Yangyel Lhaden

Amid the flurry of preparations for the Sustainable Finance for Tiger Landscapes (SFTL) conference, one figure stands out as a testament to striking a balance between tiger conservation and protecting livestock. She is determined to deliver a speech that resonates with the audience.

Pema Lhamo, the gup of Nubi gewog in Trongsa, was to take the stage on the final day of the conference to offer insights into living alongside tigers and highlight the unique challenges her community faced.

The SFTL conference, held over two days in April under the Royal Patronage of Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen, was dedicated to raising USD one billion by 2034.

For years since she served as the mangmi before becoming the gup, Pema Lhamo has been at the forefront of tiger conservation efforts in her gewog. She manages all tiger-related cases and actively participates in national and international conferences. She aims to safeguard both tigers and people’s livelihoods through conservation initiatives.

Back in the village, villagers rallied behind their gup, expressing pride in her representation and hoping her speech would garner much-needed support for the village.

Nubi Gup Pema Lhamo (Photo: WWF)

In recent years, Bhutan witnessed a surge in human-wildlife conflicts, particularly in Trongsa, where 580 cases were reported between 2020 and 2024, with Nubi Gewog alone accounting for 360 cases. Bhutan’s tiger population reached 131 in 2023 from 103 in 2015.

Some 5,000 residents of 25 villages in Nubi heavily depend on farming and livestock. Although tigers frequently attack their livestock, the religious community refrains from harming the big cat, citing cultural reasons.

Tigers have spared no household in the gewog. Livestock losses to tigers have increased in proportion to the rising tiger population. Whenever a tiger growls, the entire village grinds to a halt. When there is a kill, fear-stricken cattle refuse to graze in the forest. Villagers band together, making loud noises to drive the predator back into the forest.

Whenever tigers attack livestock, people use honorific phrases such as “mem pham or mem sangay joen nu”, meaning “the grandpa buddha has come”, or “mem pham or mem sangay gi zhay nu”, meaning “the grandpa buddha has eaten”. The tiger is respected as the king of the jungle and considered a precious animal, elevating it to the level of an awakened being.

Palden Lhendup from Nubi counts the number of cattle he has lost to tigers over the years, and it outnumbers his fingers: “Dungkar, Louchu, Shamkhar, Dzongsar, Tshechi, Machu…”

He fondly remembers his beloved bull, Jatsha Dungkar. Dungkar would guard smaller members of the herd from tigers until he lost his own life doing so.

When Pema Lhamo became mangmi in 2017, she faced the daunting task of addressing the villagers’ grievances without adequate compensation or budgetary support.

“With the support now, I can confidently advocate for the conservation of tigers to my people and relevant authorities,” she said.

The villagers said the government’s withdrawal of compensation and tougher penalties for killing tigers left them uncertain about the best course of action.

“However, the institution of Gewog Tiger Conservation Tshogpa (GTCT) provides consolation money and various government and international projects in the tiger landscapes has given us some hope to live in harmony with the tigers,” Palden Lhendup said.

In her speech, Pema Lhamo said, “Continued support is needed to sustain the tiger population. Providing five power tillers for five chiwogs, consolation money, electric fencing, and community grazing in the villages has proven successful.”

After implementing community grazing established through UNEP’s Vanishing Treasures Programme  with electric fencing in two villages, Semji and Jongthang, villagers have seen fewer tiger attacks on livestock.

The  project helps protect tigers and livelihoods in two areas in Trongsa and Trashigang.

In Bumthang, tiger encounters are frequent, especially in lower Chumey, prompting villagers to keep livestock near home. Despite efforts, tiger attacks persist, with ten cattle harmed since implementing GTCT.

Langthel Gewog in Trongsa has reported no attacks since GTCT. Tshogpa Sonam attributes this to offerings the villagers made to the local deity, the Black Mountain, who protects their cattle.

Problem bigger than tigers

In her speech, Pema Lhamo identified Nubi Gewog as a hotspot for human-wildlife conflict due to its proximity to protected areas. The gewog is surrounded by Wangchuck Centennial Park and Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, both known for their healthy tiger populations, and a biological corridor running through it.

According to the Nature Conservation Division, in 2018, there were 5,300 households within the national parks, with additional 1,600 households located within 500 metres of the parks. About 3,400 households fall within the biological corridors, with about 2,700 households located within 500 metres of these corridors.

A National Land Commission Secretariat official said there was no clear definition of protected areas and emphasised the need for one. This would stipulate where human settlements could be allowed and the kinds of activities permissible within protected areas.

Villagers like Tshering Dema highlight the daily struggle of living near protected areas, including conflicts with tigers and other wild animals. They share concerns over prey availability in the forest, particularly because tigers seem to hone their hunting skills on domestic animals.

“Human-tiger conflicts arise from shared landscapes, resource competition, habitat disturbance, and dwindling prey,” Head of the Bhutan Tiger Centre, Tashi Dhendup said. “Lower altitudes rich in prey like gaur and sambar can support larger tiger populations. For example, Royal Manas National Park in the south sustains between two and three tigers per 100km².”

Studies reveal a lower presence of ungulates in higher altitudes, which impacts tiger’s sustenance. The thriving population of tigers in Trongsa is attributed to their dependence on livestock.

“The forest’s carrying capacity for tigers remains unknown but Bhutan’s forests feature well-connected habitats with forest covers, crucial for providing safe homes for tigers,” Tashi Dhendup said. “The Department of Forests and Park Services ensures habitat protection which enhances safety.”

The villagers express a strong desire for measures to protect their livelihoods as they lived in the area long before it was designated as protected.

In her closing remarks at the STFL conference, Pema Lhamo emphasised her responsibility to address the challenges her community faced.

She advocated for support to implement mitigation programmes and enhance livelihood opportunities, aiming to foster a balanced ecosystem where tigers and humans can coexist.

This story was supported through a grant from GRID-Arendal and the Vanishing Treasures