On Saturday, July 29, the world celebrated International Tiger Day with good news from my home country of Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between India and China. Bhutan’s latest tiger population survey reports 131 more tigers living in the wild, a 27% increase from its first systematic survey in 2015. This second national tiger survey is the product of over 300 field staff setting up 1,200 camera trap stations across some of the most treacherous terrain in the Himalayan mountains — a testament to Bhutan’s unwavering commitment to conservation.
Bhutan’s achievement is reason to celebrate, to be sure. But the tiger’s turnaround begs an important question: will people in Bhutan and other tiger range countries necessarily be enthusiastic about growth in tiger populations? After all, people don’t always welcome wildlife thriving in their neighborhoods.
So let’s be clear. For all the benefits that healthier tiger populations bring to local communities and range countries alike, there are also challenges, such as the prospect of more human-tiger conflicts and reduced tolerance to co-existence with large predators. Managing these conflicts in a manner that is equitable, practical and sustainable is vital for the continued preservation of tigers and for the communities that share their habitat.
Bhutan’s efforts to boost tiger numbers are part of a global endeavor to save the tiger. The beginning of the 20th century saw more than 100,000 tigers prowling the wild, a figure that shrunk by some 97% due to factors like poaching, illegal trading, habitat loss, declining prey numbers, human-tiger conflict and lack of political will to address these factors. In 2010, the governments of 13 tiger range countries finally committed to doubling the number of wild tigers in the wild. Fast forward to 2022, when India reported an increase of 619 tigers since 2018, making it the second nation — after Nepal — to double its wild tiger population compared to the 2010 baseline.
These conservation efforts matter because protecting and restoring tiger habitats also leads to the preservation of thousands of other species, as well as critical ecosystem services that benefit nations and the people who live in and adjacent to these habitats. Forests in tiger landscapes sequester almost 3.5 times more carbon than other forests and provide a buffer against floods and other natural hazards. They also attract ecotourism and support agriculture by providing fresh water, safeguarding soil from erosion and regulating local weather.
But these benefits are easily forgotten if one feels endangered by living alongside a growing number of predators. So how do we address this?
Preventing conflict from happening in the first place is an essential first step. Governments and conservation organizations can invest in early warning systems, predator-proof enclosures and other measures to stave off human-tiger incidents. For example, in Nepal, my organization, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has worked with local communities to support the adoption of hundreds of predator-proof pens that prevent tigers and leopards from harming livestock.
Nepal has also established wildlife corridors that provide a buffer between predators and human communities, while still allowing tigers and other species to traverse a wide-ranging habitat. These migration corridors, along with efforts to preserve and rejuvenate natural habitats and enhance prey populations, can minimize tiger-related attacks.
When conflicts do arise, measures to mitigate their impacts are critical. Rapid responses can offer immediate relief, verify incidents for compensation claims and help identify common conflict triggers. Compensation and insurance schemes can alleviate economic losses, cover medical expenses or provide support to affected families.
Finally, the most crucial component of human-tiger coexistence is an equitable and inclusive approach to conservation. Indigenous and local communities should have a voice in crafting and implementing conservation strategies. This is a matter of pragmatism as much as justice: people sharing the tiger’s home have centuries of experience and traditions in environmental stewardship, bringing to bear knowledge and expertise that is invaluable for long-term success.
Equity and inclusivity extend beyond decision-making processes. For communities to feel invested in conservation, they need to reap tangible benefits from it. This could take the form of employment opportunities in protected areas, revenue-sharing from tourism, and incentives for sustainable small enterprises.
As we reflect on the progress made in Bhutan, India and other tiger range countries, let’s remember that tiger conservation is a delicate act of balancing the protection of tigers and their habitats with the welfare of local communities and socio-economic challenges of many range countries.
It is a complex journey, but a necessary one if we want the tiger’s roar to echo in our forests for generations to come. Coexistence isn’t just a possibility; it is a necessity — one that requires respect and rewards for communities living alongside these majestic creatures. (Mongabay Newscast)