Robert Andrew Oplas from the World Bank Institute’s Global Tiger Initiative describes a recent visit to Bhutan that brought to light community-based conservation in tiger range areas.
December 5, 2012―During the last four years, the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI) has built lasting partnerships with governments and organizations across the tiger range countries to implement a global strategy that seeks to prevent the extinction of wild tigers and recover populations over a 12-year period. In October the remote Himalayan mountain Kingdom of Bhutan was the setting for a Ministerial meeting of tiger range countries, the 2nd Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation. The tiger range countries are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The GTI team worked and visited the field with the Royal Government’s Department of Forests and Park Services in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. One of the enduring lessons from field visits in biodiversity hot spots and tiger conservation landscapes is that wildlife conservation is extremely complex work that depends on variables far outside the parameters of conservationists’ control.
Close encounters for communities
On the seven hour journey from Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu across central Bhutan and its series of steep mountain passes and valleys, we finally made it to Trongsa, a town located almost exactly in the center of Bhutan and just north of Black Mountain National Park and SManas National Park. We traveled by small but sturdy Toyota vans, and the drivers confidently crossed mountain roads that climbed as high as 14,000 feet, along harrowing cliffs where the passable road was hardly as wide as our vehicle.
We approached a small settlement along a winding mountain road. The house in question, like most traditional Bhutanese homes, had fresh red chilies laid out across its roof to dry, as is the custom during this season in Bhutan. The lady of the house, told us of the tiger who took her livestock, a critical loss for a family’s livelihood. Later, we heard how a tiger had taken the life of her husband just a couple of years ago. He had unwittingly taken rest on a trail smack in the middle of a ridge where a tiger frequented.
Hours later, our team took a mildly strenuous hike across the very ridge and exact spot where the unfortunate villager met his demise.
In general, wild tigers avoid humans when left alone and will not attack without provocation. Many local communities living around tiger habitats depend on forets for fuel wood, fodder and timber. When they enter forests, they increase the likelihood of tiger attacks. If the forest does not have enough prey, tigers will hunt domestic livestock. In some cases, older and weaker tigers will attack cattle or humans if they are not capable of capturing their normal prey. In this particular case, the Bhutanese conservationists tell us they suspect the tiger in question may very well have been old and unable to attack and kill healthy prey.
The woman explained that her family was compensated by the Government for her losses. Interestingly, she said that she does not blame the tiger for her loss nor did she have any interest in seeing the tiger killed. In many countries, affected villagers would hunt a man-eating tiger down immediately and seek vengeance. This middle-aged Bhutanese woman, however, matter-of-factly concluded that “the tiger was here before we were here.”
Community-based conservation is considered an essential element of the Global Tiger Recovery Program, and collectively, the tiger range countries have reported real progress on enhancing engagement between nature reserves and local villages in buffer zones surrounding tiger habitat across the tiger range countries. But the harsh realities that accompany human-wildlife conflict were very apparent in Bhutan.
Officially, Bhutan aims to enhance community participation in conservation through community-based ecotourism in adjoining protected areas. The Ministry of Agriculture in recent years has also made serious efforts to hold special educational events in communities where human-tiger conflict has occurred. International Tiger Day was celebrated on July 29 this year with special events in the small community we visited; there was unavoidable irony in the fact that a tiger killed another villager’s livestock here just a few days after Tiger Day.
Bhutan does have existing compensation and financial benefit schemes in place for communities that live in close proximity to tigers and other threats. The policies were built to link communities to conservation and encourage them to have a stake in conservation.
Community engagement on human-wildlife conflict issues showed up as a high-priority item on the agenda agreed upon by the 13 tiger range countries at last month’s ministerial conference.
In different tiger range countries and around each community, the challenges of human-wildlife conflict and pro-conservation community action are different. Success in these communities depends on several factors converging at one time, and the balance between communities existing in harmony or at odds with wildlife is often tenuous. All agree that community engagement, simplified and transparent compensation systems, and creative approaches to alternative livelihoods with a long-term commitment are needed. And if tiger numbers indeed do go up as hoped over the next years, we will need to find best practices and apply them with even more vigilance across the tiger range.
The Global Tiger Initiative Secretariat is housed in the World Bank Institute, headed by Program Director Keshav Varma.