Can the upper Himalayas be the new home for tigers in South Asia?

  • The high altitude Himalayan region in India, Nepal and Bhutan may have the potential to become a stable tiger habitat.
  • A latest study by the Global Tiger Forum (GTF) has evidence of tiger presence and found the habitat suitable for tigers across two Himalayan zones spread across Bhutan, India and Nepal.
  • The study calls for a transboundary action plan with a series of multi-level steps to ensure protection and conservation of tigers in the high altitude area.

High altitude regions in India, Nepal and Bhutan have the potential to become suitable habitats for the tiger, notes a new study which has found evidence of the endangered animal in these regions.

A latest analysis by the Global Tiger Forum (GTF) has found “habitat suitability for tigers across two distinct Himalayan zones, eastern and western Himalayas,” spread across Bhutan, India and Nepal. The study ‘Status of tiger habitats in high altitude ecosystems of Bhutan, India and Nepal (situation analysis) 2019’ led by GTF appraised both eastern and western portions of the Himalayan area for tiger habitat along with corridor connectivity. 

The GTF’s analysis aims to provide the rationale for stepping up high altitude conservation of the tiger while identifying possible viable habitats, corridor linkages, anthropogenic pressures, and induced landscape-level changes for evolving an in-situ conservation roadmap. The study area included the high-altitude habitat portions of Nepal, Bhutan and India (Uttarakhand, Sikkim, West Bengal (northern portion) and Arunachal Pradesh). 

GTF is an intergovernmental body of tiger range countries that is working to promote the protection and conservation of tigers. Led by GTF, the study was supported by the governments of Bhutan, India and Nepal, along with organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme (ITHCP) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The study noted that the habitat of tigers, an endangered animal, includes varied places such as mangrove swamps, highlands, plains, rainforests, arid or semi-arid areas and mountainous regions. However, most of the high-altitude habitats, within the tiger range, have not yet been surveyed for tiger presence, prey and habitat status. 

It further elaborated that tiger habitats in high altitude require protection through sustainable land use, as they are high-value ecosystems that could mitigate the ill effects of climate change. 

For the study, over two hundred camera traps were installed in the Himalayan region across the three countries. According to the camera traps, the highest elevation at which the presence of tiger was recorded was 3,602 metres in India and 4,038 metres in Bhutan. It identified a potential tiger habitat of 52,671 kilometres square in the high altitude area across India (38,915 km sq) Nepal (2,213 km sq) and Bhutan (11,543 km sq).  

In July 2019, India had released the 2018 tiger estimation report that pegged the population of India’s national animal at 2,967. The population of tigers in Nepal and Bhutan are estimated at 235 and 103 respectively.

South Asia, mainly India, is home to the majority of the global wild tiger population. Camera trap image by Global Tiger Forum/World Wildlife Fund, Sikkim Forest Department.
South Asia, mainly India, is home to the majority of the global wild tiger population. Camera trap image by Global Tiger Forum/World Wildlife Fund/Sikkim Forest Department.

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Develop a high-altitude action plan for tigers 

Indian government’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, who released the GTF’s study on September 3, 2019, expressed enthusiasm about the study findings which reveal that high altitude ecology is compatible for the tiger growth and said that it will guide the formulation of a high altitude tiger conservation master plan. 

According to the study, the factors that foster tiger presence in the western Himalayan region, which includes Uttarakhand and Nepal, are “gentle elevation, high forest cover, high drainage density, high-temperature variation and moderate dry condition.” 

Similarly, the factors that foster the tiger presence in the eastern Himalayas which include Sikkim, north Bengal, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh are “moderate elevation, moderate forest cover, gentle slope, high drainage density, low human footprint, low-temperature condition and moderate dry condition.”

It explained that “landscapes are subjected to transformation over time, and the Himalayan habitats are no exception” and thus “an in-situ approach for conserving tigers in the high altitude warrants a landscape approach, comprising of wildlife management in protected areas and ecosystem management in other portions to engage with stakeholders with a focus on local people.” 

According to the study, several tiger habitats in such high altitude have connectivity to tiger source areas in the foothills and plains. But even as it gives an insight into such linkages, it emphasised that an in-depth appraisal is required for “understanding tiger movement and adaptation in high altitude, vis-à-vis habitat shrinkages in plains, possible tree line progression, luring of carnivores due to pastoral movements, availability of extended habitat at high altitude owing to changes in forest cover.”

“This situation analysis is a snapshot. We really need to intensify our effort and we need to answer some questions that are raised in this report. A deep study would help us to know whether the tigers in the high altitude areas are tigers from a source which are at a high altitude or they have gone there owing to some compulsions from the source areas at the foothills through linkages which are equally disturbed or whether they went up following the pastoral groups,” GTF’s secretary-general Rajesh Gopal explained to Mongabay-India. 

Gopal said that historically there are not many records of tigers on high altitude areas and thus we need to study in detail whether this report means “new home for tigers”. 

Meanwhile, the action strategy suggested in the study called for a high altitude tiger master plan, with “gainful portfolio for local communities and ensuring centrality of tiger conservation in development, through an effective coordination mechanism, involving stakeholders and line departments operating within the landscape.”

Among India, Bhutan and Nepal, GTF’s study found the presence of tiger at an altitude of over 4,000 metres. Camera trap image by Global Tiger Forum/World Wildlife Fund/Uttarakhand Forest Department.
Among India, Bhutan and Nepal, GTF’s study found the presence of tiger at an altitude of over 4,000 metres. Camera trap image by Global Tiger Forum/World Wildlife Fund/Uttarakhand Forest Department.

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A transboundary mechanism is needed to protect the tigers

The GTF’s study recommended a series of actions on landscape, local, state, national and international level. 

For landscape level, it called for steps like landscape level monitoring mechanism, a landscape authority, resource mobilisation and intensive monitoring of tigers. At the local level, the study advocated for evolving local micro-plans and strengthening community stewardship while at the state level it called for ensuring political will and synergies with existing state and central government schemes. 

At the national level, the study suggested green development, linkages with federal schemes and involving the army in sensitive areas while at the international level it called for bilateral cooperation, regional cooperation, transborder protection and joint assessments. 

“The three countries together need to find a common mechanism as they share boundaries as well as concerns like wildlife trafficking and habitat shrinkage,” said Gopal.  

Going ahead, GTF’s study suggested five high altitude tiger landscapes which included Valmiki-Chitwan-Annapurna (India-Nepal), Manas-Royal Manas-Jigme Dorji (India-Bhutan), Neora Valley – Torsa – Buxa -Phibsu (India-Bhutan), Askot-Pithoragarh-Nandhaur- Suklaphanta (India-Nepal) and Arunachal-Sikkim-bordering protected areas of Bhutan (India-Bhutan). 

India’s 2018 tiger estimation report had also emphasised that “ensuring the functionality of habitat corridor connectivity between source populations in India as well as with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar tiger populations is essential for the long-term viability of tiger populations within India and the region”.

“There is an urgent need to further intensify monitoring efforts and work with several stakeholders to safeguard the potential tiger habitats across eastern and western Himalayas through strong local community stewardship and ensuring the centrality of wildlife and natural resource conservation in high mountain landscape planning,” Mohnish Kapoor, who is GTF’s head for programme and partnerships, told Mongabay-India.

Read more: Tiger range countries commit to course correction to take forward conservation



Banner image: In plains as well as high altitude areas, the tiger habitats are increasingly threatened due to fragmentation. Camera trap image by Global Tiger Forum/World Wildlife Fund/Sikkim Forest Department.

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