High altitude tigers discovered in Bhutan

By Julian Swallow 28 September 2010
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Evidence of tigers living and breeding at high altitude has been captured on film for the first time.

A LOST POPULATION OF tigers discovered living high in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has given conservationists hope they could help prevent the extinction of these majestic creatures.

Tiger expert Dr Alan Rabinowitz, along with a BBC camera crew, made the find while investigating longstanding reports of tiger sightings by villagers. Although the animals are known to live in the foothills of the isolated country – renowned for its richly preserved Buddhist heritage – the discovery is the first documented case of tigers living above 4000m. 

“It’s absolutely fantastic news,” Michael Baltzer, the head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Tiger Network Initiative, told Australian Geographic from Kuala Lumpur. “Our own team had been looking up there but didn’t find anything.”

Big cat haven

The BBC crew set camera traps at a range of altitudes, filming animal movements over a period of three months. While the cameras captured a variety of Himalayan wildlife, including monkeys, leopards, black bear, musk deer and a red panda, the crew were stunned to discover footage of tigers living at 4100 m above sea level. They filmed a male tiger marking its territory and a lactating female, suggesting the presence of a breeding population.  

“It’s great news that we’ve found a breeding pair,” says Michael.

Almost as significantly, the footage showed the tigers were sharing the alpine area with other large cats, such as snow leopards and leopards, making it the only place in the world this is known to occur.

“It’s incredibly significant to find several large predators living in the same area. But it would place a really heavy load on the ecosystem and is perhaps indicative of the tigers being pushed away from their usual range,” says curator Jan Steele from Melbourne Zoo. “But the great thing about predators is that they are able to adapt.”

Tiger nursery

Despite widespread protection efforts, Jan says there may be as few as 3000-4000 tigers remaining in the wild due to the catastrophic effects of hunting, habitat loss and encroaching human settlement. While the camera crew are safeguarding the location at which the tigers were found, it has given zoologists and conservationists hope more tigers may be found in Bhutan.

Michael says the country has done a “particularly outstanding job” of conserving its environment and this new tiger habitat might become a “tiger nursery” from which the feline could one day re-populate areas. To achieve this, Alan is advocating the creation of ‘tiger corridors’ – areas of protected land connecting isolated tiger populations, but Michael says the first priority must be to identify and protect existing groups of tigers.

There are six remaining tiger subspecies left in Asia, including the Bengal Tiger, the Sumatran Tiger and the Amur Tiger, which lives in far-eastern Russia. Tigers have vanished from 90 per cent of their original range in the space of a century, hunted for their fur and bones, which the World Wildlife Fund says is still used in Chinese traditional medicine.

VIDEO: The footage the BBC captured of the rare mountain Bhutan tiger.