Yangyel Lhaden

Semji, Nubi Gewog, Trongsa, March 9:—The villagers are meeting at the village lhakhang to talk with officials implementing UNEP’s Vanishing Treasures Programme. They’ve come to hear what the villagers have to say before starting the next part of their project.

The Vanishing Treasures Programme is helping protect tigers in two areas in Trongsa and Trashigang. They’re trying to save the tigers and help people and tigers live together peacefully. In the first stage, they fixed up the pastureland with electric fences, provided power tillers, and an ecotrail is along the pipeline in Nubi Gewog. Other organisations like Bhutan For Life helped pay for some of these projects.

From about 580 cases of human-wildlife conflict was recorded in the dzongkhag between 2020 to date. Nubi Gewog alone reported about 360 cases

A villager named Dorji Gyeltshen brings up an urgent issue: “It is time to address the root cause of the conflict of living with tigers,” he says. “We are not against the conservation of tigers, but the abundance of tiger prey in the village leads us to suspect a lack of resources in the forest. We want a holistic plan where adequate forest resources are maintained, ensuring tigers remain in their natural habitat.”

To prevent overusing the forest’s natural resources, the villagers have set aside a special community forest.

Nubi Gewog is surrounded by Wangchuck Centennial Park to the north and Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park (JSWNP) to the west. These two parks are connected by Biological Corridor Eight, which passes near Nubi Gewog. JSWNP is known for having one of the largest recorded populations of tigers in the most recent survey. Interestingly, there are actually more tigers in Bumthang, even though it falls within the same landscape and is connected to JSWNP.

Tigers and other wild animals in the forest have been causing trouble for households in Nubi Gewog. Everyone has felt the impact. Between 2020 and 2024, there were around 580 cases of conflict between humans and wildlife in the district. Nubi Gewog alone reported about 360 of these cases. Locals say these conflicts have been happening more often in recent years, especially because there are more tigers in their forests now.

 “The restored pastureland in the village, where we keep our cattle inside the electric fence, has saved our cattle from wild animal attacks. However, there has been an incident where deer also entered the pastureland,” Dorji Gyeltshen said. “If tiger prey comes into the village, it is evident that tigers would follow and enter the village as well.”

Doreen Robinson, UNEP’s Head of Biodiversity and Land Branch, says, “It looks like you have a prey problem more than a tiger problem.” She then asks the forest officials, “How healthy is the ecosystem in the forest?”

“The forest supports a variety of species, and it is healthy,” says Jigme Tshering, Trongsa Forest Range Officer. “However, to fully understand the ecosystem in the forest, a survey of flora and fauna is necessary to determine the carrying capacity of tigers in our forests.”

He said that for surveys like this, a species must be either endangered or threatened, which is why it hasn’t been possible to conduct a detailed report on the forest. “ It will be challenging to survey the whole forest with limited human resources but with adequate funding and human resources it is possible.”

Tashi Dhendup, Head of Bhutan Tiger Centre, adds, “The presence and number of tigers are strongly linked to the presence and number of large ungulates, which are essential for tiger populations. Our camera trap studies indicate a greater concentration of prey at lower altitudes, diminishing as elevation increases.”

“As we go higher, the forests don’t support as much species especially those large sized ungulates which are preferred by tigers. In Trongsa, the frequency of tiger attacks on livestock shows the reliance of tigers on domestic animals for sustenance.”

He has included a survey of the forest to understand the prey-predator population and habitat to sustain tigers in the Tiger Action Plan. “The survey is feasible if we secure funding.”

Doreen Robinson then asks the villagers, “ Would you prefer living with tigers or without tigers?”

A villager responds. “I used to think, if the government prioritises tiger conservation while we are facing conflicts, why don’t they take all the tigers and conserve them in a zoo,” he says. “However, overtime I have realised the importance of a predator, which is needed to maintain balance in the ecosystem.”

“Living with tigers has been beneficial because through them, we have received support that has helped us deal with attacks from other predators in the village,” he says. “Living near protected areas and biological corridor where there are other wild animals, it is not just tigers that we have conflicts with.”

“Moreover,” he continues, “the forest is now closer to villages due to the discontinuation of shifting cultivation, which used to clear forest areas and maintain a safe distance between settlements and the forest.”

In 2010, national forest cover increased to 81 percent from 72 percent in 1995. Trongsa, in particular, experienced an increase in forest cover of 70 square kilometres during the same period.

“Other than livestock and agriculture, what other alternative livelihood opportunities are there?” inquires Doreen Robinson.

Yeshila, 64, responds: “We cannot think of any other livelihood option since we have been living off the land and livestock all our life.”

Says Doreen Robinson: “In other parts of the world where tigers co-exist with communities, many other alternative activities have helped to diversify livelihoods. Our hope is in phase two to further share these practical ideas across communities living with apex predators.”

The phase two of Vanishing Treasures Programme is set to begin in September of this year. 

This news story is from the field notes of our reporter who observed the villages facing human-wildlife conflicts in Trongsa with UNEP’s Vanishing Treasures Programme