Helping farmers live with leopards, tigers and bears

Published 20 May 2008

tiger.jpgA Bhutanese wildlife ecologist named Tiger Sangay has conducted research, under University of New England supervision, that could help livestock owners in his country make peace with tigers – and other large predators.

Mr Sangay’s research on patterns of livestock predation by tigers, leopards, Himalayan black bears and snow leopards will help in the development of programs to prevent – and/or insure against – such predation.

Mr Sangay, who took the name “Tiger” because of his passion for this endangered species, studied livestock predation throughout Bhutan for two years as part of a Master of Natural Resources degree program he undertook through UNE. A report on his research, written in conjunction with his UNE supervisor Dr Karl Vernes, is soon to be published by the international scientific journal Biological Conservation and is already available on the journal’s Web site (www.elsevier.com/locate/biocon).

Dr Vernes visited Bhutan last month for an update on the predation research. He travelled with his UNE colleague Dr Raj Rajaratnam, with whom he is about to begin the supervision of another animal conservation project by a Bhutanese student – this one on the endangered red panda.

He said that Mr Sangay, who is employed by Bhutan’s Nature Conservation Division, had been instrumental in establishing a Tiger Conservation Fund (TCF) which compensates farmers for livestock losses to large predators. “Because of the rigour involved in verifying predation of livestock before compensation is paid under this scheme,” they explain in their paper, “we were able to reliably use data gathered by the TCF to examine seasonal patterns of predation by different predators for different age and sex classes of livestock types across the 20 districts (dzongkhags) that together comprise the Kingdom of Bhutan.”

Their results show that leopards were responsible for 70 per cent of the livestock losses – more than twice as many as the combined losses to tigers (19 per cent), bears (8 per cent) and snow leopards (2 per cent). The total number of animals (mainly cattle and horses) killed by the four predators over the two years of the study was 1,375.

They explain that, while the conservation of protected wildlife (including tigers, leopards, snow leopards and bears) is a central tenet of the Forest and Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan (1995), “farmers in central Bhutan rank livestock predation as one of the most serious threats to their livelihood”.

Dr Vernes said that the conflict between livestock owners and large predators had grown in recent years, with farmers pasturing increasing numbers of animals within Bhutan’s extensive network of national parks. “A farmer can lose a large part of his income through the loss of just one animal,” he said. “Such a loss can be severe enough for some people to retaliate against the predators. So, in the interests of wildlife conservation, there are strong reasons for keeping farmers happy.” Mr Sangay’s study will provide authorities with information that will help them to introduce educational and other programs to achieve that result.

Dr Vernes believes that the conservation of large predators has better prospects in Bhutan than in most other countries because of Bhutan’s superb network of national parks connected by corridors of protected forest, its relatively high standard of education, and its Buddhist culture which emphasises respect for all living things.

A PHOTOGRAPH of Dr Karl Vernes in Bhutan with Tiger Sangay (right) and Sangay Dorji (the student preparing for the red panda project) can be seen by clicking on the image of a tiger displayed here.