Choki Wangmo 

Laya—Last month, Bhutan celebrated an achievement of 131 tigers, a milestone in tiger conservation efforts. For Layaps, living opposite to the indomitable Gangchen Taag, the subtle, yet deeply personal bond with the big cat, has been revered for centuries. 

It is said that every year, during the wheat harvest season, a tiger makes a trip to the Tiger Mountain, along the Mochhu. Located at the base of the mountain, the locals believe that Mochhu flows below Dung Lhakhang that houses the key-lha or birth deity of Layaps.

Layaps say that the tiger spends about three months in the mountains and then returns to the villages. Decades ago, highland traders had to cross Gangchen Taag to reach Powla in Tibet. 

“While heading to the mountain, the tiger is gentle and won’t be of menace even if it passes by a herd of cattle,” a yak herder from Lungo said. 

But, on its return journey, the tiger is said to devour and harm everything on its way. 

The human-tiger conflict is insignificant, says Layaps. The recent national tiger survey reported a 30 percent increase in the conflicts across the country. 

In the Bhutanese culture, tigers are one of the powerful animals, referred to as the ‘four dignitaries’ associated with the Tibetan Buddhism. They symbolise power, strength, and grace. 

“Taag” is referred to as “Memey Phama” (grandparents) in the Kheng region of east-central Bhutan, Phuga Memey (mountain grandpa) in eastern Bhutan, and “Azha Tag” (uncle tiger) in the western region. 

Calling tigers by name is said to invite the wrath of the carnivore. 

Although tigers once roamed in most of the Asian wildlands, today, their number has plummeted below 4,000 and occupy a mere seven percent of their historical range. Poaching, habitat destruction and fragmentation, and depletion of their main ungulate prey species. 

Given the largely intact wild habitats, Bhutan is “like a heart in the region that will pump and reinvigorate tigers to the other regions,” ensuring the connectivity of tiger populations in the South East Asian region. 

Recent studies reveal that half of the Bengal tiger population has disappeared in the last decade, largely due to massive forest destruction in India, as well as poaching.

Tigers are found from 100 metres in the Royal Manas National Park (RMNP) in the south up to 4,500 metres in the Jigme Dorji National Park in the north. 

Evidence of tigers breeding at different altitudes were also reported, suggesting the country could help regional populations recover.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park and RMNP together with the Indian Manas Tiger Reserve is the most important and the largest protected area network and can support as many as 526 tigers. 

Bhutan’s tiger population has increased to 131 individuals, up 27 percent—the conservation success attributed to increased law enforcement, community-based tiger conservation programs, and habitat improvement.

A healthy population of tigers is a sign of a healthy and thriving ecosystem while declining tiger populations can indicate problems such as habitat loss, degradation, or pollution. 

Layaps still believe that once a year, tigers descend to the valleys to drink water from the main rivers.