Only about 80 tigers survive in the small mountainous country of Bhutan, one of the last 13 countries were wild tigers still roam. Unfortunately, forest rangers in the area are too few and lack the training and equipment they need to effectively combat the onslaught of tiger poaching in the region.
Bhutanese officials have requested assistance from the International Fund for Animal Welfare with training and equipping front-line forest department staff to help in protecting their tigers from wildlife crime. This kind of capacity-building work is one of the key areas in their national tiger conservation plan as well as the Global Tiger Recovery Programme adopted at the tiger summit last November.
Morning comes early to Jigme Dorji National Park in Bhutan. When we went to bed the previous evening it had been hard to tell what the surrounding mountains looked like because it had been overcast when we arrived in the park. The morning air sparkled and there was fresh snow in the surrounding mountains which brought to life the description of how difficult a climb the forest rangers had every time they left this station for their base camps.
We were presented with a simple breakfast outside whilst the sounds of horns and chanting drifted in from higher up the mountain side. I remembered that the Buddhist monks had gathered for a blessing of the rangers. I noticed that there were quite a few dogs running around and asked if they were pets of the rangers or villagers and was told that they just like to hang around the area and the fact that no dogs were missing this morning meant that no leopards had come into the area last night!
We had an opportunity to meet the monks, receive their blessing and then listen to the Director of the national park once again ask us to do all that we could to find equipment for the rangers. With the mountains forming the dramatic backdrop to the scene it was not hard to understand why the rangers were desperate for warm clothing and sleeping bags. Today, though, they were enjoying the sunny day and the monks blessing. It would be another ten days before they headed up those mountains to their base camps and beyond for patrolling.
Our guide then suggested we take a short walk along a ridge known to be hunting grounds for local tigers and leopards. I have learned since being in Bhutan that when a Bhutanese tells you it is a short walk you can pretty much triple the time he quoted to finish the walk. True to form, we set out on a walk along a ridge that began to drop sharply and I began to wonder what would be the greater problem, avoiding becoming prey to a tiger or simply walking back up that ridge!
The Himalayas are home to the wild Rhododendron plant and we were soon walking through Rhododendron trees along the ridge! When we came upon a spot where three trails merged, we stopped to look for signs of tigers and were rewarded with the the claw marks of a large tiger scratched into the bark of a rhododendron. The size of the claw marks indicated a very large tiger and I again had visions of running up that ridge and suggested that perhaps it was time to head back. Normally, I am in meetings advocating to save tigers but I took this occasion to advocate getting back to the safety of the car.
As we walked back along the ridge to the road we encountered villagers who, indeed, reported having seen fresh tiger tracks in the area and they expressed concern about their livestock which they let graze unattended in the forest. Human wildlife conflict problems were also becoming an issue to address in Bhutan. Villagers live within the boundaries of the national parks in Bhutan and so combating poachers is not the only problem confronting forest rangers. They also needed help in dealing with community members who were sympathetic to saving the tiger but also concerned about saving their own livestock. Late in the day we discussed the possibility of expanding our Animal Action Week work to the schools of Bhutan so that we can make the children aware of possible solutions and they can convince their parents.
IFAW's first training course for the front line rangers is planned for July of this year. We have lot's of work to do in the meantime and first and foremost in my mind is how to find funding to get the rangers the equipment they need to stay warm and dry. If we can't help the rangers, we can't help the tigers.