total number of tigers in the country. At the moment, the study is focused in JDNP and will move to other parks. According to Tiger Sangay, each tiger has a unique stripe.

The study will also extend to get a solid photographic record of the total number of snow leopards in the country. The rough estimate was around 100 but there is now confirmed data that can support this guesstimate. These cats have been known to reside in heights of up to 5,500 m coming down to 2,000 m in the winters.

The implications and reasons for tigers being found at such high altitudes will hopefully emerge from the study. “We may also get data on how the overlapping of territory of these two big cats may be affecting each other, if at all,” said Sangay.

“Global warming with warmer temperatures in the higher reaches is a logical but not confirmed explanation,” said animal specialist Dr Sangay Wangchuk of NCD.

Another possible explanation could also be habitat pressure on tigers forcing them to extend their hunting area upwards with growing habitat disruption at the lower reaches.

Officials also say that the latest data is an indication of the good health of Bhutan’s forests because they allow the tiger to easily reach high places due to continuous forest cover in a diverse landscape. Another explanation, say experts, could be that it may always have been there but it is only now that we are learning about it.

“We’re also hoping to see if tigers at these altitudes have developed any extra features by which we can classify them as being different from their cousins in the plains,” said Sangay. “We’re looking for features like if they’re bigger than the plain version or if they have more fur to deal with the cold.”

He is already looking forward to compiling a comprehensive report on Bhutan’s unique and little known high altitude tigers for scientific journals like Biological Conservation, Journal of Wildlife Management, etc.

Also, an area of interest will be a study on how tigers and snow leopards are affecting each other. “The worst case scenario will be the bigger tiger going higher and minusing out the smaller snow leopard, since they don’t tolerate other predators in their area, but generally we hope that they’ll not impact each other nor come into close contact.” Tigers and snow leopards so far have moved higher and lower, according to season, in winter and summer, but the record altitude of these tigers may also test this theory. Another data emerging is that tigers and snow leopards are also following the migration pattern of domestic yaks and cattle.

“With 300,000 cattle increasingly penetrating more forest, they’re beginning to affect the hunting patterns of these big cats,” said Dr Sangay Wangchuk. Between 2003 to 2006, there were 424 confirmed tiger kills of yaks, cows, horses, bull, mules and sheep.

The last study was done in the Jigme Singye Wangchuck park where cameras were similarly used in 2006 to get data of tigers there. Old data show that 115-150 tigers are found in Bhutan and have been seen in Bumdeling wildlife sanctuary, Thrumshingla national park and also in Manas and Sarpang.

With emerging new data on tigers and snow leopards, Bhutan may be the next frontier of research into unlocking the secrets of these unlikely high altitude competitors.

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