Tigers have been able to weather the hot, tropical jungles of Southeast Asia; the cold, frozen forests of the Russian far east; and the high, rocky altitudes of the Himalayas - this encompasses all climatic extremes, and yet, tigers are a conservation dependent species and therefore require a safe habitat and adequate prey to thrive on.
This is why it shouldn’t have been a big surprise when Sonam Tashi Lama, a fellow conservationist from Red Panda Network called, asking, “What is the easternmost limit for tiger distribution in Nepal?”.
Without an ounce of hesitation, the gentle yet blunt response was, “Bagmati river in the east of Terai Arc Landscape”.
On hearing this and unable to hold his excitement any longer, Sonam blurted out “We’ve found a tiger in Ilam”.
Even though evidence proves that forest habitats across mountain regions can serve as climate refugia, this finding; if proven true, would be the first evidence of the species in this region, while also breaking the previously held record of tigers at ~2500m in Western Nepal; set earlier this year.
“Are you sure? It must be a leopard”, was the incredulous response, as leopards are often typified as tigers by locals in the mountain areas.
The voice at the other end was insistent, “It’s a tiger, we have camera trap footage of it!”
As part of the conservation fraternity, we were ecstatic to hear the news. We’d been as thrilled when Nepal first qualified as a site for high altitude tigers in April 2020; with the discovery of a wild tiger at ~2,500m in the forested mountains of Dadeldhura, Far-Western Nepal. On the other side of the continuum, a tiger’s presence at 3,165m would mark the highest altitudinal presence for tigers in Nepal–250 km away from Nepal’s known and eastern most limit for tigers–thereby marking the Kangchenjunga Landscape as the land of the tiger!
It turned out that the tiger had been camera trapped as bycatch data through one of Red Panda Network’s twenty camera traps set in the area, to monitor movements of ten wild red pandas equipped with GPS-satellite collars. This tiger sighting would bring the total number of cat species in the Kangchenjunga Landscape to eight - including the leopard, clouded leopard, snow leopard, Asiatic golden cat, leopard cat, jungle cat, and marbled cat.
The origins of the tiger at 3165m in Ilam, points to existing habitat linkages between Nepal and India–such as the Dooars Valley and Neora Valley in West Bengal, India or the northern Sikkim region also linked to Bhutan. The capture of a male tiger at ~3200m in northern Sikkim, India adds further plausibility to this, as it indicates the same habitat range; with Sikkim, India bordering Ilam, Nepal on its eastern front. Meanwhile, tigers have also been recorded in Bhutan at 4100 m.
While previous studies have explored mountain range and alpine forest habitats as extant habitats for threatened wildlife species; including tigers, this finding provides much needed impetus in mapping out potential high elevation habitats for tigers. For instance, recently published studies highlight habitat occupancy of red panda in the country; including the eastern range, and demonstrates the importance of the Kangchenjunga Landscape that provides connectivity to Singalila National Park in India. This also makes the case for strengthened transboundary tiger conservation efforts to support the persistence and genetic diversity of wild tiger populations facilitated by habitat connectivity between Nepal-India and Bhutan.
“Tigers are on the move, and we need to prepare for the conservation challenges and opportunities this brings. This discovery of another high-altitude tiger in Nepal, highlights the need to map all potential tiger habitats along the northern mountain range of South Asia in what is a new frontier for tiger conservation”, says Stuart Chapman, Tigers Alive Initiative Lead at WWF.
There could be many reasons for the tiger’s probable dispersal towards higher elevations. For instance, human wildlife conflict or poaching pressures could force them to move away, climatic shifts could encourage them to move north, or it could be a solitary male looking for new territory, or simply passing through a contiguous habitat range. What is certain is their presence and role as an apex predator in the ecosystem.
Relatively limited studies on tigers currently exist in the eastern landscape in Nepal which restricts the establishment of a clear nexus between climate change and the upward movement of tigers. This finding highlights the need for further research to determine tiger metapopulation structures and dispersal patterns in the eastern complex. Present records however do provide evidence in regard to conducive habitat conditions for tigers at higher elevations as evidenced by a 2016 study, which proves that forest habitats across the mountains in Nepal can serve as climate refugia.
Since tigers are a conservation dependent species, proactive actions are imperative to secure the protection of tigers through monitoring of prey base/movements and sensitizing local communities and local government officials on the realities of living with tigers.
“These records provide a unique opportunity to proactively manage potential future tiger habitats to save the species in such high elevations, but also brings in undeniable challenges. Transboundary collaboration becomes an inevitable part of the conservation initiatives across the borders”, says Shiv Raj Bhatta, Head of Conservation Programs at WWF Nepal.
With the sixth mass extinction of wildlife looming above our heads, conservation of the species at this junction is critical. The high-altitude tiger record in Nepal has been an important record, as it provides further impetus to the conservation fraternities. However, it also leaves many questions unanswered with regard to its place of origin, transboundary dispersal and density.
Suffice to say that this might very well be the last piece of good news 2020 has to offer.