This fascinating wildlife film, screened over three days, follows a BBC natural history crew, under leading tiger expert Dr Alan Rabinowitz, to the Himalayan foothills of Bhutan, to collect evidence of the existence of tigers in this remote and sparsely-populated mountain kingdom. The timing of the screening seems particularly appropriate, 2010 being the Year of Biodiversity, with an International Convention on Biodiversity meeting in Nagoya. More specifically, a Global Tiger Summit took place in St Petersburg in November 2010, highlighting the precarious future of the tiger. The makers of the BBC film are therefore hoping that with increased knowledge of its living and breeding patterns, this magnificent animal might be brought back from its current status of one of the most endangered species on the planet. Although tigers used to roam all across Asia, there are now estimated to be as few as 3,000 left, with 98% of the tiger population lost in the last century, due to habitat destruction and poaching. The Chinese are notorious in this latter respect, as there is a huge market in tiger bones and body-parts for use in Chinese medicine. Rabinowitz estimates that if nothing is done, the tiger could be extinct within two decades.
Tigers need space: 6 per 100 sq. km is reckoned to give them sufficient territory to roam, guarding against inbreeding, whereas in the reserves created for them in India – where Chinese poaching still goes on – there are something approaching 27 animals for the same space. This promiscuity also encourages the tigers to escape into the local population, where they are frequently poisoned, even though protected. The BBC team were hoping therefore that the low human population density in Bhutan would have favoured their survival. It would also lessen the possibility that territorial issues would lead to conflict with humans (a conflict dramatically illustrated in Amitav Ghosh’s splendid novel, The Hungry Tide, where the ever-changing landscape of the Sundarbans, the ‘tide country’, leads to horrifying mutual hostilities between tigers and the human population).
The team have several means at their disposal in their search for information: they have oral reports of tiger-sightings in the area, often at a higher altitude than they had believed possible; they have sound professional knowledge but are willing to have this knowledge challenged, keeping therefore an open mind; they also have unbounded belief in the importance of their quest, and corresponding dedication; they have an enthusiastic sniffer-dog, Bruiser, flown in from the US specially for the project; and a whole battery of sophisticated hardware, mainly remote cameras. These devices would ultimately provide the hard evidence for the presence of tigers.
And so we see wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan trekking up the mountain, often uncomfortably short of breath, to set up a whole series of camera-traps at various altitudes. The infra-red devices are designed to catch nocturnal prowlers, and this indeed they do: viewers were treated to a whole range of exotic animals; a camera at 5,000m revealed a snow leopard, while one at 4,000m captured several other leopards, a Himalayan black bear, monkeys, red foxes and even a red panda. Evidence of the passage of big cats was tantalisingly frequent: Bruiser uncovered a tiger scat on a river beach, and a dead yak was identified as having been killed by a big cat. At 3,000m, a family of yak-herders suspected that the killer of one of their blue sheep was a snow leopard. They also reported a sighting of a tiger at 4,000m. And there are many samba deer, one of the tigers’ favourite prey. This evidence of an abundant wildlife, far from being frustrating for the team, is very good news: tigers will only flourish in an eco-system that has remained intact. Finally their patience is rewarded: a fleeting image of a tiger is revealed on one of the cameras, proof positive that at least one tiger is around. The team are overjoyed.
The final part of the quest takes us to the tree-line in Eastern Bhutan, up on the Tibetan border, where their findings are confirmed in spectacular fashion. At 4,100m, 30 images of a pair of tigers are captured, the fact that that the female is lactating providing proof that the pair are breeding. We are given a lesson in tiger-identification, which the team do through an ingenious camera-device that recognises the individual stripes possessed by each tiger, every animal’s markings being unique.
Having established the near-certainty that tigers are breeding at that altitude, the team can now start to plan for the future. A ‘tiger corridor’ has been proposed, which would allow breeding populations to move along these higher altitudes, linking what are now fragmented groups and keeping them safe from human pressures. Bhutan was the last unexplored link in the chain, and in fact will become the heart of the corridor – which must, presumably, pass through Sikkim in its passage west. It would be interesting to hear more regarding the projected route of the corridor: given the altitudes at which the tigers apparently live in Bhutan, it is likely to pass through Northern Sikkim, well away from Rumtek and Rinpoche’s Retreat Centre. But it’s a project to keep an eye on.
It does not seem that tigers have much to fear from the Bhutanese, in fact. One of the most remarkable features of the film was its illustration of the attitude of this Buddhist population towards wildlife in general, even large and potentially dangerous big cats. A yak herdsman, questioned by the team as to whether he and the other herdsmen hunted tigers, offered two points of view, the first, practical: ‘There’s no point in chasing the tiger, you can’t see it!’, the second based on an awareness of the fundamental interrelatedness of beings: ‘the tiger is the King of beasts, and it’s not good to chase it away’. There’s a fundamental goodwill towards animals among the Bhutanese, even those that kill cattle and other domestic animals, and they’re happy to have them all around.
This attitude is reflected in government policy. The expedition enjoyed close cooperation with the Bhutanese Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, and an invaluable role in the actual fieldwork was played by forest guard Phup Tshering. At the end of the expedition, biologist George McGavin, visited the Bhutanese Prime Minister, who clearly felt that the team’s work was in total harmony with Bhutanese environmental policy, aiming to integrate nature conservation and economic development. The Buddhist attitude that places coexistence with nature over its exploitation for economic gain has resulted so far in a safe haven for tigers and other wild animals. Long may these splendid beasts remain out of reach of human predators!
*This programme was originally shown on the BBC in September 2010.
Pat Little is a member of Bodhicharya Ireland and the Dublin Kagyu Samye Dzong. She has a keen interest in ecological matters, notably the Sowa Rigpa Medicine Garden which Ringu Tulku Rinpoche is developing in his Sikkim Retreat Centre, where she worked for a brief spell in 2009