In Search of the Big Cat | WWF India

Approximately 13,000 feet above the mean sea level, high up in the snow-clad mountains of Himalayas, a team of biologists, and field assistants slowly trudge their way to a ridge in the Kedarnath Forest Division. Braving average temperatures of less than 5°C and incessant snowfall, the team keeps hiking further up the mountains, loaded with backpacks, camera traps, and batteries.

As they reach closer to the ridge, they are greeted by torrential downpours and strong icy winds, lashing against their exhausted bodies. They decide to break their trek here- the coordinates on their GPS tells them they’ve reached. After exploring around for a while, a suitable spot is found and two camera traps are deployed- in a hope to find the presence or at the very least credible evidence of the existence of an apex predator in these hostile surroundings- the Royal Bengal tiger.  

The idea of tigers living in such cold weather, thriving at altitudes reaching up to 13,000 feet seems unbelievable, doesn’t it?

In 2016, the Uttarakhand Forest Department documented a tiger roaming at 10,740 feet in the Askot landscape of Uttarakhand- making it the highest elevation record for tiger in India.[1] Bhutan too has images of tigers walking through their camera traps at varying heights of approx. 6500-14,400 feet, with pugmark evidence being found at a staggering 15,000 feet.[2] Documentations such as these make it an irrefutable fact that tigers are amongst one of the most resilient species, dominating varying landscapes- from tropical grasslands to temperate forests, alpine woodlands to mangroves. Their presence in each landscape implies the significance of habitat connectivity via corridors and viable habitats, which if conserved may support larger, denser forests inhabited by a diverse array of species, in the near future.  

Therefore, with an aim to find such remote habitats, the team of biologists led by Dr. Pranav Chanchani, Lead of WWF-India’s Tiger Conservation Programme was recently involved with dozens of other similar teams in the project- “Status of Tiger Habitats in High Altitude Ecosystems in Bhutan, India & Nepal”, across the four Indian states of Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Bengal, and Arunachal Pradesh. Jointly implemented by the Global Tiger Forum (GTF), National Tiger Conservation Authority of India (NTCA), the State Forest Departments of four selected states, and Wildlife Institute of India (WII) the project involved carrying out surveys to assess the status and presence of tigers and other mammals in high altitudinal areas. This involved interviews with herders and other knowledgeable individuals from the local communities, conducting sign surveys to detect wildlife presence and deploying camera traps to capture some of the most elusive species living in the mountains.

“The results acquired through these extensive surveys across the Himalayas, will provide us with an improved understanding of the habitats these big cats inhabit and also how the tigers are moving in High Altitude Landscapes,” says Mr. Nishant Verma, DIGF, NTCA. “This will also allow us to come up with concerted management interventions  for the conservation of the species.”, he continued.

In Kedarnath, Pranav’s team from WWF-India deployed camera traps in grids that fall within the Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary, all the way from Lohva Range (approx. 1400 feet) to Madhmaheshwar Range (approx. 13,000 feet). From spotting Himalayan monals and Koklass pheasants rushing through bugyals (alpine meadows of Himalayas) to seeing a strong herd of Himalayan tahrs moving through the Rhododendron forests. From curious gorals to shy Musk deers and rarely seen Himalayan serow, as the team gained height- the surroundings became serene, and the habitat grew diverse. The vast, green bugyals which tend to the nutritional needs of gorals and tahrs, became camping grounds for the team under the starry nights.

“The occurrence of tigers in the Himalayas is not a new one- these mountains have been connected with the Terai forests since time immemorial, and the species has ranged widely. Expansive forests, diverse prey base and low anthropocentric pressure in these areas make it a viable habitat for the tigers to grow and survive”, says Dr. Pranav Chanchani.

After 42 days of survey and deployment, the team is back from their high altitude survey in Kedarnath- hopeful and motivated. As the team sits in their field office in Dehradun, sifting through thousands of camera trap images, they are reminded of the forest staff from Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary and their unwavering support throughout the expedition. Patrolling such vast areas of wilderness, against the weather-beaten conditions, in order to conserve the flora and fauna of Uttarakhand- is a feat and a reminder of the tedious efforts these forest rangers and guards make on a day-to-day basis.

Halfway through the sifting process, the team comes across an image taken in the middle of the night- a  young male tiger is caught walking through the frosty alpine meadows amidst the Oaks and Rhododendrons, just shy of the tree line at 13,000 feet above the mean sea level!

Information from the surveys is still being collated, and along with the presence of a tiger, preliminary data show strong evidence of the distribution of a diverse assemblage of mammals including the Himalayan tahr, Musk deer, Sambar and Himalayan black bears at almost 12,000 feet above sea level. While such findings offer great hope, the future of the Tigers of Himalayas requires continued effective protection for other species of wildlife across the landscape and reinforcing tolerance among people by working with local communities who may sooner or later encounter this apex predator.

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[1] Bhattacharya, Ankita & Habib, Bilal. (2016). Highest elevation record of tiger presence from India. CATnews. 64. 24.

[2] High Hopes for the Mountain Tigers of Bhutan: IUCN News https://www.iucn.org/news/species/201707/high-hopes-mountain-tigers-bhutan

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