New high-altitude tiger population spotted in Northeast India

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16 Dec 2018
This image is purely representative

The state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India, known for its lofty mountains and serene landscapes, could soon be well-known for ‘snow tigers’— wild tigers found in high-altitude alpine forests. In a recent study, researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun have reported the first photographic evidence for these majestic cats in the Eastern Himalayas at altitudes as high as 3,630 m.

It is not surprising to find tigers at such high altitudes. “Tigers have been recorded at such high altitudes earlier in Bhutan and Uttarakhand. Typically, they do not reside at those elevations but go over the ridges when moving between valleys”, says renowned tiger biologist Dr Ullas Karanth from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Over a hundred years ago, Captain F.M. Bailey of the Indian Army first mentioned the occurrence of tigers in the high-altitude forests of Mishmi Hills of Arunachal Pradesh. In 2010, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), filmed the first ever footage of tigers at over 4000m altitude in Bhutan for their documentary series Lost Land of the Tigers.

There is also anecdotal evidence of tigers present around the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary in the state, although the sanctuary is not a designated tiger reserve. In 2012, two Royal Bengal tiger cubs were rescued from a dry water tank in Angrim valley, a settlement near the sanctuary. This incident led to a preliminary investigation by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), WII and the state’s Department of Environment and Forests to survey the area for the presence of tigers. The current study, funded by NTCA, is a fallout of this survey where intensive camera traps captured the movement of tigers for three years in and around Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary and Mishmi Hills. The findings of the study were recently published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa.

The researchers deployed 108 cameras in the two regions to capture these majestic cats. Each tiger is identified with the pattern of its stripes, which are distinct like our fingerprints. Typically, two cameras are placed facing each to capture both the sides of a tiger’s stripe pattern to avoid counting the same individual twice. However, in this study, the researchers used just one camera to increase the geographic area covered as the primary objective of the study was to find out if there were any tigers present at all.

The cameras captured 42 images of tigers, of which nine were adults, and two were cubs. These images provide the first-ever evidence of tigers in the highest altitudinal range known so far in India. The presence of eleven tigers also gives the Mishmi Hills the distinction of having more tigers than any designated tiger reserves in the state.

Interestingly, the alpine forests in Mishmi Hills and surrounding areas are not home to ungulates like spotted deer, sambar and gaur, which are typically part of a tiger’s diet. But analysis of tiger poop show evidence of these tigers feeding on Mishmi takin, an endangered goat-antelope native to Northeast India, Myanmar and China. The researchers are yet to determine the ecology and behaviour of these tigers.

Nevertheless, the fact that there are tigers in this region has massive implications on the conservation efforts to save these cats from going extinct.

“Confirmed tiger presence in high altitude montane habitats in the Himalaya presents opportunities and challenges for the conservation of tigers and their habitats. The immediate priority must be to ensure that the newly-discovered populations are protected and monitored to identify potential genetic uniqueness.  Other promising areas should also be surveyed to identify possible tiger presence”, suggest the authors.

The findings also hold a possibility of protecting this area and designating it as a tiger reserve in the future, thereby not only saving tigers but other plants and animals found in the region.