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Bengal tiger
Sub-tropical Royal Bengal Tiger
The six Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris), five adults and a cub, which were caught on camera in the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park in central Bhutan between September 2006 and May this year gave an insight into the otherwise elusive territory of the large cats, say officials of the Nature Conservation Division (NCD) in Thimphu.

The camera trapping was one of the initial steps towards conducting a comprehensive study to understand the ecology of tigers living in Bhutan's mountain habitats, distribution and ecology of their prey, and the relationships between tigers and humans.

"Very little is known about the tigers in Bhutan," said the head of NCD, Sonam Wangyel Wang. "Successful conservation of tigers, which has been initiated since late 90s, is only possible with such scientific studies and plans in place."

With the initial focus on the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, the division hopes to carry out similar studies in the other wildlife sanctuaries like the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and the Manas National Park, which are also home to the Royal Bengal tigers.

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Through the study the conservationists also hope to come out with solutions to the increasing human-wildlife conflict. The age-old tradition of livestock rearing, moving livestock to higher elevations in summers and back to the lower grounds in winter, worsened the conflict with grazing cattle left free to predators' attacks. Free-ranging livestock were very attractive prey for the tigers living in the same forests, especially where wild deer, pigs, and other prey were difficult to come by in the rugged terrain.

The protected habitats of the carnivores in Bhutan were also closely shared by farmers living in these areas before they became protected habitats. The co-existence was beginning to become a source of conflict where several incidents of tigers and other carnivores' attacks on livestock and cattle had been reported, and in retaliation the farmers, sometimes killed them.

But finding solutions was not easy. "To find solutions to these problems we have to have good science to learn about these predators ecology, habitat and behaviour which is currently missing," said Sonam Wangyel. "Once we have all the data on the tiger, their prey species as well as how humans interact with wildlife, then we will be able to draw up some good strategies to mitigate conflicts."

Earmarked as one of the 'fully protected' species in the Forest and Nature Conservation Act, 1995, tigers in Bhutan are revered as one of the mythical animals and protectors. People respect them and equate them to local deities.

While exact numbers are not known, the tiger population in Bhutan is estimated between 115 and 150, including juveniles. Tigers are found in almost all parts of the country, cited in areas ranging from 100 metres above sea level to as high as 4,100 metres in the north. to as high as 4,100 metres in the north.

Contributed by KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper 2007
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