Trailing tigers to new heights
A Behind The Scenes Look at Nepal’s First Documented High Altitude Tiger by Sabita Malla, Wildlife Biologist – Senior Manager and Samundra Subba, Research Officer at WWF Nepal.
CHAPTER ONE - SAMUNDRA SUBBA, RESEARCH OFFICER, WWF NEPAL
From day one, the hills of Dadeldhura greeted us with the unexpected.
We arrived to find a thick dusting of snow, fresh from the night before, coating the forest floors as icicles hung from branches.
Snowfall is common in the hilly district but in the context of our mission, which was to camera trap a tiger that locals had supposedly seen roaming these paths, the mid-March snowy greeting only piled on more doubt.
Our journey to the site evoked similar feelings. As we moved north, habitats shifted from sub-tropical hill mixed forests to temperate and sup-temperate forests of Chirpine, Oak, Alder, Rhododendron and Cedar—a vast difference to the established understanding of tiger habitats in Nepal. The uncertainty was also fueled by past experiences, where reports of tiger sightings proved false upon validation.
But one thing science has always taught us is to remain hopeful, no matter how vague the picture may be. So we set our gears in motion.
My colleague Karun and I began preparing for the survey, which spanned across healthy forested patches in the region, determined by images on Google earth. We were there to orient and train citizen scientists and forest personnel on camera trap operations, GPS handling, map reading, and camera deployment.
With 32 pairs of camera traps to deploy across a grid of almost 130 sq.km and four teams of enthusiastic and adept citizen scientists, we dropped off all teams at their respective sites by dusk.
The teams set up camera traps over the next 2-5 days, guided by territorial marking sites, such as scrapes, scat, and pugmarks, as well as potential tiger pathways in the hilly regions, such as ridge lines and cliff trails.
With fingers crossed and a hopeful heart, I returned to Kathmandu, looking forward to a call from the citizen scientists who would be monitoring and reviewing data from the camera traps every five days over the month-long survey.
That call came sooner than expected. Within a week after the last camera trap was set, an elated citizen scientist announced that a tiger had been photographed in one of the stations.
While waiting for the images to arrive, my colleague, Sabita Malla and I eagerly discussed the many implications of this finding. From potentially linking new habitats for tigers to extending our survey to other healthy forests in the region and all the positive implications for Nepal’s conservation sector—there was much to discuss.
Our conversation was cut short when the photo arrived. Upon closer inspection, we found that the camera trap had photographed a barely visible leopard cat.
Our excitement was premature.
From 23rd March, the escalating COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a nationwide lockdown. However, we continued to receive a few updates from the field.
As per our earlier plan, camera trapping would end by 10th April 2020. The team collected all camera traps and memory cards in one place. With this, our quest for the tiger was slowly disappearing in the mists of Dadeldhura’s forests.
CHAPTER TWO - SABITA MALLA, WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, WWF NEPAL
After the false alarms, challenges and capture of various other species, it was back to being a waiting game—that is until another call from a citizen scientist brought our hopes back up. Hopeful but cautious we waited for Karun to share the images.
Our eyes didn’t trick us this time. Hopes turned into jubilance when we could confirm with full certainty that it was indeed a tiger. It was official: an individual tiger had been camera trapped at an altitude of ~2500m, confirming their presence in the Mahabharata range – record-breaking evidence of a tiger at such high altitudes in Nepal.
As luck would have it, it turned out that the tiger had been recorded just a week after the camera traps were set. But the image remained unchecked for around a month as the citizen scientist in charge of the grid could not review the footage due to a cell phone malfunction.
Seeing the tiger on my laptop screen took me back to a conversation with Samundra in 2017 as we camped at Parsuram in Dadeldhura, a beautiful landscape bordering India with the Rangoon river in the north and Mahakali river in the west. We’d been exploring forests beyond protected areas in the Terai Arc Landscape; the only landscape known to be habited by tigers in Nepal.
Pausing to marvel at the untouched forests, the dense vegetation, and lush environment, we’d passionately discussed the possibility of a contiguous habitat for tigers spanning the transboundary landscape – from the Churia forest range in Nepal, to the Boom, Danda and Champawat forest ranges in India. Back then, we had a profound wish to explore these habitats, but were constrained by an official clearance.
In early January three years later, our wishes materialized, when tiger sightings in the region prompted a request from the Divisional Forest Office at Dadeldhura, to validate the anecdotal evidence. We immediately sprang into action to determine potential tiger trails and tracks, design the survey, and procure the official clearance. Given that a tiger was previously captured in lower elevations in 2017, this proved relatively easy. The Terai Arc Landscape Program, under the leadership of Divisional Forest Office of Dadeldhura, consequently launched a month-long survey along the forest range between an altitude of 1650-2550m.
SO, WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Conservation instincts and preliminary research have always pointed to viable north-south connectivity in Nepal. A study led by the Global Tiger Forum in 2019 identified 2213 sq.km as potential high altitude tiger habitats in Nepal.
But Dadeldhura’s first photographed tiger is historic for many reasons.
Tangible evidence of tigers traversing at 2500m provides solid ground for tiger conservation in the Mahabharata range (high altitude regions of Nepal). The finding also expands Nepal’s known tiger distribution from the Terai Arc Landscape—widening potential tiger habitats in the country at a time when the whole world is battling to protect its existing range.
The finding also opens up avenues for further research in understanding the tiger’s use of such high altitude habitats and connectivity between Nepal and India, widening opportunities for strengthened transboundary conservation and providing a safe dispersal pathway between protected areas for tigers going ahead.
The areas for further research have also been widened—especially in understanding whether these high-altitude temperate forests were/are a source for tigers, or whether these habitats are only used temporarily. Given that these regions have not been explored previously, the historical presence of tigers in this region cannot be overruled. Many attribute climate change as the reason for their movement to higher altitudes, however tigers are one of the most adaptive species on earth, surviving in the hot, humid jungles of Southeast Asia to the snow-bound, frozen forests of Russia. However, tigers do require a functional ecosystem and climate resilient landscapes for their long term survival.
For the past few decades, conservation strategies in Nepal have focused on the landscape-level. In doing so, the Terai Arc Landscape has been the primary focus for tiger conservation. This finding marks a critical juncture in this history by expanding hope for tiger habitats beyond the Terai Arc. Much deserved credit goes to the Government of Nepal’s flagship Terai Arc Landscape Program, which has restored many such bottlenecks to make the landscape functional, but more needs to be done to ensure structural connectivity in the future.
By looking north and bringing together diverse stakeholders, we can tap into further linkages between protected areas—ultimately ensuring the viability of the species in the long run.
Something tells us that the upcoming future will be filled with more evidence of tiger pugmarks in snow throughout Nepal’s Lower Himalayan region.