How the happiest country in the world is saving tigers

By Bahar Dutt

Photo: Vijay Bedi
Photo: Vijay Bedi

I write this piece as a gushing river winds its way through mountains draped in pine and fir trees, with white clouds tugged across the sky by gentle winds. Every inch of land around me is covered in green. It has to be, I am in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, the country that proudly gave the Gross Happiness Index to the world. The tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan, nestled between India and China, is demonstrating to the world that it can be a tiger champion in its own unique way.

This month, Bhutan just finished its first tiger census and can proudly tell the world it has more than 100 tigers. Conducted entirely by Bhutanese scientists, the survey covered different habitats from snowcapped mountains in the north—where both tigers and snow leopards roam wild—down to dense, subtropical forests. Perhaps more than the numbers, what Bhutan should be more proud of are its efforts to save corridors. These are vital for long-term survival and I heard no less than the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck talk of the need to save tiger corridors, which means their importance is recognized at the highest level. Over a quarter of the kingdom is under an extensive network of protected areas, and another 9% is included in a network of biological corridors connecting different protected areas. Bhutan’s tiger population is estimated somewhere between 115 and 150, with approximately 70 to 80 adult tigers.

While the Bhutanese are proud of their achievement, an incident five years ago taught them a lesson: Don’t allow Western scientists to steal your thunder. In September 2010, the BBC reported what it claimed was first-hand evidence of tigers living at 4,100 metres above sea level in Bhutan. Stunning news to the rest of the world, word spread fast. It was hailed as a great discovery for tiger conservation.

But Bhutanese wildlife ecologists were angry: They insisted they had been surveying tigers for decades and systematically documenting their presence. So, the discovery was not new to the world, only to Western science. The controversy may have died down, but it left scientists in Bhutan indignant, jeopardizing future collaboration with the West. On a more positive side, perhaps it woke up the Bhutanese to the need to talk more about conservation achievements to the outside world.

What cannot be overlooked is all that Bhutan has achieved on its own, at a time when the world is grappling with monumental environment problems, from deforestation to climate change. With over 72% forest cover, tigers in Bhutan are not threatened by habitat loss unlike in other parts of the world, and respect for Buddhism means there is little hunting pressure from the local people.

That’s why Bhutan has much to be proud of. Tshering Tempa, a tiger biologist who has been conducting research in Royal Manas National Park, has documented through his camera traps not just tigers but five other felids: The golden cat, marbled cat, leopard cat, clouded leopard and the common leopard, indicating just how rich the biodiversity is.

In a world that focuses on gross domestic product, roads and highways, Bhutan is an anomaly. Economists may call it “least developed”; to me, it came across as a country that has sorted itself out. Its rivers are clean, so is the air. Yes, the country has its fair share of problems, like drugs and a growing restlessness among the youth that will need jobs, but there is so much that Bhutan is doing right.

So what does the happiness index have to do with tigers? Everything. It’s ingrained in policy. It’s not something they practise on the weekend when visiting a national park for pictures. They remember it while making buildings, or using natural resources. The four pillars of the happiness index are non-economic: good governance, sustainable socioeconomic development, cultural preservation and conservation of the natural environment. The four pillars are built into the DNA of all planning and government policy.

In the 1970s, Bhutan’s democratic leaders declared in the constitution that a minimum of 60% of the land would be under forest cover. Since then, they have achieved a laudable result, by not only maintaining this target, but exceeding it by more than 10 percentage points. This is as much a eulogy to Bhutan as a prayer to its leaders. To not become like India or China. To stand tall as the leader in tiger management, and happiness. And all things in between.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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